"The Poseidon Adventure" could easily be dismissed as "perfectly ridiculous" except, of course, for the fact that nothing is perfect. That wisecrack has to have been cracked before, but then "Poseidon" has been filmed before, not just once but, if you count an execrable sequel, twice.
It's the 1972 original that NBC tries to duplicate for its Sunday night movie, and although that film is no classic, it has a definite soggy charm and its own faithful cult. A surprise smash hit from venerable shlock slinger Irwin Allen, "Poseidon" had a sure-fire primal premise: When a tidal wave tips a luxury liner topsy-turvy on New Year's Eve, a hearty band of stranded passengers must climb upward to the hull of the ship in a desperate bid for freedom.
The movie was made with a minimal budget and bathtub-quality special effects (a high-tech remake is due in theaters next summer), but it had what so many disaster movies lack: heart and soul. Or heart and spleen. A "Love Boat" cast did plenty of showboating, most memorably Shelley Winters as zaftig Mrs. Rosen, who made a heroic underwater swim to help the others and then, bosom heaving gallantly, breathed her last.
At that point, there were fewer dry eyes in the house than there were dry rugs on the ship.
The character of Mrs. Rosen returns for the remake, but her husband missed the boat because he's dead. Rosen, played perfunctorily by veteran Sylvia Syms, isn't doing that much better. In production notes, Syms says she saw old Rosen as being, among other things, "very average." How's that for a recipe for excitement?!
Other saps at sea include Steve Guttenberg, off his game as an unfaithful old stewpot who reunites with his wife for a twisty tryst just as the ship capsizes, a new variation on "Did the earth move for you, too?" Peter Weller plays the captain, mischievously named Paul Gallico in honor of the original novel's author; Adam Baldwin grits his teeth as Rogo, no longer a retired cop as played by Ernest Borgnine (with a hooker wife played by Stella Stevens) but now a security specialist sniffing around the ship, and Alexa Hamilton plays the kind of assertive businesswoman that is one of the most inescapable of modern movie and TV cliches.
Even that John Barrymore of direct-to-video, C. Thomas Howell, wanders in for an appearance, the kind that makes a viewer feel much, much older.
The biggest mistake with the new "Poseidon" is the inclusion of action that occurs outside the ship, ruining the film's palpable sense of being utterly cut off from the world. While the trapped tourists scramble up the decorative Christmas tree (as in 1972, except the tree shrank), director John Putch cuts away to Navy forces preparing a rescue effort, just as in that "Airport" sequel that had a 747 bobbing about just below the surface in the Bermuda Triangle.
Instead of joining the ship at sea and getting the peril in motion quickly, this version dawdles along for at least 17 minutes before the ship even shoves off. That allows time for flattering views of Cape Town, where the film was made, presumably with mucho cooperation from the South African tourist authority.
And instead of a tsunami being responsible for the ship going upsy-daisy, it's a fiendish terrorist's bomb that is to blame, for all Baldwin's grim-faced efforts to prevent it.
Even if "The Poseidon Adventure" of 1972 isn't the least bit dear to your heart, it's doubtful you'll get any kind of pleasure from the 2005 version. The characters are flabby yet weightless, just a disgruntled bunch of frumps who face death with hardly an ounce of credible emotion. There's a banal little ballad in this version, but all it does is make "The Morning After" sound like a pop classic. There's a bratty little 12-year-old, too, but he's at best a pest.
Far too often, director Putch (son of actress Jean Stapleton) cuts to the view from the 12-year-old's video camera; the kid, it seems, is a budding filmmaker with Spielbergian aspirations. Asked why he's panning past an array of desserts in the ship's kitchen, the boy replies, "I'm building dramatic tension" -- to which the critic who talks back to his TV set is likely to respond, "Well, at least somebody is."
The Poseidon Adventure airs tomorrow at 8 p.m. on Channel 4.