Monday, February 14, 2011

Movies of Mass Destruction, Part 2: The Poseidon Adventure

Once again, to celebrate the upcoming publication of my young adult disaster novel, Shaken, it's time to take a look back at another classic movie that could only have come from the 1970s.

Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure was the real start of the 70's disaster movie trend, laying down the blueprint which would be followed by countless subsequent films: a very brief set-up, then the big crisis, followed by various Hollywood stars forced to deal with their dilemma, half of whom will die. While 1970's Airport had some elements of the disaster movie formula, the main focus was on the various characters and subplots. Not so with The Poseidon Adventure; the characters in this one exist either to provide exposition or be killed. The real stars of the movie are the special effects team and set designers; the film looks great, and while the special effects may seem a bit quaint in the wake of Titanic, they are still pretty impressive.

The story is a simple one: On her final voyage, the ocean liner, S.S. Poseidon, is hit by a massive tidal wave, which capsizes the ship. Most of the passengers are in the ballroom celebrating the new year, and when the wave hits, they are tossed about like rag dolls, falling through glass, getting squashed by tables, pianos, dinner carts, etc. The few survivors, led by Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), must now make their way through the capsized ship to reach the hull, and hope for a rescue before it sinks for good. Coming along for the ride are Red Buttons, Carol Lynley, Shelley Winters, Roddy McDowell, Stella Stevens and Ernest Borgnine, among others.

The actors do a pretty decent job with the silly script, which features some groan inducing dialogue - if you can get through the laughably bad first thirty minutes, The Poseidon Adventure offers a great time, with such destructive thrills as underwater explosions, passengers getting crushed or pummeled by torrents of water, Shelley Winter’s dress hiking up to reveal her massive underpants (after which time you’ll want to gouge your eyes out).

The movie also introduces several elements to the disaster movie formula that would become standard in many later films: the character who exists solely to contradict every idea the hero has; a sappy song interlude (in hopes of garnering an easy Oscar nod, which this one did); the “company man” who’s obsession with the bottom-dollar threatens everyone; dozens of extras whose collectively stupid behavior in the face of danger kills them all; the couple who fall in love (or rekindle their love) only so one of them can die; a totally obnoxious (or sickeningly cute) kid whom you wish would die but almost never does.

Warner Brothers remade this movie a few years back. While the special effects are better, it doesn‘t have the goofy charm of the original.