Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: It’s all disaster movies, in honor of Independence Day (the holiday and the movie) and also in light of the real-life disaster movie happening outside our windows.
The 1970s disaster movie craze kicked off at the start of the decade with Airport, a star-studded drama of high-altitude calamity. Producer Irwin Allen picked up that ball and ran with it, releasing the even more elaborate The Poseidon Adventure only two years later. It became the apex of Allen’s career as The Master Of Disaster; the one-note crises of his The Towering Inferno and The Swarm couldn’t compete. Partially, that’s because Poseidon, based on Paul Gallico’s novel, grapples with other issues—religion, the nature of leadership—as its various characters struggle to survive.
Just from a practical standpoint, Poseidon was fascinating: What would happen if a luxury cruise ship flipped over in the middle of the ocean? Only a few years after the Summer Of Love, the villain here is godless capitalism, personified by a corporate hack who forces the noble captain (Leslie Nielsen, in the sort of role he’d lampoon in Airplane! a few years later) to go full steam ahead with a top-heavy craft. The ship then runs into a tidal wave right at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Director Ronald Neame foreshadows the ship’s eventual plight from the start of the movie with some slanted camerawork, hinting at the seasickness to come. The flipping of the Poseidon itself is a tremendous spectacle for the pre-CGI era (and won the film an Oscar for special effects), as the NYE partiers futilely try to grasp the floor that will soon be their ceiling. Fortunately, the dining tables are nailed down.)
At the now-bottom of the ship, the movie shifts focus to a group of 10 survivors, half of them Oscar winners. Gene Hackman’s Reverend Scott encourages his followers to get off their knees instead of waiting for help—“God loves triers” he preaches—and to climb up through the ship. Ernest Borgnine strips down to his familiar undershirt to play the practical everyman questioning Scott’s lofty ideals. And Shelley Winters, in the movie’s only nominated performance, proves with her brave Mrs. Rosen that heroes can be found at any age or size.
Forced to crawl through the ship’s innards, passing multiple corpses, the survivors conquer air shafts, mechanical systems, and treacherous catwalks. Meanwhile, the water level keeps rising menacingly, deck by deck. Granted, this trip is marked by a number of unintentionally hilarious moments, with often ham-fisted dialogue and a few useless characters, like Carol Lynley’s Nonnie, who lip-synchs the movie’s insipid Oscar-winning theme song, “The Morning After,” and curls up into a ball at every challenge the otherwise intrepid group faces. Somehow, though, Poseidon’s sore spots only add to its campy fun. How can you not chuckle at Stella Stevens, as Borgnine’s shrill wife, screeching, “I know what to do with suppositories”?
All arrogant earnestness, Hackman’s Scott keeps moving forward, despite lives lost and dissent among his ranks. Along the way, they pass another, larger group, led by the ship’s doctor and headed toward the bow, who urge them to change their course. In such uncharted territory, how do you cling to the courage of your convictions when the wrong decision is literally fatal? Scott is a man of faith, but as his elder priest colleague scolds him, his sermons speak “only for the strong”—and that’s ultimately who joins his journey: The trip to the top of the ship reveals hidden reserves of courage and stamina in those determined to see daylight again, as they tackle one terrifying task after another. Beyond its entertaining visual spectacle, The Poseidon Adventure offers deeper exploration of how far someone will go to save themselves, and what makes one person follow another, whether they are wise to or not.