The Whole World Turned Upside Down
- Kurt Langley () - May 7, 2006 - 12:00am
For filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen, his latest action-adventure "Poseidon" raises an intriguing and personal question: What would you do if the whole world turned upside down? Would you be a courageous leader or a follower? Would you panic? Would you give up or keep on going?

The acclaimed director of "Troy," "The Perfect Storm" and "Air Force One," Petersen rose to international prominence with the tense 1981 World War II submarine drama "Das Boot," which earned him Oscar nominations for both direction and screenplay. A master storyteller acutely interested in human nature, he returns to the sea with "Poseidon" to focus not only on the power of a massive rogue wave that overturns a luxury cruise ship in open water, but on the intense dramas that play out among a small group of people fighting to survive in its aftermath.

"In a disaster you really get to see who people are inside, with the artifice and the normal conventions of life stripped away," he says. "Life-or-death decisions are made in seconds. When you see how people react and how they behave in extreme situations you know what they’re made of."

"The Poseidon passengers came aboard to celebrate," Petersen sets the stage, noting that Poseidon’s passengers are on the kind of cruise people take not to reach a destination but rather to enjoy the luxury and leisure of the journey itself. "It’s New Year’s Eve and they are beautifully dressed and ready to have fun. Everyone has plans for the future."

Indeed, as the clock strikes midnight even members of the ship’s staff take a minute for their own impromptu celebrations in the hallways and kitchens off the Grand Ballroom where guests gather to ring in the New Year.

"All of a sudden they are attacked by a monster wave and everything is turned upside down. Things are hanging from the ceiling, falling down or peeling away from the walls, and there are gas leaks, steam, smoke and fires. Imagine your whole life changing in an instant and you must deal with the unthinkable. Nothing is where it should be and you are totally disoriented. It’s an apocalyptic world."

Heightening the sense of panic, Petersen explains, is their confinement. "This is not something a person can run away from. Trapped within a closed environment where there is no escape, no help and very little time, they are forced to deal with it by themselves."

What begins as an immense and spacious setting becomes suddenly small and claustrophobic, broken into disconnected pockets of air and clogged passageways. "The movie starts with thousands of people, then hundreds, and then it becomes just a handful as everything draws tighter and more intimately focused."

"The story taps into our primal fears–fire, drowning, falling, being trapped, being helpless," says "Poseidon" producer Akiva Goldsman. Most recently a producer on "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," Goldman’s screenwriting credits include an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award for "A Beautiful Mind." "Even if you never intend to set foot on a ship, these are disaster scenarios that could potentially find you anywhere."

On that level, adds producer Mike Fleiss, "It’s a monster movie, but in this case the monster is water and it’s chasing them to the finish. It was Wolfgang’s intention to bring as many genuinely terrifying elements as possible into play."

And what could be more terrifying than a disaster of this magnitude, striking in the middle of the sea where help, if it comes, would be hours away?

"Rogue waves exist," states Petersen, who has long considered water "the most dangerous, dramatic and unpredictable of elements," and was aware of the phenomenon prior to embarking on "Poseidon." Once the stuff of maritime legend, these veritable walls of water, as reported by eyewitnesses, have come under scientific observation only in recent years via ESA (European Space Agency) satellite technology.

Long suspected but unproven as the cause of countless ocean disasters, they are now confirmed responsible for damage to cruise liners and off-shore oil rigs since the 1990s when serious research began.

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich crossed the Atlantic himself on the Queen Mary 2 in preparation for his work on "Poseidon." He found both passengers and crew to be a diverse mix of ages, nationalities and backgrounds, supporting Petersen’s assertion that "disasters are great equalizers. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, if you’re the richest person in the world or if you’re working in the kitchen; you’re all in it together."

"This kind of crisis brings out our essential selves, the very best and the very worst," says Protosevich. "Relationships are tested and emotional bonds will be either strengthened or severed. If someone you love shows cowardice you will never forget it, but if they are willing to risk their own life for the sake of others you will never forget that either. The potential for heroism lies in each of us; whether or not we choose to act on it defines who we are."

The challenges faced by the Poseidon survivors and the choices they make in some ways represent, for Petersen, a parable for life. "If you hold on to someone you might save him or maybe he will just pull you down. At what point will you decide to let go? Either way, it’s a shocking moment and nothing will ever be the same."

The "Poseidon" filmmakers brought to this project a genuine fondness and respect for the 1972 film "The Poseidon Adventure," from producer Irwin Allen and director Ronald Neame.

Like that earlier film, a classic of its genre, Wolfgang Petersen’s "Poseidon" begins with the same concept and uses it as a catalyst for a fresh story. "We borrowed the idea of a luxury liner with thousands of people aboard, hit by a rogue wave on New Year’s Eve," he explains, "and then started from scratch with an all-new screenplay and original, contemporary characters. Our story is in those characters, what they experience as individuals and as a group, and the way their journey ends."

"Poseidon" opens in theaters across the Philippines on May 10.

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