Before I get going, I guess I should warn that there could be spoilers.
Like I've said before, The Poseidon Adventure was the very first disaster style movie I ever saw, and it is still probably my favorite. It definitely is the one I've seen the most often. So, when I decided that I wanted to write something about disaster movies, I knew it would be the first one I would revisit.
So, if you've never seen this movie...where have you been? The Poseidon is a luxury cruise ship, sailing to Athens, Greece on New Year's Eve. Just after midnight, a rogue wave swells up, causing the boat to flip upside down. The main thrust of the movie is that a small group of people decide to try and find their way out of the upside down boat, unlike the majority of people who decide to sit in the main ballroom and wait for help. This movie is actually based on a book, but obviously many parallels to the story of The Titanic can be made.
The cast of characters:
The main characters we meet pre-disaster are really the only people we meet the entire movie. You have the rather stereotypical older couple (The Rosens), the newlywed couple (The Rogos: one's a former cop, the other is a former hooker...Ernest Borgnine plays one of the two roles...I'll let you mull over which one) , the teenage kids (the older daughter and the know-it-all kid) traveling to reunite with their parents, the singer in the band (Nonnie), and the very polite guy who seems content with being alone in life (Mr. Martin). We do meet the Captain of the ship, and a couple other folks, but as we learn...they are mostly just window dressing to help get that pesky plot started. In fact, if the movie started after the boat flipped, I'm not sure you'd lose a whole lot.
Probably the most interesting character is Reverend Scott, played by Gene Hackman. He's kind of a new style Reverend, who definitely believes in God, but also believes that you have to stand up and make your own breaks in life. You also see him chatting up the ladies quite a bit, drinking, and swearing. Not quite your usual Sunday School fare. He self-appoints himself the leader of the group, and is honestly quite a bossy fellow.
The setup to disaster:
On the bridge of the ship, we meet The Captain, and you learn very quickly that he is not in charge of this ship. You learn that the Poseidon is an older ship, and that a Mr. Linarcos is really pulling the strings here. He works for a company that is looking to scrap the Poseidon, and is pushing the Captain beyond what he feels is safe so they can get the ship to port and into the scrapyard. The Captain wants to add ballast, as the waters are rough, and the boat is unstable (nearly flipping one other time), but Mr. Linarcos knows that would slow them down, and orders them full speed ahead. So clearly, the first disaster is that basic human greed is putting hundreds of people's life at risk.
An extremely large rogue wave comes and flips the unstable boat upside down. This is obviously the centerpiece scene in the movie. It starts about 27 minutes in, and lasts a good 3 and a half minutes. There aren't many special effects, beyond some large model work for a couple exterior shots. Most of the scene takes place in the large ballroom, as everyone is there celebrating the New Year. Most of the scene involves people leaning over tables, a couple of (kind of cheesy looking) shots of people "falling" past the camera, and then people falling onto the floor and/or painful sharp things. And there is a lot of screaming. The best shot is of one poor guy who falls into the ornate glass ceiling of the room. Shot from above it is a very impressive, and memorable, visual.
The struggle to survive:
Once things calm down a bit, this small group decides that the best way to try and survive is to climb towards the bottom of the boat, specifically into the engine room where the know it all kid says the steel hull is thinner. The meat of the rest of the movie is watching people crawl, climb, and swim their way through a labyrinth of gangways, ductworks, and other mechanical areas of the ship. They meet up with steep ramps, fire, explosions, ladders, some other people who eventually decided to leave the ballroom (but who choose a different path for an attempt at survival), tons and tons up tossed around tables, chairs, benches and other paraphernalia...and oh yeah rising water. LOTS of rising water.
One of the things I like most about this movie is that it just does not mess around. At the very outset of the movie, a text screen comes up telling you that the boat has an accident, only a handful of people survived and here's their story. What I find most interesting is that this style is maintained throughout the entire movie. The only characters you ever learn names of are integral to the story. In the opening credits for example: Leslie Nielsen is credited as "The Captain". Just The Captain, not Captain Smith or Jones, just The Captain...that has to send up a red flag that he's not going to be around long.
Probably more disturbingly, when one of the members of the group meets their end it is almost always within minutes of giving the group a specific type of help that only they could provide. Truly, they are sucked dry and then cast aside. The two main examples of this are Akers (note, you only learn one name), the purser that tells them how to get to the Broadway deck, and then dies while climbing up to that deck just a few minutes later. And Mrs. Rosen, who constantly brags about her swimming medals, and then has a heart attack immediately after saving Reverend Scott when he gets trapped swimming. I guess truly, no good deed goes unpunished.
The last random thought I wanted to share is that I love the attention to detail in this movie. And I'm speaking about one specific scene. The scene where the group decides to split up a bit, and look for supplies. A couple of them walk into the barber shop, and you see a disorienting scene with all the chairs bolted to the ceiling. And then one of the kids walks into the restroom, to be met by a wall of upside down toilets. Now, these might be "well, duh" scenes you'd expect, but I felt they were very striking.
I absolutely love this movie, and consider it the best disaster movie I have seen (now, to be fair I haven't seen a ton of them, so I could find ones I like more). If I were to give it a letter grade, it'd be a solid A. Even if the boat flips just after midnight, and it's broad daylight when they're rescued...I guess the amount of time that passed was superfluous.
Next time, we're going to stay under water. As I'm going to review Poseidon, the 2006 big screen remake of The Poseidon Adventure directed by Wolfgang Petersen of Das Boot and The Perfect Storm fame. So, the guy knows a little bit about making movies about water, but will his remake be all wet? Yes, this entire review exists so I could use that joke. The next review is probably going to be more of a compare / contrast look at the movies next to each other since the story is essentially the same.