A.O. Scott in the New York Times made some crack about this remake being completely unnecessary, but I think it will actually prove quite useful in years to come, as it offers excellent contrast with the original—though not so much of the movies themselves but the audiences they were made for—and in so doing provides a comprehensive portrait of America’s failing educational system.
The deal with this movie is that they shot a bunch of character-building stuff up front, before the ship turns over, but decided to eliminate that and get right to the action. The official line is that they wanted you to “learn about the characters as they escape,” but it’s not hard to tell that they understand that the majority of the audience doesn’t care about boring old human interaction, not to mention that a shorter running time means more screenings per day.
We open with this CGI tracking shot that starts underwater, goes around the ship to close up on a jogging Josh Lucas, then out again, etc. It is what it is, but it reminded me of the long opening tracking shots of Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes or Bonfire of the Vanities, which one can admire because they were accomplished through expert timing and preparation, making you kind of admire them even though the rest of the movie was… you know. This one is a different thing, but it’s kind of an animation sequence that stands in for a long tracking shot. It’s creating an impossible tracking shot that no one is impressed by because everyone knows it’s fake. Okay, super.
Anyway, there are scraps of character development left. Josh Lucas is a professional gambler with a faulty razor. Kurt Russell is a former firefighter AND New York City mayor [two points with the Red States!] who doesn’t like his bland daughter’s boyfriend. There’s this single mother with an annoying buck-toothed young boy. There’s also this Latina named Elena who is stowing away in the cabin of one of the crew, and who quite ungratefully risks losing him his job because she’s “bored” in the cabin. Heard of books, sweetheart?
We also have Richard Dreyfuss as a gay man whose lover just took off with someone, and who is an emotional wreck who is really setting his hopes on a call from his lover at midnight [it’s new year’s eve]. Now, let’s look at it from the lover’s perspective. You’re going to break off your midnight new year’s eve kiss with your new boyfriend in order to call your previous lover? Is that going to be good for the relationship? So apparently Richard is an emotionally-manipulative, self-defeating masochist. But you know gay men, they’re so emotional and weak. Richard is in fact in the process of ending it all by throwing himself over the rail because his ex wouldn’t call [you see how he set himself up for failure here? No wonder the lover left], when he looks up and sees the big wave.
I forgot to mention that somewhere in here Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas makes a bald attempt to increase her market recognition and grow her brand by appearing as a Latina chanteuse [is she Latina?] who sings this song that goes “Keep a movin-and-movin-and-movin-eh” [“eh” is supposed to be “it”]. She then sings the requisite drippy “Morning After”-replacement ballad that goes “I’ll never let you go, I’ll be the journey and you’ll be the road,” and later “together we’ll be hanging on, because all we have is love.” The contrast is interesting, as “The Morning After” is all about retaining hope and has a sense of the larger human struggle in general, and this one is a song about individuals holding on to each other, absent the larger striving of humanity. Plus, “I’ll be the journey and you’ll be the road?” That doesn’t make sense. There is, however, a bit of amusement to be had later in a shot of Fergie with her hair all ruined and makeup smeared all over.
So there’s a “rogue wave” [why not a meterorite? Or Godzilla?] and the officers are all trying to turn the ship into it, but anyone who has seen Speed 2 knows all too well that cruise ships take a long time to turn. So the whole thing flips over but there’s no Christmas tree and no guy falls up into the skylight. A woman falls on it and goes thud, but it’s not the same. One of the cool things is that we see lots of people float out into the sea when the ship turns upside down.
So Josh is going to take off and fend for himself, but he quickly amasses quite a klatch of hangers-on, and they all take off to reach the top. The captain and everyone else stay put and wait for help, and soon after are killed. First they have to go one level down to the disco to rescue Russell’s daughter and boyfriend, and Elena, who was again too “bored” to stay away from the hot-hot disco sound. Then they all head up and face one challenge after another on their way to the current top / former bottom.
SPOILERS > > >
One of these challenges is an elevator shaft which has mysteriously grown spikes at its bottom. If you have read any other reviews of this you have probably heard that if you are non-white in this movie, your chances of living are dramatically diminished. Like, to zero. In this scene, Dreyfuss calls this Latino busboy “gorgeous” [he’s out n’ proud y’all! Woop! Woop!], then shakes him off his leg [at Josh’s encouragement] to his death. On the one hand, one can see why he would do it, on the other, it does stand in contrast to the whole “we’ll all take risks to help each other survive” vibe that suffuses the rest of the movie [amongst the white people]. Immediately after this follows an awkward scene that is the first of many times you’ll have the sense that the characters had a conversation that was cut. It seems that nothing is allowed here that is not directly related to peril or explosions. Of course, given the quality of the script [Richard: “I’m stuck!” Elena: “Oh my God, he’s stuck!”], one is happy that we don’t have to suffer through a lot of poorly-written emotional talk.
In here we have had someone tell Russell that since he was NYC Mayor that “he knows the disaster scenarios.” Well, given our country’s record of disaster response, can we really be sure? There’s also something sickeningly pandering, post-9/11, in having him be both a former firefighter AND NYC mayor [in a DISASTER movie]. Was this movie paid for by the Rudolph Guiliani for President 2008 campaign? Later there is a moment in which a crucifix saves the life of the entire group. Not that there’s an explicit message, but you know, if one of them hadn’t been Christian, they would have all died. I’m just sayin’.
Then there’s the scene in which the water keeps rising and rising and yet never seems to reach them. And the way the hallways inside are all level although it’s obvious from the exterior shots that the whole thing should be on an angle. And boy, lucky thing that every single electrical light throughout the whole lower interior of the ship is watertight, huh? That’s some foresight, right there. We learn that a flash fire can “burn the lungs like rice paper.” You’ll also notice that amongst the debris at the bottom of the ship are a lot of boxes for flat-panel TVs. Why not go a step further and have stickers that say “Purchased at Best Buy” on them? I believe in creating synergy.
The movie makes a big mistake in clearly showing that the propellers have stopped, and having the heroes say that they’re heading for the propeller shaft, and once they get there having the things whirring away. Turns out they’re in the side-to-side propellers, but it’s confusing and just seems like a mistake for a long while. Before this we have been narrowed down to an all-white group [at last!], and we start hoping against hope that the little kid, who has wandered away from the group against explicit orders from his mother, will die. He doesn’t. I was ALL SET to have a home film festival about how if you’re a kid and you wander off when your parents tell you to stay put, YOU WILL DIE [see: Grizzly, and one other movie I can’t remember right now], but no, kids never die in movies like this.
About halfway in I was thinking what could really turn this movie around: shark attacks. If the survivors had to escape from killer sharks, THEN we’d have a movie here. Of course, it would essentially be Deep Blue Sea, but whatever, I could watch that again. Maybe Snakes on a Plane will usher in a whole new era of movies with concept names like that. This one could be called The Poseidon Adventure, but with Sharks. And I would be first in line.
Anyway, it sure is lucky that a fully inflated life-raft is floating just 10 feet away from where they jump out of the ship! And while you might have thought that this struggle out of the ship was governed only by chance, you see that it was carefully calibrated to the last second, as mere moments after they make it to the raft, the ship finally sinks. They then shoot a flare into the air and it magically transforms into a rescue helicopter? I was like; are they dead? Are they hallucinating? Nope, just more creating a “cool” visual with no sense of what that visual means.
< < < SPOILERS END
So as I said, this movie works best as a portrait of how our society has changed in the past 30 years. We are no longer interested in getting to know any characters. We do not pause to reflect. We do not wish to “think.” Action, action, action, that’s all that matters. And there is no more larger feeling about all of humanity, all that’s really important are individual journeys and the people you know or are related to. And of course, we’re not racist, oh no, though if it’s a choice between a white person [even a gay one!] and a Latino, you know who’s expendable. And hello, if he wanted to live, then how come he wasn’t white?
So it is what it is. I found I had very little involvement with the story since we hadn’t been given any time to know the characters, so it was just a series of escapes and explosions. We also get virtually no sense of the layout or personality of the ship. I liked the whole sense of the first movie that this ship represented mankind’s achievement, and hubris, and the struggle to escape gives us a cross-section of humanity. Here, a bunch of people get through a bunch of escapes and all larger meaning or relevance has been stripped away. But, I guess we don’t want larger meaning or relevance today. Hey, did you hear that SAT scores went down 5% last year, and are down 10% this year, and no one really knows why?
If you want to see a bunch of special effects.