The Poseidon Adventure represents the 1970s disaster movie at its most popular, and at its most typical. To a large extent it follows the template established by Airport but it develops the formula to its fullest extent. Airport made the audience wait a long while for the disaster plot to kick in, while The Poseidon Adventure wastes little time in getting to the main action.
The plot will be familiar to most people. The passenger liner S.S. Poseidon, on its final voyage, runs into a gigantic tidal wave and capsizes. The surviving passengers have to make their way up towards the bottom of the ship to have a chance of being rescued.
To add as much tension as possible director Ronald Neame has the water constantly rising with the survivors just barely managing to keep ahead of it. And of course they encounter a series of deadly obstacles on their way.
In keeping with the Airport formula The Poseidon Adventure spends its first 25 minutes introducing us to the passengers who will comprise the small group of survivors so that they have at least a little depth as characters.
Of course the movie’s main selling points was the spectacle and in that respect it is quite impressive. The capsizing scene is fairly brief but quite stunning and was accomplished by the use of a set that actually tilted. There was clearly some very serious money spent on this movie and in general it was well spent. The sight of passengers hanging from the floor which has now become the ceiling is an extraordinarily effective and terrifying image.
Neame paces the movie pretty effectively. It’s a fairly long movie but it never becomes dull.
As to his desire to make the survivors come across as real people, it has to be said that the movie has mixed success in this department. Some of the key characters, such as Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson) and his wife Belle (Shelley Winters), never really come alive despite the unquestioned acting ability of the players. Those two characters are also treated in an excessively sentimentalised manner which makes them less believable.
Gene Hackman as the Reverend Scott, who assumes the leadership of the survivors, is not entirely successful. On the audio commentary Neame make the point that Hackman felt that the movie was beneath him and unfortunately it shows in his performance. Both Hackman and Ernest Borgnine indulge in some serious scenery-chewing which at times is perhaps taken a little too far.
On the other hand the relationship between tough New York cop Rogo (Borgnine) and his ex-hooker wife Linda (Stella Stevens) is portrayed with surprising sensitivity and subtlety. They never stop quarreling but it’s obvious they’re deeply in love and devoted to one another. They’re both fiery characters and they probably thoroughly enjoy their arguments, and it’s noticeable that the quarrels never become spiteful. The audience is left in no doubt that in spite of appearances they have a successful marriage. Borgnine and Stevens certainly have the right chemistry and Stevens gives a very fine performance.
Equally successful is the movie’s portrayal of the odd relationship between ageing bachelor Martin (Red Buttons) and young songstress Nonnie (Carol Lynley). They’re both lonely and vulnerable and although they have appear to have zero in common they do have one bond - Martin desperately needs somebody to care about, and Nonnie desperately needs someone to care about her. Their emotional bond is never made explicitly romantic, which was a wise choice. It’s more interesting not knowing if there might be a romantic element involved. Red Buttons gives his usual fine performance while Lynley is pretty good as well. Her performance was helped by the fact that she was apparently genuinely terrified by some of the stunts she had to do.
Pamela Sue Martin also impresses as Susan, a teenager who develops a fairly major crush on Reverend Scott. She was at this time a very inexperienced actress indeed but she handles her rôle with considerable subtlety.
On his audio commentary director Ronald Neame points out that the movie was aimed very specifically at a young audience. It was a strategy that succeeded magnificently at the box office despite the vituperative reviews by many critics.
As with all 70s disaster movies the enduing appeal of this movie has much to do with its considerable camp value, although it is genuinely exciting and visually impressive (and the upside down sets work very well). The premise might be ludicrously far-fetched but that’s no disadvantage for a disaster movie.
The Australian Blu-Ray release looks marvellous. The commentary track is the only extra.
The Poseidon Adventure is silly fun and if you like silly fun you’ll almost certainly like it. Recommended.