When the Ship Hits the Fan...
In Michel Gondry's new movie, The Science of Sleep, which opens here in June, Gael Garcia Bernal designs an unusual calendar: each month commemorates the anniversary of a human tragedy or a natural catastrophe - a plane crashing, a ship going down, a volcano erupting. He calls it a 'disasterology calendar'. Not surprisingly, his boss is unimpressed. What could be less commercial?
Fair enough. But why is it that when it comes to looking at moving pictures we're so fascinated by disaster, death and destruction? Just as a car wreck is always irresistible to anyone driving past, disaster movies offer the chance to mentally rehearse our own demise and remind ourselves we're still alive.
This week the two biggest cinema releases both fit the bill: Poseidon is a remake of the venerable 1972 movie about a luxury cruise liner which goes belly up on the stroke of New Year. And United 93 is the controversial Paul Greengrass film about the fourth hijacked plane on September 11, 2001 - the flight where the passengers tried to storm the hijackers and take back the plane.
Although you can point to a few precursors, notably sci-fi movies like the original War of the Worlds (1953), the template for the disaster movie was really set by Arthur Hailey's Airport (1970), with a sweaty Van Heflin smuggling a bomb onto a plane carrying a priest, two nuns, three doctors, a stowaway granny, a pregnant stewardess, and a bratty kid. The pilot is Dean Martin, god help them.
Today it's impossible not to watch Airport without thinking of Airplane, a parody so precise the original now looks like a parody of itself - yet it was a box office hit at the time, and was nominated for ten Academy Awards.
The original The Poseidon Adventure replicated the soapy social cross-section: Gene Hackman plays a radical priest preaching 'something more positive than prayer' (!), leading a New York cop, his hooker wife, a lonely bachelor, an elderly Jewish couple, and another bratty kid to salvation via the bottom of the boat. If it's not as laughable as Airport it still looks pretty campy - how could it not, when the all-star cast includes Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowell, Stella Stevens, Pamela Sue Martin and the late Shelley Winters? The skipper, lest we forget, was none other than Leslie Nielsen. Yet in 1972, The Poseidon Adventure was up for eight Oscars.
Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon remake throws away most of the characters from Paul Gallico's novel while retaining the set up and the exit strategy. The tsunami which upends the boat isn't referred to as that ('We call it "a rogue wave",' intones captain Andre Braugher), presumably out of sensitivity to the tragedy in Asia, but the shadow of a disaster closer to home still looms over Robert Ramsey, the heroic role played by Kurt Russell, tough love father of Emmy Rossum and both a retired firefighter, and, get this, ex mayor of New York City. Yup, it's Giuliani time.
Even so, while Ramsey reads the situation intelligently and acts responsibly, the Gene Hackman good shepherd role falls to Josh Lucas as professional gambler Dylan Jones (sadly this rising star doesn't attempt a Welsh accent). In other words a radical progressive has been transformed into a pragmatic cynic - what that says about changing times would be too depressing to think about, though naturally Jones learns to act altruistically through the crucible of fire and water.
Where the two films really differ, aside from the improved special effects and a bigger, better cruise liner, is that in the remake Petersen cuts back on most of the chitchat that passed for character development in the Ronald Neame version. It's a wise move, given that what remains is dreadful, and it allows him to bring the movie in nearly 20 minutes ahead of schedule (it's so rare for a big blockbuster to clock in at less than 100 minutes it's caused considerable comment - of course it may all just be a cynical ploy to withhold scenes for future DVD releases!).
He has cut back on the celebrity quotient too. Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, Emmy Rossum, Kevin Dillon and Mia Maestro… (plus the inevitable bratty kid); this lot would barely pass muster on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. To give Petersen and his producers the benefit of the doubt, it's possible they were inching their way to the conclusions Paul Greengrass and Working Title came to on United 93: namely that stars only distract from the grave reality of the situation, especially in scenarios like these where they have next to no screen time to establish character. Still, going for B list stars is not at all the same as casting unknown faces, and the movie suffers for it.
Petersen - who made Das Boot, of course - proves a lot less squeamish when it comes to showing the carnage on board. Bodies are everywhere. In one shocking scene, one likeable character is put in a position where he has to kick off another sympathetic figure clutching on to his leg, dispatching him to a certain death otherwise they will both die. That wouldn't have happened 30 years ago - or even five years ago - and the difference may well reflect the tormented September 11 psyche.
This Poseidon is tense, grim viewing (I have to question the appropriateness of the BBFC's 12A certificate); perhaps it is too grim for audiences who feel they've lived through the real thing in recent times. So far, the film has recouped only about a quarter of its production cost at the North American box office - a disaster in anybody's books.
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