Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year

1972's The Poseidon Adventure has recently started to show up at various New Year's Eve midnight screenings as campy, audience participation snark. And deservedly so - after all, its cinema at its most over-the-top. But I love this movie and would comfortably place it on my favorite 50 films of all time list.

Back in 1998, I reviewed it for my defunct website, Sky-High Picture Show, and, for New Year's Eve kicks, I thought I'd rerun the review as originally written (warts and all) here.


The Poseidon Adventure is one of those movies that quantifies the term 'epic proportions' and truly put the disaster film on the map back in 1972. Sure there was the 1970s airflight disaster flick Airport but The Poseidon Adventure, which is cut from the same formula, captured the hearts and minds of cinematic adventure freaks everywhere.

Outside the obvious air/sea thing, there is a major difference between Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. Where Airport tried to soap up its backstory with romance (Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset's illicit affair), The Poseidon Adventure took on a religious backdrop and attempted to remake the gospel according to St. Matthew into the gospel according to Gene Hackman's radical preacher, Reverend Frank Scott.

So underneath the capsized Poseidon - hell upsidedown - we have an array of characters trapped, not only inside the sinking ship, but by their own personality quirks revolving around false pride, sin, etc. Their dilemma, therefore, is a film long debate on doing the smart, brave thing - i.e. saving their asses from certain death by water. Rising, in fact, from hell to a higher level of existence achieved through tenacity, brevity, and faith. Thus, the film's tagline - "Who will survive-in the greatest escape adventure ever!" - gives the viewer a pretty good idea of the movie's surface meaning.

The only way for the survivors to make it is by following - through physical trial and ethereal faith - the dynamic, cursing Scott who, incidentally, has a bevy of young women at his side during the fateful New Year's Eve party when the ship flips. This, of course, signifies his sexual magnetism and alludes to the possibilities of his giving into the temptations of the flesh - which we never see.

The question, therefore, begs - why would we want to follow this man, a man who must choose who's worthy of following him to a better place, one who conveys an obvious anti-religious attitude via cursing and sex? Scott, though heroic, is probably hiding something under his veil of righteousness through radicalism and an open resistance toward prayer. He may even be a liar and agnostic or, possibly, atheist. Yet, he believes he's the chosen one and because of this self-belief, others tend to follow.

The survivors, who decide to follow Scott, run the spectrum of humanity. There's a rogue cop (Ernest Borgnine) married to an ex-hooker (Stella Stevens), a jewish couple (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters - who ironically choose to follow a Christ figure), two kids (Eric Shea and Pamela Sue Martin), a fitness wimp (Red Buttons) and a dim singer (Carol Lyndley). All of whom have fallen away from God somehow or are too naive to understand.

James Martin (Buttons), however, is the one who suggests that they climb up to the bottom of the boat and Scott, who's a man of action, agrees immediately. They rely on information divulged by 10 year old Robin Shelby (Shea), who's smarter and more knowledgeable about the mechanics of the ship than anyone else. He informs them that aft, the Poseidon's hull is only one inch thick.

"Do you know how thick one inch of steel is, kid?" asks cop Mike Rogo (Borgnine).

Scott jumps in with, "Its one inch thinner than two inches" as if that provides all the answers - which, of course, it does for it leads to hope that leads to purpose.

Even though Hackman's portrayal of Scott reaches the edge of overacting - it works. There's no doubt that Hackman enjoyed this role and played it with gusto. Never subtle, Reverend Scott looks '70's chic with turtle neck sweater, flared pants and cool mutton chop sideburns - a tragically hip reverend, to be sure. He's passionate, youthful and strong - its not a chore for him to be cool and its no wonder the women on the ship are attracted to him.

Director Ronald Neame didn't take the sexual aspect of Reverend Scott too far although there are allusions. The main attraction toward Scott is via teenager Susan Shelby (Martin) who eyes Scott with an unabated lust. She's also the truest believer in Scott and easily follows him no matter the consequences.

The denoument at the end of the film, the place where faith and action converge, is no subtle feat as steam blocks the escape route of the remaining flock. High up heavenward catwalks, danger and death are inevetible. The only way through is Scott, who is willing to be sacrificed to appease God who has been nothing but a foil for the Reverend.

Jumping to the red wheel that will stop the spewing steam, Scott hangs on, slowly turning the wheel while chastising God and his willingness to kill innocent people.

"What do you want from us?" Scott screams, clinging to the wheel - his cross - turning it hand over bloody hand. "We made it this far with no help from you!"

All of it, of course, is a test for Scott - he drops to the depths knowing his sheep will get through.

The main aspect of The Poseidon Adventure - the one thing that brings it a notch above most other disaster flicks from the early 1970's, is its character subtext and quasi-relegiosity. Plus, all the main special effects (flipping the boat via a 90 foot tidal wave) are shown about a half hour into the film and not saved for an earth shattering finale.

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