On New Year's Eve the top-heavy cruise ship the S.S. Poseidon is sailing through a storm, not carrying enough ballast to be entirely secure, and all thanks to the cost cutting of the owners, who the Captain (Leslie Nielsen) have warned about the situation. Therefore when his caution falls on deaf ears, the clock strikes the hour at midnight, just as the passengers are celebrating, and the nightmare strikes - a huge tidal wave hits the ship, turning it upside down. Who will survive?
Next to The Towering Inferno, this is probably the best film produced by Irwin Allen, the Master of Disaster in the 1970's as he graduated from kitschy science fiction on television of the previous decade. Scripted by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes, it was based on the hit novel by Paul Gallico and while there were quite a few disaster movies made in this period which are largely considered campy entertainment as the genre became overfamiliar and variations were increasingly sought, they can still be surprisingly diverting, The Poseidon Adventure particularly so.
The all star cast play a variety of characters in the soap opera manner, headed by Gene Hackman at his most bullishly macho as a radical preacher much given to self motivation sermons. Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson are an older Jewish couple on the way to Israel to see their grandchild, Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea are teenage sister and irritating kid brother and, best of all, roaring Ernest Borgnine is a cop who constantly bickers with his ex-prostitute wife Stella Stevens - we're supposed to sympathise with his potential embarrassment, though she seems less bothered about her former profession. Though the less said about time-wasting singer Carol Lynley the better.
The actors often approach self parody with their broad performances, and you can play the "who's going to die next?" game if you haven't seen it before: you can say that of almost everything in this style. But despite the film's lack of subtlety which not so much verges on the hokey but plunges straight into it feet first, there is something inspirational in their struggles, and even if the calamities bring more smiles to the face than tears to the eye, it manages to be quite touching on occasion thanks to a certain directness in its appeals to the heartstrings.
Although they had a major comeback in the nineties through to the twenty-first century, disaster movies went out of fashion in the meantime, perhaps because you now could turn on the TV news and see the real thing every hour and they didn't feel quite so escapist any more, especially in the eighties, although perversely that might be why they regained their popularity. Hackman rails against his God at the end of The Poseidon Adventure, and it's true to say that the deity the characters have to deal with is an Old Testament one who demands sacrifices, which may make the drama more contemporary than many of its imitators given how the cruelties of religion were raised in profile significantly decades later.
By the end of the 1970's, Airplane! had come along and laughed films like this off the screen, although stuff like the laughable for the wrong reasons Airport 79: The Concorde, When Time Ran Out and even Beyond the Poseidon Adventure had pretty much killed the genre by themselves. But there's nothing wrong with star-studded melodrama and over-the-top tragedy if its done right, as it is here, and this was top of the line entertainment as far as the early seventies went, despite some of the cast being more famous now than a lot of the others - Roddy McDowall (with an odd Scottish accent) who you would have thought was one of the bigger celebrities doesn't, er, get quite as much to do as you would expect, for example. Music by John Williams. Listen for great lines like "Who do you think you are, God Himself?!" and "I need a monkey".