The Poseidon Adventure is still my favourite disaster movie of all time – and possibly my favourite movie of all time too. For me, Irwin Allen and his crew cemented a genre that had not been given much love and firmly kick-started off one of the biggest eras of disaster movie heaven. Whilst The Towering Inferno is just as spectacular, I adore the characters in The Poseidon Adventure just that little bit more which is why it edges its way to the very top of the disaster movie crop.
The disasters faced
Capsizing, drowning, flooding, angry passengers, a lack of bra’s, explosions, religious nutcases and a lack of belief along the way in either the end goal or themselves.
The Poseidon Adventure wastes no time by opening the film with a title card explaining that only a handful of people will survive the disaster. We meet a Captain whose being cornered into running a dangerously light ship in order to make the elderly ship dock on time and on budget. Reverend Scott is travelling on the ship being sent away to Africa for being too rebellious in his take on Christianity and faith. He believes that in order to be strong you need to take action rather than be a bystander waiting for help. This is the driving force for the entire movie. Fast forward to New Year’s Eve and everyone is celebrating in the grand dining room when an earthquake sends a massive tidal wave towards the ship, capsizing it. It will be Reverend Scott who takes plans and thoughts and puts them into action.
Once the ship is overturned, the floor is now the ceiling and vice versa. The survivors struggle to get their bearings when one of the ship’s waiters named Acres is found alone in what was a corridor to the kitchen. It’s now several floors above them. Mr Logical passenger James Martin, who is a human machine suggests that maybe instead of bringing Acres down, they should instead be going up to him. The fact being that the ship would surely be sinking and so if they can get up to the bottom of the ship, they’ll be there for any rescue. The ship’s purser vehemently disagrees and orders the survivors to stay. As Scott leads people to climb the Christmas Tree to get to Acres, its left for him and Mr Martin to coax any others to come with them.
Along for the ride are kids Susan and Robin. Susan quite fancies the Rev whereas Robin has been geeking out about the ship itself and has some knowledge about its works. Mike and Linda Rogo are the loud but loveable policeman and ex call girl couple. They will chew up the scenery with most of their conversations but bring so much energy to the group. Mike, having been a cop for so long is rule-bound and so whilst he understands the logic, he will want to follow the largest crowd wherever possible. Older couple Belle and Manny Rosen will also come along. For them, it is about getting out to meet their grandson whom they’ve yet to meet. Belle is a heavy lady and is often needing help. Mostly others won’t mind though as she so genuinely full of happiness and joy for others, whilst simultaneously driving her doting husband round the bend, she’ll be the granny you’ve always wanted. Last to join will be Nonnie, singer of the ship’s band. Left utterly in pieces with her drummer brothers death, she will be entirely in shock and reliant on Mr Martin for support.
The band of ten leave the rest of the survivors behind and climb the tree. No sooner are they up the tree does the dining room begin to buckle under the pressure of the water and flood causing the deaths of everyone left behind. The ten are now on their own and need to work together to keep everyone alive, intact and ahead of the water that is chasing them down at every turn. Who will survive?
Why it is worth watching
The tight script, likeable characters and the excellent casting really propel the film forward. There’s a little bit of sadness, a little comedy, characters to cheer for, characters to loathe albeit in a loveable pantomime way and the film remembers that its humans above pyrotechnics at all times. There are classic lines such as “just panties what else do I need?” and there’s an awfully annoyingly catchy theme song. The musical score by John Williams is strong too.
I also quite enjoy the whole faith side of the film too. The message of finding your inner strength instead of looking to someone else to solve your problems has always sat well with me. It also pits Mike Rogo and Rev Scott against each other as a man of science vs a man of faith and to be honest, you could argue that both are winners and losers throughout the film. At times Scott’s blind faith keeps them alive, but that is because he working from Robin and Acres’ information. Rogo makes more sense at times, he just does it at 135% volume! Somewhat the man in the middle of the two is James Martin. He acts as Scott Jr but also carries the logic of Rogo and often is the overlooked supporter of them all. He may not have the muscles, but he has the brain and calm which is exactly what Nonnie needs to believe in someone or something in order to keep going through grief. Everyone has their own reasons to get out alive and it is their faith to that which will get them to carry on.
A word on the special edition 2 disc DVD. It has an excellent collection of special features. Two commentaries are included. One is a part-time commentary with director Ronald Neame with some fun stories, the other is a full length one of Stella Stevens, Pamela Sue Martin and Carol Lynley as they giggle and laugh their way through it. Carol and in particular Stella’s knowledge and titbits are really enjoyable to listen to. There’s also an extra disc with some of the cast looking back, looking at the scriptwriting, how they did some of the effects and a plethora of photos. The book is also well worth reading for additional characters, changes in some characters’ fate and also a deeper exploration of Scott’s blind faith and whether or not he was actually a bit mental!
The use of practical effects of CGI means that the film still holds up really well today. The capsizing scene is still very impressive – as are some of the acrobatics of the stunt crew involved! The fire, water and physical activities are all real and so you get to see the cast reacting to things, bang their heads, get soaked and worried at what is going on around them. The makeup effects are great too, basically hosing them down for every scene!
Each character is memorable and they all play off each other so well. My personal favourite changes over the years but it’s currently Stella Steven’s Linda Rogo. Utterly hilarious from start to finish, the tart with a heart that you want to root for. From the original book, Linda Rogo is absolutely reprehensible – the rest of the characters almost want her gone from the group! Here though, Stella balances the harshness of the street with a loveable can-do attitude perfectly. There are so many great characters. I always root for Nonnie and Martin as their friendship begins, Manny to roll his eyes at Belle, Mike to be boisterous at everyone and then crumble under his wife, Susan to girl crush over Scott… The Poseidon Adventure is a great study in characters that can be easily established in such a short period of time.
‘I’m going next! So if old fat ass gets stuck in there, I won’t get stuck behind her!’
Three memorable moments
- The capsizing for its technical marvel and stunt crew
- Belle Rosen swimming to save Rev Scott. ‘In the water, I’m a very skinny lady’
- The deadly catwalk segment
The obligatory weird moment
Spoiler alert. Whilst the film itself isn’t particularly weird, there is a great bit of juicy acting. Just as Shelley Winters died, Gene Hackman cries out “Not this woman” and then promptly dribbles all over her as he cries! Insult to injury – the poor woman!
The drinking game
Have a drink for every time Gene or Ernest shout a bit. You’ll be slaughtered by 45 minutes in. I really like the dramatic acting but I can see why some people may have wanted them to turn it down a notch. All the masculinity falls flat when they have a girly wrestling grab fight anyway!
Iconic, character-driven, action-packed adventure. It’s an absolute joyous ride from start to finish. If anyone wants to have a 101 on disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure is absolutely the place to start. Still a classic after all these years, in my mind it is unlikely to be beaten.
Rating: 5 / 5 My personal favourites
If you liked The Poseidon Adventure then you may like…
- The Towering Inferno – what Allen, Silliphant and Neame went onto next
- Poseidon – The 2006 remake which is popular to bash but very entertaining
- Beyond the Poseidon Adventure – Gold didn’t strike twice in this poorer sequel
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(This review was updated on 11/09/19 to match the new film review standards on ILDM.)