The Poseidon Adventure

When you’re asked to think of the undisputed titans of the disaster movie, chances are the first couple of names that pop into your head will either be The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure (deduct 100 points from Griffindor if you said Earthquake or The Swarm) and, of course, there is an exceptional reason for that. They’re freaking awesome.
Even since I was a child I’ve always had a fascination with that genre that prides itself in accumulating a flashy cast of superstars, character actors and has-beens and simply flinging them into the most horrendous situation it can think of while liberally killing off around a third of them with the sneering indifference of a Greek God – and while The Towering Inferno is arguably the more spectacular of the two, there’s something about that other, soggy tragedy that’s always spoken to me more…

It’s New Year’s Eve and cruise ship SS Poseidon is undertaking her final voyage as she ships her disperate passengers from New York to Athens through fairly choppy waters. As the people on board go through each of their various, soap opera style lives, we are introduced to the permanently screaming Mike and Linda Rogo, a New York cop who has married the ex-prostitute he fell in love with (there’s a whole film there just by itself…), the elderly couple Mr and Mrs Rosen who are travelling to Israel to see their grandson for the first time, young brother and sister Robin and Susan Shelby who are on the cruise ship by themselves for some reason, the impossibly nice bachelor James Martin and preacher Father Scott, a man of the faith who seems to be spectacularly running out of it. Just as the clock strikes midnight, signaling a brand new year, the fate fling these people a gutterball of epic epicness when an underwater earthquake produces a tidal wave big enough to flip the Poseidon over like a giant, watery tiddlywink and sure enough, just like the song says, everyone on board is soon making like Lionel Richie and are Dancing On The Ceiling.
The battered and bloodied survivors now gather and have to make a choice: stay put in the inverted ballroom and wait for help or travel up to the bottom of the ship (still following me?) to try and find a way out in the propeller shaft where the hull is thinnest?
Reverend Scott, a man who’s personal belief that a man needs to fend for himself and leave God the F alone is as rugged as his indestructible turtle neck sweater, gathers all the people I mentioned earlier, as well as Nonnie, a token hysterical female and Roddy McDowell’s waiter whose injured leg is as weak as his Irish accent, and try to forge a near impossible path to salvation as the ship slowly disintegrates around them.

Essentially the brainchild of producer Irwin Allan who churned out a seemingly unending stream of iconic television in the 60’s that included Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel, Land Of The Giants and Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, blueprint he helped form is one that’s pretty much still followed by the letter today (usually by Roland Emmerich). It’s a canny plan and when treated with just the right balance of stoic respected and cheesy melodrama, you get a winning combo meal that genuinely excites while manipulating maximum feels out of you by shamelessly killing off humble characters who don’t deserve to meet such hideous ends.
And yet another part of the disaster movie’s charm are linked to you anxiously waiting to see exactly that – which members of the incredibly likeable cast will be unlucky enough to make the overturned Poseidon their tomb and who will stagger out to freedom – It’s almost like watching a slasher flick with an all star cast that been chosen with ruthless efficiency. For example, you don’t want Ernest Borgnine’s salty Rogo to die because, well… he’s being played by Ernest Borgnine and so it goes. I mean, just because Grampa Joe conned his family by staying in that bed all those years in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, it doesn’t mean you want Jack Albertson (the man who played him) to be broiled alive in the asshole of a sinking ship…
The performances are the epitome of solid and wring every inch of drama from the material even when things get admittedly hokey and leading the charge are the bellowing jowls of Gene Hackman who plays the priest who’s outlook on God is novel to say the least. Even though this sort of shit is beneath the notoriously intimidating actor and he’s obviously doing it for the dough, Hackman is still pretty fucking spectacular as he navigates his battered pilgrimage though the groaning hulk with nothing more than his indomitable and his ability to shout over everyone else in the cast (an impressive feat – there’s a lot of shouting in this movie). Everyone else (except for the younger female members of the cast who are given strict orders by the script to be actively as useless as possible) strains to match him, and bless ’em, they get close – but not even the tragic arc of Shelly Winters can top Hackman during the climax as he roars his defiance at God as yet another obstacle ritualistically blocks their fucking path.
The one thing that can match Hackman in the intensity stakes is the gleefull cruelty the movie puts literally everybody through as they miserably drag themselves through this “adventure” (not exactly the word I’d bloody use). When not being brutally drowned like rats just for being cautious or having their entire skeleton reshuffled inside their body after a very nasty fall, anyone who isn’t in the main cast (and this even includes Leslie Neilson himself callously listed in the credits only as “The Captain”) is just a plaything the movie can horribly ragdoll for it’s – and our – entertainment, but to tell the truth, it works really, really well.
Sometimes however, the sheer weight of 70’s camp succeeds in overwhelming matters and thanks to Gene Hackman’s curiously sentient fringe and a lot of gaudy fashions, The Poseidon Adventure is a film that’s incredibly of it’s time and quite often proves to be hugely distracting to the main drive of the plot. For example, the moment I noticed that Nonnie’s hippy band eerily looked like Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem from The Muppets collectively found a magic lamp and wished themselves human, I couldn’t take my fucking eyes off them – and I could never quite work out if the reason why Red Button’s character was such a bachelor was if he was supposed to be gay or if the film was just being ridiculously naive…

Anyway, if you need any further proof of The Poseidon Adventure’s legacy then explain to me this? How else could a film have a bunch of stars look this much like crap while having them slowly pick through wreckage for nearly two hours and still be edge of your seat material? That stuff just doesn’t happen by accident and the fact you’re so invested in these people is a testiment to one of the greatest disaster movies of it generation.
After all, greatness floats to the top just as fast as a drowned dinner guest…

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