Before Wolfgang Petersen's $160 million remake hits the screens on Friday, we decided to revisit the original film.
When you rent a disaster movie made more than 30 years ago, there are certain things you expect. The dialogues are going to be clichéd clunkers, the special effects won't seem incredible, and popcorn from that era will, in all probability, seem more dated than what you'll see in theatres now. Fair points all, and 1972 classic The Poseidon Adventure confirmed them.
But this is also a surprisingly solid film. Ronald Neame's adaptation of Paul Gallico's novel emerges a sturdy movie, far more reliant on its actors than its effects. And what an Oscar-laden cast it is: Gene Hackman, fresh from The French Connection a year before, playing a gutsy priest with a foul mouth; Ernest Borgnine as a gritty cop, smitten by his once-sleazy wife (Playboy priestess Stella Stevens) but tough-as-nails to the world outside; Shelley Winters, putting on 35 pounds to play the maternal role; Roddy McDowall as a clueless and injured ship's hand; Carol Lynley as the lost singer; and Red Buttons (Gene Wilder couldn't find dates) as the loner who finds love.
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The wave couldn't be worse timed. The passengers of the Poseidon are in the ballroom, and New Year wishes are still echoing around as they fill their glasses and kiss their partners. All this is drowned out by the alarm bell, and suddenly we're in the middle of silent panic. The passengers soon realise they are trapped, and have two options: listen to the portly Purser and stay where they are, waiting for help, or listen to the defiant Reverend Scott (Hackman) and head down, no up, into the hull to escape the sinking ship. Hackman tries to rally the troops with his god-loves-the-strong speech, and wins over the prominent actors from the assemblage.
The dialogues, god bless the 70s, are trite and corny, but the actors startlingly make them work. There is a great sincerity to the film, as if it weren't made to sensationalise an effect understandably near impossible to achieve with a disaster movie. The ship lies in water, and the action takes place in the interiors, which make the rudimentary special effects much less dated. Equipped with a composer like John Williams, Neame manages to not go overboard (*groan*) and shows amazing restraint in letting the characters and ambient sound do the talking something modern filmmakers obsessed with a highfaluting background score need to remember.
Like Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events, the pitfalls are piled up constantly against our hesitant heroes, every move ahead feeling like a misstep. With nothing to go on by except Hackman's inexplicable and stubborn instincts, they make their way towards survival, helplessly watching others heading in different directions. They could be fatally doomed, or the only ones to make it. We know what's going to happen, but the script is strong and springs frequent surprises, catching us frequently off-guard.
The film also manages to keep a tight pace, running for almost two hours but never seeming too long. The script isn't great and the one-liners aren't brilliant but, for a film of its genre, the drama stays high and the characters are nuanced enough to be made somewhat real, which is very impressive. Yes, there are allowances we all make when watching a 34-year old disaster film, but post-concessions, this comes across as a fine product indeed.
The DVD has very basic features filmographies of the cast and a very amusing theatrical trailer, complete with rampant vocal exclamation marks and much cheesiness which is why I'd suggest you rent it now and wait a couple of months for the Special Edition, with a whole lot of goodies thrown in.
Buy The Poseidon Adventure VCD!