Call me barmy, but for some reason I’ve been feeling compelled to continue my tour through the “classics” of the disaster genre, and how could you omit something as iconic as The Poseidon Adventure (1972)? Well, I can’t, but perhaps you should, because this is not a good film, even if it’s inarguably a memorable one.
The Poseidon Adventure takes us to the Mediterranean, where a luxury cruise ship is on its final voyage from New York to Athens. Traveling at an unsafe speed in order to make it to the scrapyard on schedule, a seismic event and subsequent tsunami lead to disaster, inverting the ship and leaving it hanging upside down in the water. The tragedy strikes on New Year’s Eve, when most of the passengers are gathered in a ball room to celebrate. The majority of the survivors are content to wait for help, but a fiery reverend named Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) is convinced that they must fend for themselves, and convinces a small group of others to join him. Scott’s unfailing instincts quickly prove integral to the group’s survival, but there are still plenty of obstacles and challenges awaiting them as they journey through the wreckage, seeking a way out.
By and large, The Poseidon Adventure is a less engaging precursor to The Towering Inferno, which takes a similar scenario and injects it with more variety and commentary. The spectacle here is something to behold, at least, and there’s a reasonable amount of suspense involved in watching the star-studded cast journey through an upside-down ship as water inexorably floods into the compartments behind them. Alas, the characters are, well, kind of terrible. Hackman’s annoying preacher is frighteningly symbolic of American exceptionalism, a know-it-all leader herding his “flock” to safety with diatribes that always prove him right, based entirely on faith and instinct. (The experts he contradicts, meanwhile, find watery death.) And while the constantly bickering flock is peppered with some big names of the era — Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall, Shelley Winters — most of the characters are obnoxious and unlikeable. As with most disaster films of this kind, there’s a certain structural inevitability to it: the party of survivors struggling, collaborating, and suffering casualties as they go, until safety is finally achieved. There should be some fun in rooting for the group, but it’s difficult to care about such annoyingly written characters. I suppose there’s something to be said for knowing about The Poseidon Adventure, but its grating dialogue and dated trappings don’t hold up terribly well.