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"GHOST SHIP"
(2002) (Julianna Margulies, Gabriel Byrne) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: The crew of a salvage tugboat encounters supernatural forces on an ocean liner that's been missing at sea for forty years.
PLOT:
Captain Sean Murphy (GABRIEL BYRNE), salvage team leader Maureen Epps (JULIANNA MARGULIES), First Mate Greer (ISAIAH WASHINGTON) and the rest of the salvage tugboat Arctic Warrior -- Dodge (RON ELDARD), Santos (ALEX DIMITRIADES) and Munder (KARL URBAN) - are so good at what they do that Canadian Air Force Pilot Jack Ferriman (DESMOND HARRINGTON) has approached them with an offer.

For twenty percent of their take, he'll lead them to what appears to be an abandoned ocean liner somewhere in the Bering Sea, far from any of the shipping lanes. They finally agree on ten percent with the condition of him going along and so they set off to find the vessel. Since it's in international waters, any such find could be completely theirs.

What they discover is the Antonia Graza, an Italian ocean liner that's been missing at sea for forty years. Deserted, damaged and adrift via the arctic currents, the huge vessel is quite a find and the tugboat crew quickly boards her to see what they can salvage.

Once onboard, they begin their exploration and soon discover that it isn't truly deserted. It's not long before Epps thinks she sees a young girl in a party dress, Katie (EMILY BROWNING), that Greer becomes entranced with the sultry lounge singer Francesca (FRANCESCA RETTONDINI), or that Murphy sees the ship's Captain (ROBERT RUGGIERO).

They're ghosts, of course, but the tugboat crew soon learns that there's more onboard the Antonia Graza, including something more sinister. They then scramble to save their lives when things start to become deadly.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Everyone's heard of urban legends that recount money-making scams, incredible stories and warnings of danger. All, of course, are fabricated and then repeatedly circulated by the gullible or those just wanting to keep the stories moving through the masses.

Another sort of legend - not exactly urban but more appropriately labeled as naval - concern ships that are found at sea where everything appears normal and in place except for the teensy-weensy little fact that the crew and/or passengers are missing.

The explanations over the years have ranged from pirates and UFO abductions to traveling through the Bermuda Triangle or everyone simply doing the lemming thing and jumping overboard one by one (okay, the latter is my own visually humorous theory).

The explanation in "Ghost Ship," a horror film set on such an abandoned vessel, however, unfortunately isn't as much fun. In fact, it, like most of the third act of the film, becomes increasingly hokey, predictable and full of enough holes to sink this effort faster than you can yell "Titanic!"

Working from a script by screenwriters Mark Hanlon ("Buddy Boy") and John Pogue ("Rollerball," "The Skulls"), director Steve Beck transplants the spooky and ghostly doings from the elaborate mansion of his debut film, "Thirteen Ghosts," onto an Italian ocean liner that's been missing at sea for 40 years.

Accordingly, it features lots of rust, but also the standard clichés and conventions of the genre. They include, but aren't limited to an ethnically diverse cast whose members get bumped off one by one, telegraphed "jump scenes" and lots of gore and blood in place of genuine scares or much on the part of imaginative or effective storytelling.

It's the latter that really makes this effort so blasé and that's too bad since this sort of story has some potential. After all, the thought of finding an abandoned ocean liner and then trying to figure out what happened to its crew and passengers is naturally intriguing.

Yet, unlike the engaging and creepy detective work and related results found in "The Ring," this one just goes for the cheap thrills and gore, including a maggot-related scene lifted straight from "Poltergeist" (but somehow not as disturbing).

The problem actually starts right at the beginning. Rather than allowing us to discover the ship for the first time along with the salvage crew (and thus be as blind as them), the prologue that's present - and which takes place onboard the ocean liner - is present mainly to gross out the viewer. Much as occurred in "Thirteen Ghosts" and "Resident Evil," we're treated to a special effects extravaganza of blood and gore where there's a pause between the victims' inflicted wounds and the result of their bodies or body parts falling off or apart in a slow, gooey fashion.

Once the crew finally does make it onboard, Beck and company simply go through the usual motions of trying to goose, spook or make viewers jump via the genre's standard operating procedures. Unfortunately, little of the effort is truly suspenseful or frightening.

By the time the hokey ending rolls around and its revelations of what occurred in the past and who's responsible are made clear, the effect is lost because none of that is conceived or executed properly and because we simply don't care. Despite the lack of intriguing or engaging detective work (and its bone-chilling or gotcha findings), we get something of the standard "Murder She Wrote" explanation and it's simply not scary or even interesting for that matter.

Unlike, say, Naomi Watts in "The Ring," Nicole Kidman in "The Others" or Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense," we never worry about the characters. That's due to not only the flat writing and rote performances, but also because we know that most of them are present simply to be run through the meat grinder.

It doesn't help that Julianna Margulies ("The Man From Elysian Fields," TV's "ER") and Gabriel Byrne ("End of Days," "Stigmata") make for a weak, poor-man's version of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris' characters in "The Abyss," or that the characters played by Ron Eldard ("Black Hawk Down," "Mystery, Alaska"), Alex Dimitriades ("Let's Get Skase," "Head On") and Karl Urban ("The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," "The Price of Milk") are pretty much interchangeable.

Isaiah Washington ("Welcome to Collinwood," "Exit Wounds") appears as the token black guy and naysayer, while Desmond Harrington ("We Were Soldiers," "Riding in Cars With Boys") can't do much with his character or hide the obvious surprises to come. More importantly, the likes of Emily Browning ("The Man Who Sued God") and Francesca Rettondini ("Le Conte di Melissa," "La Cena") simply aren't as much fun and clearly aren't as creepy or scary as their ghostly characters should and could have been.

The film is mercifully short at around 90 minutes, but that won't make this latest cruise through the world of scary movies any more enjoyable. Just more of the same old, same old but in a different setting, "Ghost Ship" joins "Below" in proving that "sea evil" (to borrow the film's tagline) isn't any better than that involving landlubbers. The film rates as a 3 out of 10.




Reviewed October 23, 2002 / Posted October 25, 2002


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