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 cineplex. We got our first Betamax when I was maybe 12 or so 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 for 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 minutes 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 (or rather down) the ship to it’s hull, 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 just howl at each other for much of the film’s runtime.
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 and 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 design, 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 among their ranks. But as an action/adventure flick, you could do worse.