Movies: Summer Escapes

With the arrival of "Mission: Impossible III" and "Poseidon," the summer-movie season has officially begun. The scores get louder, the special effects more special, the body count rises precipitously. What would summer escapism be, traditional studio thinking goes, without mass carnage?

But watching the new "Poseidon," which attempts to resurrect the disaster movie by remaking the belovedly cheesy 1972 "The Poseidon Adventure," gives one pause. In the wake of "United 93," a real-life disaster movie that opens a raw wound in the audience, do we really have an appetite for this genre? After Katrina, are the hundreds of dead bodies that pile up in Wolfgang Petersen's movie--in which a luxury liner capsizes after being hit by a rogue wave, wiping out all but an intrepid gaggle of B-list movie stars--so easy to shrug off? Disaster movies may work best when we think they can't really happen to us.

The movie is just what you'd expect: skimpy, almost laughable characterizations surrounded by claustrophobically suspenseful action sequences. Petersen ("Das Boot," "A Perfect Storm") brings a realism to his cliffhangers that's both the movie's strength and its potential Achilles' heel. Watching trapped, burning victims plummet to their deaths may not be everyone's notion of summer fun right now.

The mayhem in "M:i:III" comes fast and furious but has the advantage of being purposefully farfetched, with the series' trademark high-tech gadgetry, gravity-defying stunts and the inevitable latex masks, behind which both good guys and bad guys lurk. Directed by J. J. Abrams (co-creator of "Lost" and "Alias"), this snappy installment is a marked improvement over John Woo's surprisingly dull sequel, though the set pieces lack the elegance and visual coherence of the Brian de Palma original. Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt is lured back into the field on the eve of his wedding (to Michelle Monaghan) to stop villainous Philip Seymour Hoffman from doing something very naughty to the world as we know it. (Just what is never made clear.)

Cruise is even more grim and determined than usual (imagine a muscular windup toy on methedrine) in a role that seems custom-fitted to his concept of himself as great husband material. But other than this echo of tabloid news, "M:i:III" has no distracting or discernible relation to the real world.