The proud cruise ship HMS Poseidon takes its final voyage across the ocean from New York to its destination in Athens. An immoral company man along for the journey strong arms ship's captain Harrison (a straight-laced Leslie Nielsen) to push ahead through choppy seas despite his pleas to take on more ballast to steady the vulnerable vessel. Harrison's worst nightmares come to fruition when a colossal tidal wave strikes the ship, turning it 180 degrees into the icy depths. With all those above them dead, a rag-tag group of survivors led by a renegade preacher, the Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) must scale the upside down stricken craft in a desperate attempt to make it to the only part of the sinking ship not yet underwater, the engine room.
Ahhh those happy memories of that most dated of seventies genres, the big old disaster flick, with their preposterous stories and acting as bloated as the paychecks the ensemble casts of stars were trousering for their efforts. Who can forget those heady days of youth, sat on a Sunday afternoon with a glass of lemonade and a matinee showing of some creaky old potboiler with a host of big names thrown into increasingly perilous surroundings for our entertainment. Irwin Allen king of the disaster flick, I salute you sir, and God bless the HMS Poseidon and all who sail on her, well until she went belly up of course.
Although Airport (1970) was the trailblazing innovator, and The Towering Inferno (1974) had the big star names in abundance, the true high water mark (pardon the pun) of the disaster movie cycle was undoubtedly Ronald Neame's The Poseidon Adventure. This is the movie where uber-producer Allen took the initial blueprint crafted by George Seaton's Airport and expanded on it, creating and establishing many of the stock characteristics we know today as being integral to the genre. The spectacle was cranked up, the death toll whacked skyward, and the whole enterprise unfolded on a grander scale than seen before.
Of course after the wonderful knowing lampoonery of Abrahams and Zucker's Airplane! it's now nigh on impossible to watch The Poseidon Adventure with a straight face. Time hasn't been particularly kind to the exploits of these kinds of movies, and it's difficult to imagine a time when such big-budget nonsense could have really been taken seriously. From the appallingly dated décor and hairstyles, through to the awfully saccharine signature tune 'The Morning After', this is a movie of ridiculous bombast, and is all the better for it. The wonderful cast including luminaries such as Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters ham it up superbly in showy roles as priest, cop, and rotund grandmother respectively . Hackman and Borgnine as the two leading members of the party have the most fun out of the cast, chewing up scenery and spouting soliloquy's of bloated and frankly preposterous dialogue at every given opportunity. It's overacted, absurd, and absolutely brilliant.
All of this wouldn't be worth a hoot if the action didn't deliver, and thankfully it does in spades. Whereas later entries in the disaster cycle would find themselves bogged down with a crowded cast vying for attention, and increasingly distended and overly ambitious running times, The Poseidon Adventure is a lean, mean stripped down rollercoaster of a disaster flick. Neame's direction is as economical as it is fluid, dragging his cast kicking and screaming from one perilous set piece to another with barely a moment to catch breath. Hearts are wrenched and tensions rise as loveable stars are dispatched mercilessly at every turn. The film also succeeds in skilfully exploiting many key fears prevalent in the disaster cycle. The feeling of isolation and the inscrutability of fate, the helplessness of the survivors and the claustrophobia of the tunnels the team fight their way through are evocatively created in effective style. Hell, if we want to offer a critique about the whole thing, there's bound to be untapped religious imagery and undertones kicking around in here as well. This baby has it all and in abundance. Ever wanted to see a fat woman swim? Stella Stevens climb a Christmas tree in panties? Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory's own Grandpa Joe dodging fireballs in a kitchen inferno? You've come to the right place.
The true key factor in the brilliance of this film is that it's a rare example of something so wrong coming out so right. Despite every warning sign indicated otherwise this provides all the unbridled joy of a guilty pleasure, but none of the accompanying culpability . It's not a great bad movie, it's a great movie period. I'm not altogether sure exactly how it pulls it off, as it's overacted, hammy, preposterous and dated to hell, but pull it off it does and in some style. It's over thirty years old and still as enormous fun as it was on those rainy Sunday afternoons with my glass of Villa pop.
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