It would be nice if there were a way to explain why "Poseidon" is so sullying without resorting to hackneyed "The original was better"-style rhetoric, but you can't.

Ronald Neame's 1972 "The Poseidon Adventure" is memorable not because a wave in a bathtub knocked over a toy boat. It's memorable for Gene Hackman's square-jawed rectitude, for Ernest Borgnine's red-faced outrage, for Shelley Winters' hammy bluster and for Pamela Sue Martin's jailbait charm. To this day, it's a movie that proves that memorable characters in proficiently executed peril remain watchable even after the special effects cease to wow. Wolfgang Petersen's much shorter, much thinner, much more expensive semi-remake proves the other side of the coin -- wooden, forgettable characters in proficiently executed peril aren't even watchable while the special effects are industry standard.

Mark Protosevich's updated, but unimproved, adaptation of Paul Gallico's pulp novel begins on New Year's Eve as the passengers and crew of the luxury liner the Poseidon are preparing for a celebration. After a sweeping 360-degree swoop around the boat, nicely blending computer animation and live action, Petersen ("The Perfect Storm") sets to the obvious drudgery of establishing one or two characters in the most perfunctory way possible. Robert (Kurt Russell) thinks his daughter (Emmy Rossum) is too young to be serious with her boyfriend (Mike Vogel). Dylan (Josh Lucas) is a successful gambler with a lech for single mom Maggie (Jacinda Barrett). Richard (Richard Dreyfuss) is suicidal after his boyfriend left him. With those first 10 minutes, you can either savor the character building or cringe at the dialogue, but there isn't much time for either, because just as the first reel is coming to an end, the first mate looks out the window, emotes, "No. No." and a rogue wave flips the ship.

There's no time for dilly-dallying and Petersen heads off into the comfort zone he's developed since "Das Boot," generating action and tension for terrified people in enclosed spaces. Like characters in a video game, our heroes have to make it from one part of the ship to another, getting picked off according to the casualty rules that have been established by decades worth of horror and disaster films. There's no weight to any of the deaths, nor to the hundreds of corpses that line the walls in the most PG-13 way possible. The actors and their characters feel no more real and no more alive than the gigantic wave, the towering pillars of fire or the myriad explosions. There are several characters you're happy to see go -- I dare you not to cheer when very early on Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas takes a blast of water to the face -- but there's nobody you'd particularly want to save.

Petersen stages several respectable hold-your-breath underwater stunts and at least one sequence in a crowded air vent should make claustrophobics a bit miserable. Viewers may feel the occasional rush, but no individual set piece really distinguishes itself for Petersen. Here's the simplest way I can put this: A movie of this kind is supposed to make you feel fear with and for the characters, while I only could stir up pity for the actors, who all look wet, miserable and dirty, like attractive incubators for water-borne infection. I didn't want them to be safe, I just wanted them to get some warm socks.

Most of the cast conveys the requisite misery and little more, with Rossum, Russell and Dreyfuss probably earning the most credibility.

If Protosevich wrote any lines for the movie's second half, they've almost all been cut, a choice that should now allow "Poseidon" to play in foreign countries without dubbing or subtitles. Beyond simulating the closest thing to a silent movie this side of Terrence Malick, the unexpected payoff to the wordlessness is Lucas' surprisingly nuanced performance. There's a character arc that Dylan has to go through, a journey from cad to hero, that Lucas has to do entirely with his eyes, but I felt the change.

Reviewers who respond to "Poseidon" will probably rave about its brevity, at well under 100 minutes. I agree that in a movie of this sort, bad exposition is as bad as it gets, but if somebody -- probably not Protosevich -- had fleshed the movie out with 10 minutes more humanity, the "Poseidon" wouldn't have felt so dead by the end.

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