Move Review: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

This was written way back in 2004. It was one of the first movie reviews I ever wrote.  I wrote in an earlier post that some of my old reviews were embarrassing to read now.  This is what I was talking about. But as I also said I’ll be posting these warts and all and I’ve got to stand by them.  But please, be kind.  Mat in 2022.

As a child I mostly watched whatever kid-friendly movie was showing at the local cinemplex. We got our first Betamax when I was maybe 12 or there about and we’d rent all kinds of movies.  Some of them were genuine classics like To Kill a Mockingbird which instilled in me a sense that beauty and art can be found in a film. Others were like the Poseidon Adventure which while not particularly masterful films still showed me that there were many other films out there than what I was used to watching.  These films eventually opened up to me the world of cinema.

I first saw the Poseidon Adventure at Grandma and Papa’s house. I had been dropped off by my mother for an afternoon while she went shopping or some other mundane task. After flipping channels a while I came across this great sinking ship and fell mystified into a grand epic adventure. To this day I recall my mother coming home during the final 20 minutes or so and me making her stay because I just had to see the ending. She had seen the film, but praised it as a classic adventure and allowed me to see the end. Periodically I have caught bits and pieces of the movie again on cable and always pause to watch a scene or two. I bought it in a bargain bin a few months back and joyfully added it to my collection. Last night Amy and I decided to watch it.

Watching it on DVD I realize this was the first time I have ever actually seen the very beginning of the movie. As a child, I caught the picture 10-20 into it, and all subsequent viewings have all been by catching it part way through on television. I am afraid the movie as a whole doesn’t hold up all that well to my childhood memory. Oh, it’s a big, grand adventure, but like the ship of the movie, it starts to sink under its own enormousness.

It has a basic 70’s disaster movie plot. The big ocean cruise liner is hit by an enormous wave and is turned upside down, killing nearly everyone. A few survivors are followed as they make their way up (down?) the ship and try to escape. It is way over the top and it almost seems as if the director Ronald Neame told his actors to ham it up in every scene. Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine do their best howling at each other in every other scene.

The script follows very basic rules. It rolls like something you would see in a basic screenwriter’s class. You start with an establishing shot, follow it with a basic introduction of your main characters while making sure their essential character motivation is directly handed to the audience in their first few minutes of screen time. Then you set your plot into action. Its disaster is even set into action by a classic evil corporate leader. Leslie Nielson plays the good captain who is hounded by a goon sent from the ship’s corporate owner to ensure it ports for its final time on the right date. The corporate goon orders Nielson’s captain to increase speed though Nielson argues this will surely cause the old ship to sink. The corporate goon, of course, wins and sets up the disaster. On a side note, it is unintentionally funny to watch Nielson in a serious role when everyone knows his slew of later, goofier roles in movies such as the Naked Gun and Airplane.

This film acts like it invented implausibly. Gene Hackman’s preacher moves, acts, and orders others around like he’s the ship’s captain though he has no previous knowledge of how the ship’s designed, or conceivably the physics of a cruise liner. Yet his motivation for acting like this was set up earlier. Before the ship sinks we get a sermon from this unorthodox preacher who believes in helping oneself instead of relying on Divine intervention. Likewise, all the other characters follow along in their previously established types, never budging from this set character mold and certainly not evolving in any meaningful way.

All of this is not to say the film isn’t enjoyable. It is not high art after all. It knows full well its purpose is to entertain the audience and nothing more. It does this quite well. Though its plot is strained it moves along at a quick pace and maintains a claustrophobic tension throughout. I have not seen many of the other disaster movies of the era so I cannot place the Poseidon Adventure accordingly amongst their ranks. But as an action/adventure flick you could do worse.

4 thoughts on “Move Review: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

  1. When do you leave for Paris? Please make sure to take as many pictures as possible so we can live vicariously through you and Amy. Have fun and be careful! 🙂

  2. We leave bright and early Thursday morning. Don’t worry, I’ll take lots of pictures. Amy was just browsing on the internet various places to go in Paris. There were lots of gorgeous pictures of the city at Christmastime. I now have to take the computer so I can download pictures to it mid trip and take more. Because the camera only stores 130 or so pictures at a pop.

  3. Ah, yes, the Poseidon Adventure. I saw this at the theater when I was a kid. Irwin Allen and the disaster film were all the rage in the mid-70s: Earthquake and The Towering Inferno (with a big, big cast including Paul Newman and Steve McQueen) are two other disaster “classics” of that period I remember seeing. I agree: these films are not art, but they are still entertaining. Mad Magazine did a funny spoof on The Poseidon Adventure in which the boat is flooded because the young boy flushes the toilet.

    Gene Hackman– even when he is a bit over the top as he is in this film– has long been a favorite actor of mine (I love him in Coppola’s The Conversation and Friedkin’s The French Connection).

    • I’ve actually seen The Poseidon Adventure at least a couple of times since I wrote this review (and I really want to watch it again after reading my review) and it has gotten better with repeat viewings. No, it isn’t a masterpiece but it is a lot of fun.

      I watched The Towering Inferno a few months ago and quite enjoyed it as well.

      Agreed on Hackman, he is a living legend. Both those films you mentioned are favorites.

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