Knox, with her vague recollections of The Patriot, nails the movie better than I did in my harangue: It’s ham-handed.
In the ‘90s, after the relative successes of Universal Soldier and Stargate writer/director/producer combo Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich were hot properties. (Unlike a lot of people who apparently went to see Stargate with really low expecations, I saw it years later with high expectations and was quite disappointed.)
The two caught my eye because of their interest in the disaster genre. The ’70s disaster genre. Actually, to get really specific, they were interested in the Irwin Allen disaster genre. (A genre that my cousin, who actually co-owns all or most of the Irwin Allen properties and is remaking them doesn’t seem to be that interested in.)
This is not a genre that produced great movies, even if you’ll sometimes see Earthquake and Towering Inferno given four-stars in the movie listings. (Earthquake isn’t Irwin Allen but I’d guess most people from the ’70s would be surprised by that, since it was a direct mirror of the Allen formula.) They weren’t good, but they were successful.
The original Poseidon Adventure grossed 85,000,000 (1972) dollars on a 5,000,000 budget. According to Box Office Mojo, it was the 36th highest box office film (adjusting for inflation) in 1982. Currently it stands as the 74th highest domestic grossing film (adjusting for inflation).
Or, just to put it another way, my cousin’s $160M remake would have needed to make 2.72 billion dollars in box office to get the same return that $5M did 35 years earlier. And the remake is an utter disaster. (Now, my cousin is a bright and talented guy who got where he was by working at it from the time he was eleven, so I fully expect him to hit one out of the park pretty soon.)
But when the remake was coming out the Fox Movie Channel did a marathon of the original. And as bad as it is, it’s not quite as bad as it was, if that makes sense. The original is a melodrama–or series of melodramas–that happens against the backdrop of a disaster (the ship sinking). This was the Irwin Allen formula, put a bunch of people with issues together in a burning building, and also throw people from different social strata together, and get them to where they resolve the issues with each other through the disaster.
As a formula, it’s positively ludicrous. But it’s also kinda fun. That’s what surprised me about watching the original: How much fun it was. (I mentioned to Knox in the Patriot thread linked at the top here that it’s not always the great movies that are re-watchable.) Ernest Borgnine as the cop married to hooker Stella Stevens (with Stevens being almost completely gone from the original TV cuts of the movie, and slowly re-emerging to find a new fan base over the years). Shelly Winters as the fat former swim champ.
And of course, Gene Hackman as the priest who’s mad at God. Talk about ham-handed! The parallels between Hackman and Jesus are not subtle. Toward the end of the movie, he’s actually yelling at God!
It’s easy to see why the remake of Poseidon fails: It lacks any of the fun. It’s super-“realistic”. The characters are more carefully, and less broadly, drawn and consequently completely forgettable. The effects are spectacular enough but I’m pretty numb to CGI effects these days. (For me, CGI effects peaked in ’94 with the original Jurassic Park.)
What’s more interesting, though, is to look at the Emmerich/Devlin films that were in the same mold and ask why don’t they work? They did four movies in the Irwin Allen style: Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot and The Day After Tomorrow. (You can, at least, give them credit for applying that style to the sci-fi invasion, rubber monster suit and historical drama genres!)
ID4 and Patriot get a lot of oomph out of the actors: Will Smith has made himself a career out of carrying fairly mediocre movies into realm of the watchable. The weaker movies (Godzilla and Day) have less star power. (Recall that in the ’70s, disaster movies had Steve McQueen, William Holden, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Ava Gardener, etc.) But even so, do you remember who Will Smith was in ID4? I don’t. I think he had to have been military–but he’s so unmilitary it’s hard to imagine that’s true.
Jeff Goldblum was a nerdy scientist, I think, but isn’t he almost always a nerdy scientist? In Day one of the Bills (Pullman? Paxton? No, wait, it was Dennis Quaid!) plays the scientist with foreknowledge and Jake Gyllenhall is his rebellious (I think) son.
In other words, maybe the weaknesses have to do with characterization. I can remember Charlton Heston scowling about building codes–and Paul Newman scowling about building codes–in Earthquake and Towering Inferno respectively. But I can’t place Quaid’s face at the meeting where he tells the President about the perils of global warming. I mean, I can, but I can just as easily put one of the Bills there. (Wait, maybe I’m thinking about The Core. Din’t that have a Bill in it? No, that was Aaron Eckhart. Huh.)
I think it goes back to a common theme here on the ‘strom: Inability to perform without irony. I mean, can you imagine it today: A cop married to a hooker and the two of them in constant battles, raking each other over the coals over it? It’s positively “Honeymooners”!
Of course, the priest who hates God but is a heroic figure–very ’70s. Now the priest would have to be a pedophile and personally involved in sinking the boat. The young girl coming of age and finding herself attracted to the priest (and the priest being the balding Gene Hackman, heh)? Hackman is actually mad because God allows evil to exist in the world. Is there a more trite, hackneyed character? But, man, Hackman sells it like he’s never even heard of Job.
I might be wrong, but I think those movies worked to the extent that they did because the makers were willing to sell them hard. And, of course, audiences didn’t need things to be hyper-“realistic”. (They don’t now but they think they do.) But over time, perspectives on what is realistic change, and the “realistic” movies get less watchable while those that knowingly (and successfully) affect a particular theatrical style–like every movie Hitchcock ever made–become more watchable.
I don’t have a neat answer for this one. It could, after all, be sheer differences in movie-making skill. After all, it is the very ham-handed parts of The Patriot that detract from it, while the ham-handed parts of the early disaster movies are what make them watchable today.