Sometimes I have an itch that can only be scratched by a splashy ensemble disaster movie. The Poseidon Adventure focuses on delivering purely on that front–in terms of cinema, it’s far more Independence Day than A Night to Remember. It’s a very American movie. Never mind accepting defeat with dignity, struggle with it tooth-and-nail and throw dignity overboard if it’s getting in your way. Leave your dead behind you and move on. Don’t follow the chain-of-command, follow the charismatic man who yells in a way that suggests he has the courage of his convictions. God wants you to live.
That last is basically Reverend Scott’s (Gene Hackman) thesis. A sermon of his that we see early on in the film is basically about how God loves winners and triers–as a fellow pastor points out to him, Scott speaks only to the strong. When the cruise ship Scott’s on is wrecked by a wave, flipping over completely, and Scott must lead a small party of can-do survivors on a long and tangled quest to the thinnest part of the hull, it’s tempting to see the whole story as proving his point. Those who choose to take their chances waiting in the flipped dining room don’t get to die with dignity, after all; instead, they die in a panic, trying to scale the conveniently-sized and surprisingly-sturdy Christmas tree that could bring them up to Hackman and his group. While the characters grieve for those they lose, their grief is treated almost as a hindrance, something that has to be tossed aside so they can keep moving forward, because obviously the most important thing is to live.
All of that can grate a little sometimes, coming across not as optimism but as a heartless denial of unavoidable tragedy. But the film does try to mediate that uncomfortable subtext, providing multiple characters with the chance to heroically support each other, sometimes even to the point of sacrificing themselves. And those people are varied–sometimes you get your valued assistance from a know-it-all kid, sometimes from a lowly crewman, sometimes from a “fat” grandmother. People try to be kind to each other. So it’s very American, but not, say, very post-2016 American, at least.
Plus, ideology aside, the film has some strong action sequences. Shelley Winters’s heroic underwater swim through a completely flooded corridor is my personal highlight, but there’s also Gene Hackman adjusting a valve in mid-air while yelling at the Almighty and a lot of scenes of people climbing in perilous conditions. For a disaster movie, it’s refreshingly low on random romantic subplots, giving us some possibilities but not pushing any of them too hard, and providing two married couples and two brother-sister combos for variety. The best pulp disaster movies at least like people, which is key–you have to like seeing how they respond to extreme circumstances, and you have to want them to live enough for there to be tension. The Poseidon Adventure likes its people very much without flattening them out too much, and it’s nice to see a cast of characters allowed to be bitchy and temperamental and scared and bratty and in shock without these character faults immediately leading to their deaths.
Though, as a friend of mine put it, there’s still a shortage of scenes taking advantage of the upside-down weirdness of the ship. In this kind of movie, that’s probably more of a problem than anything about themes.