Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon recognizes and encourages belief in the popular popcorn-movie theory of The Survival of the Whitest. Twenty whole minutes shorter than Ronald Neame’s trash classic The Poseidon Adventure, the film’s short-attention span is apt to this era. (The only surprise here is that the hole left behind by Shelley Winters wasn’t filled by at least one anorexic Nicole Richie type.) This may be a deliberate ploy on the part of the filmmakers: Move the story so fast and stupidly that it will convey the sense that it has nothing on its mind, making critics appear snobbish for wanting to grapple with it. For sure, the film doesn’t think very much, but that’s only because Wolfgang Peterson’s latest travesty insults us on an unconscious level, and there’s no shame in calling out his dumb-as-shit Aryan fantasy for rewriting “Back of the Bus” as “Bottom of the Ship.” (For those who care: spoilers ahead.)
The essential problem with the film isn’t its inadequately dramatized story, artless CGI (the last shot suggests Land of the Lost’s opening credit sequence), MacGyver-like acts of ingenuity, or banal death scenes performed by stunt people who obviously can’t act—those are givens for a film of this kind—but how it latently and dangerously advances the notion that the will to survive is a white person’s province. The filmmakers understand how people are integrated along racial and economic lines within a luxe setting: The only Black, Latino, and Asian characters in the film work on the lower levels of the Poseidon, which are the first parts to go kabloom when the ship is capsized by a tsunami referred to—in summer-blockbuster terms—as a “rouge wave” by the Uncle Tom captain who goes down with the ship, his arms around a Black Eyed Pea. There’s truth here, but Peterson and screenwriter Mark Protosevich only scratch its simplified surface before then stomping on it.
Through Mía Maestro’s character, Elena Gonzalez, we get a rare illustration of “passing” in action: Because she is light-skinned, she infiltrates the rich (white) part of the ship with ease and joins the film’s motley crew of would-be survivors that includes a suicidal gay man, Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss, sporting a diamond stud in his “left is right” ear), who kills—in order to save his ass—the waiter, Marco Valentin (Freddy Rodríguez), who snuck her onto the New York-bound vessel. When Richard, oblivious to her connection to Marco, tries to save Elena late in the film, the moment suggests some minstrel variety show between the film’s “others” that whites and straights weren’t invited to. Does Peterson think minority groups communicate telepathically?
Elena’s scam, though, only gets her so far. By the time the group needs to negotiate a tightly-screwed vent, the woman’s legit fear has been condescendingly associated with her Christianity. When she provides her new friends with the crucifix they use as a makeshift screwdriver, she becomes instantly disposable. (Never have I seen a film where people have tried less to bring someone back to life using CPR. When Richard gets a turn, he doesn’t even try to revive her—instead, he weepily kisses her!) Only a fool or a blind person would ignore this subtext, which might have been daring if it felt less inadvertent, or if Peterson had deployed it differently: as a critique of the racist Hollywood hegemony he bows to. By the time Josh Lucas and his privileged company emerge from the topsy-turvy Poseidon you expect to see the words “They Were Expendable” scrawled across its hull.