Don't Tell Me We're Trapped!
Why cast Andre Braugher and then not use him? In Poseidon, Braugher plays Captain Michael Bradford, all blue uniform and straight back, introducing the New Year’s Eve entertainment as the colossal cruise ship shoots through the night toward its awful fate. His first speech, here, before the dancing, is grand and silly, concerning the ocean as a perpetual “cradle of rebirth.” At this point, Fergie—the Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie—steps out in her shiny dress to sing a song, and you know just 10 minutes in that this fancy-tech gargantuan remake is doomed.
The Captain’s second appearance is also brief, a speech following the attack of the 150-foot wall of water—a violence you’ve just seen in some chaotic, fiery, fast-cut detail, leaving officers in the steering room floating dead, as the ship has been turned over. Bradford stands on stage again, Fergie cowed to the side, and he tries to calm his frightened passengers in their suddenly soiled and bloodied evening wear. He admits they’ve been hit by an “unpredictable” rogue wave that kind of killed the ship. But now they need only wait for a rescue: “We will be safe,” he soothes. Even as he speaks, though, a leak springs in another part of the ship (pointed out by a well-timed cut). You know he’s wrong, and also that he’s not long for this fakey fake world.
That’s too bad, because the survivors are a mighty dull lot and Braugher, well, you want to believe him even as he takes Fergie to his breast to comfort her. Rejecting the captain’s advice to wait, the hardy band sets off—without the Christmas tree-as-ladder, that memorable ingenuity from the 1972 film—to find a way to the top of the ship, led by ex-firefighter Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), designated guy-in-charge (this by way of a throwaway reference to the fact that he used to be “mayor of New York,” never explained, but plainly trading on a presumed post-9/11 desire for Heroes). Robert is occasionally preoccupied by his daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum), who is in turn preoccupied by her fiancé Christian (Mike Vogel).
Earlier in the film, before the wave, dad displaces his heroism onto over-protecting Jen. When she tells him off (“I’m over your patronizing tone!”), he appeals to Chris: “Hey, is she like this with you?” Whether “like this” means stubborn, badly scripted, or just way too flouncy and self-righteous, Robert looks only vaguely distressed here, for he is, after all, having his pre-action bonding moment with a strapping, heroic sort of kid, the sort of bonding that pays off in such an adventure.
The wave changes this barely sketched dynamic: Robert will have to admit to Jen that Chris is indeed his type. And Robert’s not the only man on the ship who will need to refocus or die. Before the wave, a card-playing playboy named Dylan (Josh Lucas), is overtly self-absorbed, especially as this informs his game (“Goddamn, boy! You’ve got a pair of big ones!” gasps his opponent). As you’ve guessed, he’s ripe for a makeover (picture Alicia Silverstone squealing), and to that end, he’s granted a family unit for whom he might perform this change: single mother Maggie (Jacinda Barrett) and her young, sometimes son Conor (Jimmy Bennett).
She’s a mightily bland damsel, and Conor tends to run off and get into trouble when the plot needs goosing, so it might be said that they serve their rudimentary purposes. The fact that none if these individuals is especially memorable is just as well, as the film is not about them. It is, instead, about a state of dread. Disaster films, once vehicles for star-studded casts that guaranteed ticket sales, are now reduced to expensive antics: each scene features a gizmo, an explosion, a clever upside-down set design, bodies in various states of disarray or bloodiness, and, water, lots of water. As the group makes its way to the surface and encounters one obstacle after another—blocked passageways, rooms filling with water, fires, impassable heights—its lack of individuality becomes less pressing, especially with the members thinning out.
Disconcertingly, two working class, non-tuxed Latino characters—busboy Marco (Freddy Rodríguez) and his just-met stowaway friend Elena (Mía Maestro)—are charged with the film’s most emotive, most effective on-screen suffering. One faces the film’s most overt representation (and, depending on how you look at it, condemnation) of white-guy cruelty and self-preserving fear: dangling over a frightening abyss, a recently suicidal gay architect Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss) rediscovers his will to live (with grim egging on by a suddenly maniacal Dylan) and inflicts it on an abject Other.
While this striking scene indicts race-based border anxieties, it also uses a rather brutal demise to bring on some semblance of self-reflection for both Nelson and Dylan. And it raises a broader question about the function of disaster films after 9/11. How is such entertainment—termed an “adventure” back in 1972—a function of shifting fear and dread? In the olden days, the forces unleashed were agentless, thousands of humans, however anonymous, killed by what might be termed “nature.” Now, however, such forces—however you read their beginnings—produce political, distressing, guilt-inducing consequences. While the world was never so simple as previous movies suggested, today’s complications are profoundly visible. Like casting Andre Braugher only to kill him off.