Poseidon’ drowns audiences in sheer viewing pleasure

“Poseidon”

Warner Brothers Pictures

Directed by Wolfgang Peterson

Written by Mark Protosevich, based on the novel by Paul Gallico

Starring: Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum, Jacinda Barrett and Richard Dreyfuss

Rated PG-13/99 minutes

Opened May 12, 2006

Three-and-a-half out of four stars

Just like its trimmer, punchier title, Wolfgang Peterson’s remake of “The Poseidon Adventure” is a superior disaster flick without the fat. And by fat, I mean the stupid exposition that usually bloats most doomsday epics.

Fewer than 20 minutes into “Poseidon,” that monstrous wave from “The Perfect Storm” takes a vacation from drowning George Clooney to capsize a luxury liner and turn the lives of its passengers upside down. Literally.

Some have complained that we don’t have time to connect with the characters before they’re climbing for their lives through deck after waterlogged deck. I, for one, don’t miss the dopey interactions that set the stage in the original “Adventure” and in countless other end-of-the-world movies. What does everyone remember from “The Day After Tomorrow?” The lame father-son dynamic or the Atlantic Ocean swallowing up New York City?

“Poseidon” faces the facts-we’re sitting in that cushy, air-conditioned theater to gawk at handsome devastation and to glory in our own indestructibility. Peterson stages some spectacular set pieces, like a claustrophobic nightmare in a flooding air duct and the plunging elevator shaft our heroes must precariously cross. The editing is top notch and the urgent pacing never lags.

What the script lacks in buoyant characterizations, the stars make up for with their on-screen presence. We automatically sympathize with actors like Kurt Russell and Josh Lucas because, gosh darnit, they’ve played such nice folks in the past. This is a very good example of how star power can plug a leaky boat.

“Poseidon” comes just two weeks after the release of “United 93.” The two films make an interesting juxtaposition. “Poseidon” depicts death and destruction on a grand scale, staged for entertainment’s sake. We safely munch our popcorn as the bodies hit the floor. “United 93,” on the other hand, watches its real-life disaster unfold with horrific helplessness. To call that film entertaining would be like calling a root canal fun.

The key difference, of course, is that we know there will be a morning after for the cast of “Poseidon.” As for the passengers onboard “United 93,” they didn’t have the benefit of screenwriters to choose who lived and who died.

Should we be ashamed then of thrilling at the sight of hundreds of partygoers drowning in a capsized ballroom? I don’t think so. “Poseidon,” like so many disaster movies, plays to the audience’s desire for fairness in a world that can snuff us out in so many randomly unfair ways. The survivors floating in the raft at the end of “Poseidon” are like a rebellious and satisfying flip of the bird to mortality.

“Gosh darnit! Why didn’t I pack my waterproof Versace cocktail dress!?” “Poseidon” gives viewers that sinking feeling, in a good way.