If you know your Greek mythology basics, you’re probably aware that Poseidon, the god of the sea, horses and natural disasters, is “quite an ill-tempered fellow”, as the captain played by Leslie Nielsen puts it in 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure”. He was likely to engage in a variety of quarrels, and while myth holds that he protected seafarers, he could also unleash his mighty fury on his aquatic domain. Therefore, it’s kind of a 50-50 proposition as to whether or not it’s a good idea to name your ocean liner after him, wouldn’t you say? The 1969 novel from Paul Gallico, quite an interesting read but one that gets rambling and meandering as it progresses (and what a weird final chapter), now gets a further upheaval under the direction of experienced German director Wolfgang Petersen.

The classic survival story, to which the 1972 movie stuck rather closely, is now hitting theatres in even more spectacular and riveting fashion. Petersen, who knows a thing or two about disaster below or on the high seas (“Das Boot”, “The Perfect Storm”), has fashioned his Poseidon into large-scale entertainment that’ll leave you in shock at the devastation from that infamous rogue wave, but also in awe of the moviemaking ability that went into the whole film.

The picture begins with a dazzling bird’s eye, 360° view of the enormous Poseidon, a luxurious ocean liner headed for New York City on New Year’s Eve. The revelry is at a fever pitch inside the ship’s majestic ballroom, but not for long: a rogue wave of gigantic proportions is implacably, rapidly on its way. No words can do justice to how dwarfing it looks and how devastating the impact is. The ship capsizes, bodies fly around and all sorts of structures and accessories fall off with deadly results. And then there’s that little thing called the ocean: if it wasn’t intimidating enough before, it feels mighty ominous and too close for comfort now.

Inside the upturned ballroom, the captain (Andre Braugher) tries to reassure the survivors with talk of air pockets that should maintain the boat afloat and GPS tracking systems that will notify rescue teams. He advises everybody to remain where they are, but a renegade group develops out of the initiative of poker shark Dylan Johns (an intense Josh Lucas), and a bunch of folks decide to try to reach the bottom of the ship in the hope of finding an escape route. The group initially includes Johns, former mayor of New York- and former fireman- Robert Ramsey (the rock-solid Kurt Russell), a despairing passenger (Richard Dreyfuss), a single mom with her young boy (Jacinda Barrett and Jimmy Bennett) and a waiter (Freddy Rodriguez).

In another part of the wrecked vessel, two lovebirds including Ramsey’s daughter (the lovely Emmy Rossum) are joined by another young woman and a macho blowhard. Both groups join up pretty quickly, and while we only have a short-hand version of the characters’ personalities, that doesn’t matter because it’s not so much who these people were before tragedy struck but what their actions are in reaction to it. Some interesting relationships and interplay develop which I’ll leave for yourselves to discover. So the human aspect is not neglected (the most touching scenes involve Rossum and Dreyfuss, in separate instances), but the treacherous journey up the ship is what really allows Petersen to set up moments that’ll have you mesmerized in anticipation. The part in the elevator shaft and an extended underwater sequence are especially memorable. The film’s few weak elements, which are minor, don’t detract from the overall intensity. The alarm ringing in the ballroom is really wimpy compared to the unnerving dual sirens in the 1972 film, and the script from Mark Protosevich has a few too many instances where characters stumble upon someplace that has a handy map of the ship (although it’s quite possible that with safety standards, these things really are all over that big of an ocean liner).

Petersen knows how to present images of exceptional impact, and he has added a few new ones with this film. Remember, among many examples, the haunting sight of the burning hangar of virus victims in “Outbreak” (1995) or the hard-hitting final shots of “Das Boot” (1981). In Poseidon, strong casting and effective screenwriting act as his building blocks for a gripping disaster picture where the combination of human heroics and computer-generated imagery make for grand spectacle.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay