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'Poseidon' sinks of its own weight

Is it too soon? Are we ready to probe barely healed wounds and confront intense emotional pain?

I refer, of course, to the opening of a ''Poseidon Adventure" remake not five months after Shelley Winters's death in January. Some of us haven't even finished sitting shivah. But there's got to be a morning after.

Unfortunately, ''Poseidon" is an ill-fitting tribute to the actress who portrayed Belle Rosen, the bubbe with a mean breaststroke, in the 1974 original. Back then, a disaster movie promised flame-broiled extras and falling structural debris, but also schlocky entertainment and B-level stars happily hamboning away. Maybe it's the era we're living in, but the new film is as much fun as a shroud.

It's also muscular and convincing -- almost too convincing. In one sequence where the assembled survivors of a flipped cruise ship have to swim 150 yards underwater to safety, audiences may find themselves holding their breaths in suspense. A few scenes later, as a terrified little boy and his mother blubber what may be their final farewell before rising water drowns the kid, those same audiences may question exactly why they're watching this. If not, perhaps they should.

You know the drill, if not from the original movie (or Paul Gallico's 1969 source novel) then from last year's waterlogged TV remake. A massive luxury liner gets hit by a wall of water -- they call them ''rogue waves" nowadays -- and does a rollover. The ship's captain (Andre Braugher) demands everyone stay in the upside-down ballroom until help arrives, which clearly means those who listen to him are doomed. A plucky mixed bag of dissidents strikes out on its own, heading upward toward the hull in a bid for rescue.

They are: Robert Ramsay (Kurt Russell), a former New York mayor and full-time over-protective dad to daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum), who is secretly engaged to Christian (Mike Vogel), who seems much too generic to make it to the end credits; Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas), a rambler, a gambler, and a sweet-talkin' ladies' man; single mom Maggie James (Jacinda Barrett) and her young son, Conor (Jimmy Bennett); ship busboy Marco Valentin (Freddy Rodriguez); Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), a depressed gay architect whose giant zirconium earring outs him from 50 feet away; vulgar jerk ''Lucky" Larry (Kevin Dillon); and comely stowaway Elena Gonzalez (Mia Maestro).

The problem is that, aside from Dillon, there's not an over-actor in the bunch. Even the usually reliable Dreyfuss plays it straight, you should pardon the expression. Director Wolfgang Petersen, who in films like ''Das Boot," ''The Perfect Storm," and ''Troy" hasn't exactly displayed a carefree touch, is going for realism here, and the initial catastrophe is a special effects jaw-dropper -- the theater feels as if it's going over with the ship. The carnage is bone-crushingly frank, too, and, yes, this probably is what people look like when they're being electrocuted. Another movie milestone attained.

Once the survivors leave the ballroom, though, all semblance of plot goes out the porthole, and it's just up and up, water nipping at their heels. In the original ''Adventure," the characters stood around every so often and chewed things over, but ''Poseidon" is structured as a single increasingly panicked chase scene. The new film is actually 20 minutes shorter than the first: a disaster movie with attention-deficit disorder.

Now, obviously, some of these folks are going to make it and some aren't -- that's the 10-little-Indians guilty pleasure of the genre. An Indian probably wouldn't last too long in ''Poseidon," though, because the script's guiding principle seems to be ''follow the white guy." It's almost cheering to see a movie toss political correctness to the winds so cavalierly -- and, in one scene, with such Darwinian brute force -- but it betrays the fundamental democracy of disaster flicks.

Indeed, part of the enjoyment of ''The Poseidon Adventure" was that it let Winters's roly-poly Jewish yenta save the day. In this film, the ex-swimming champion is played by Kurt Russell, and he's channeling Bruce Willis in ''Armageddon." As Belle Rosen might say, ''Fun? Not so much."

A word about Mark Protosevich's screenplay: Uninspired. Most of the dialogue occurs in the first half, and only a very trusting writer would come up with a line like ''Conor, your friend the Captain wants you to blow the New Year's horn" and not expect the audience to think of Peter Graves in ''Airplane!" The back half of the movie is all action, with characters painting themselves into watery corners and the filmmakers waiting until the grueling last moment before springing the doors open.

That's entertainment? Maybe, but it plays with queasy dissonance in a post-9/11 world. There will be people who won't go to ''United 93" because they think it will be depressing yet will go to ''Poseidon" expecting an exciting night at the movies, and I guess I don't understand how their brains work. Maybe the prospect of a second-tier cast dying for the sins of previous bad movies is enough of a camp factor to tilt the scales (although Rossum will have to do hundreds of these to atone for ''The Phantom of the Opera"). In a world of fresh horror, though, ''Poseidon" seems a strangely punishing form of make-believe.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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