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The world turned upside down


When The Poseidon Adventure first appeared in 1972, launching the grand series of disaster flicks that crowded the theaters in that time, it heralded a generation's approach to the millennium, a microcosmic vision of the end of the world. To the palpable disappointment of literalists, Y2K believers (remember that fiasco?), and assorted nuts, the millennium occurred, marked by only ordinary catastrophes, natural and artificial, and civilization (such as it is) more or less survived. Ever since that seminal picture, however, the theaters sporadically erupt with cinematic visions of some symbolic or literal global devastation, most recently in films like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow, which may yet provide a modicum of comfort to rapturologists.

The new remake of the grand original suggests not so much a continuing belief in millennialism as it does a quaint retrogression, a nostalgic backward glance at a dimly remembered past.Despite the spectacular representation of the catastrophe, generated by the latest cinematic technology, the new picture, economically entitled Poseidon, merely repeats a simplified version of its predecessor. It tells much the same story, of a huge and luxurious ocean liner capsized by a giant rogue wave, and the subsequent efforts of a small group of passengers to work their way upward, through layers of decks, cabins, passageways, to the surface.

With a nice sense of timing, the wave hits the ship just as the passengers celebrate the New Year, wreaking the usual death and destruction on a massive scale. A handful of passengers, led by Kurt Russell and Josh Lucas, doubtful of their chances of survival, decide to leave the grand ballroom --- where the captain instructs everyone to stay --- and find a way out. They clamber over debris, scale beams and ladders, swing across shafts, crawl through claustrophobically narrow ducts, and negotiate a number of flooded rooms and corridors.

The necessary logic of Hollywood storytelling dictates that the hazards and obstacles multiply as the survivors approach their goal. It also dictates the cruel logic of attrition, so that the numbers diminish as they progress upward --- a kitchen worker falls to his death when a makeshift bridge collapses, a young woman drowns in one of the many flooded rooms, one of the leaders sacrifices his life to save the others, and so forth. Although the fact of the wave suggests a random act of nature, the possibility of survival apparently depends not upon the law of the jungle, but upon certain moral qualities.

More important, the whole endeavor hints at some unusual connections with the enduring, universal stories of myth and legend. Before the catastrophe strikes, the captain informs the partying passengers that they sail on Poseidon, the sea god himself, which ultimately suggests that the dangerous, labyrinthine passage to the surface resembles a journey through the bowels of a gigantic creature. Since for the survivors of the capsized vessel, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot and other mystics, the way up is the way down, their journey, a kind of Dantesque ascent, also at least hints that survival may equate with salvation.

Aside from the obvious advances in the whole panoply of special effects, the new Poseidon takes an otherwise less complicated route to its predictable conclusion. It establishes very little substance in the characters beyond the fact of their existence, their presence on the ship, and some shallow explanation of their actual and potential relationships. Unlike its predecessor, it neglects most of the undercurrents and complexities in the relationships of the group, and entirely avoids the conversion experience of one of the original characters; instead, it sets about its work, accomplishes it, then quits.

As a result, the picture attains a kind of purity, simply presenting one danger or difficulty after another, punctuating the tension with the death of one character after another. The actors mostly respond to that simplicity, filling their roles with a measure of businesslike competence, but never striving for (or attaining) anything like distinction. The only character with any individuality is an apparently gay and initially suicidal architect played by Richard Dreyfuss, who acquits himself with more conviction than anyone else, perhaps the only really memorable element in the whole movie.

Poseidon (PG-13), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, is playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford Cinemas, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12 and Eastview 13.