On its final voyage across the ocean before it is decommissioned, the luxury liner Poseidon is struck by a tsunami that capsizes the vessel. With much of the crew and passengers dead, a small group of survivors led by firebrand preacher Scott (Gene Hackman) attempt to climb up through the ship to safety.
Let’s talk about the dilemma of reviewing non-contemporary films. There is always an underlying struggle when coming to a famous movie decades after it was released: social attitudes change and evolve for one thing, and something that may have seemed uncontroversial then might be considered offensive now. It is also very easy to learn the stereotypes and cliches of a genre before seeing the film that included them in the first place: basically anybody watching Casablanca in the past half-century or so is going to distracted from knowing dozens of lines of dialogue in advance.
It creates a dilemma because, if you’re a critic or reviewer, you need to decide how to read the old movie and how to address the consequences of age. I recently reviewed the 1955 western The Indian Fighter, which has a very progressive and sympathetic treatment of Native Americans but then casts all of the Sioux characters with white actors. For a 21st century viewer it can be taken either way: it is easy to claim historical context to forgive all manner of faults, but such context works both ways. The movie may be from 1955 but the audience is in 2023. I am sure many modern viewers will blanche at the brownface performances and understandably recoil from many old westerns, and honestly who can blame them?
When it comes to The Poseidon Adventure, the problem is not so much social attitudes as genre conventions. When released in 1972, it was likely pretty sensational stuff: a cross-section of society is travelling on an ocean liner and, when disaster strikes, must band together and cooperate to find a way to survive. The ensemble is packed with impressive actors, and their characters are readily developed during the film’s first act in broad, readily identifiable strokes. When the tsunami strikes, it is an excuse for eye-popping visual spectacle and shocking mass carnage. When the survivors make their attempt to escape it is through a series of commando-course-style challenges and ordeals, all with a rising body count. While Poseidon was preceded by 1970’s Airport, which shared a producer in Irwin Allen, it really did set up a formula for disaster films that continues today.
So what is there in The Poseidon Adventure for the viewer of 2023, who may have already seen The Towering Inferno (1974), or Earthquake (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), Speed (1994), Daylight (1996), Dante’s Peak, Titanic (both 1997), Deep Impact (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and Deepwater Horizon (2016). What is there for the viewer that – heaven help them – first encountered the stereotypes in Airplane/Flying High (1980)? After all, both films do feature a deadpan Leslie Nielsen.
There are quite a few things, it turns out. More than anything there is charm. There is a pleasing physicality to the picture, which relies on upside-down sets and models to create a surprisingly convincing upside-down Poseidon. There is a wonderful old-fashioned kind of acting from veterans like Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine that contrasts against the more nuanced performance of star Gene Hackman. Most of all there is a sense of integrity. The film has an earnest quality that really allows a modern viewer to overlook the predictable narrative and seemingly stock characters. For viewers really able to take films in their historical context this is a properly great action-thriller. For everybody else there is honest comedic appeal, since the film had exerted so great an influence over the ensuing decades that nothing occurs that is a surprise. Its predictability makes it funny. I think it is okay to view a movie in this manner too: time may rob it of its dramatic impact, but it has gained a new capacity to entertain (as any fan of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 will tell you).
Something that has aged wonderfully in the film is its strong treatment of masculinity, and a fairly aggressive middle finger to organised religion. There is a contrast between how the film’s male leads react to their predicament: Hackman’s Reverend Scott is a hard, driven man: he believes God helps those who help themselves, and takes on an immediate leadership role as a result. By contrast Borgnine’s Mike Rogo – a police officer – is packed with a competitive streak and misplaced rage. He is propelled to constantly prove his ‘maleness’, and challenges and fights with Scott at every opportunity. As the quiet and slightly effete bachelor James Martin, Red Buttons feels rather coded as gay – with all of the cultural assumptions of the time that brings – and yet as the film develops he proves as physical and muscular in helping others survive as Scott does. At no point does he feel compelled to change personality or bearing. There is something small but resonant in that.
The religious aspects also fascinate. The film features two priests. One valiantly tries to lead the survivors to safety. The other waits with those unwilling to try and ministers to them. That one dies, quite rapidly, when the upturned ship begins to sink. As for Scott, his religion seems to end by the film’s climax, where he rails furiously against God for the senseless loss of life. The film’s ultimate message seems to be that faith is worthless unless it is paired with deeds. For a popcorn disaster flick, that seems quite deep.
In the end, The Poseidon Adventure proves a great example of the difference between criticism and review. When reviewed, for the benefit of 21st century moviegoers, this is a rather silly but sweet disaster flick with a lot of camp appeal. When critiqued, to better understand cinema, this really is a mold-breaking master work. It boasts action, tragedy, dramatic themes, and social commentary. It had a palpable influence on popular cinema, in particular during the 1990s. It is a masterpiece of its day for sure, but it is also a historical relic. Which reading are you going to pick?