For a movie that’s almost impossible to excuse on artistic grounds and one whose uneven entertainment value ebbs and flows precariously, I’ve introduced The Poseidon Adventure, two hours of Hollywood has-beens and never-would-bes trying to climb up to the bottom of an overturned luxury liner, to more friends than almost any other movie I can think of, and with the tenacity and introspection of a pitbull in love. So while the new remake barely inspires me to start a whisper campaign in a bull-dyke bar, I’d still give the hypothetical neophyte a double take and exclaim, “You’ve never seen The Poseidon Adventure?” I’d hump the film’s leg in mixed company if the mood struck.
Producer Irwin Allen’s first of a neverending cycle of disaster epics (which did not end with the mega hit The Towering Inferno but the anti-hits Fire!, Flood!, and When Time Ran Out) remains the most beloved of the entire maligned genre: a guilty pleasure to end all guilty pleasures. Which is precisely what it’s not. What the glittering, star-driving survivalism of Poseidon Adventure actually presents is a nightmarishly schematic fantasia of guiltless discomfort. In one sense you have the film’s roll-call of generally unimpressive but extremely specific examples of humanity who get put through their paces to give its audience the vicarious thrill of surviving the worst (i.e. “If that dumb-blond hooker can climb that boiler ladder in her six-inch platforms, I sure could”), which is the primary reason I suspect the remake from Wolfgang Peterson, who never met an engorged pectoral muscle he didn’t send his DP in to fondle in loving close-up, will fail miserably, unless I missed my guess and all audiences really want nowadays is to envision themselves the pick of the crop in their neighborhood Y’s weightrooms.
But in a more meta sense, you also have the spectacle of the classic model of Hollywood filmmaking—represented symbolically by the S.S. Poseidon herself, a faded luxury ship being “rushed to the junkyard on her last voyage,” as Captain Leslie Nielson barks to the slimy bean-counter breathing down his neck—flipping topsy-turvy from the surge of an underwater youthquake. Which is undoubtedly why, when Poseidon Adventure was originally released, it’s promotional materials wore the crew’s collective 15 past Oscar wins like a badge of knowingly dubious honor. In the George C. Scott era, pointing out that garish stockpile of trophies against the film clips featuring their sweaty, disheveled limbs probably came off sort of pugnacious, almost punk. Add Gene Hackman’s cool credibility as a renegade preacher who calls prayer “garbage” and pragmatically tells Stella Stevens that she can’t climb through the ship in that melon-hugging gown, panties or no panties, and it’s clear that the real fight for survival in Poseidon Adventure is Old Hollywood’s own.
That’s the essence of the film’s guiltlessness and why it was not only a slam-dunk hit but also probably had at least some spiritual hand in sparking the decade’s infatuation with “The Movies” in the That’s Entertainment sense. Not to put too unfair a point on it, but the fact that we really really did care about whether or not Shelly Winters’s fat Jewish ass could get through the spokes of that fake Christmas tree while countless souls were continuing to perish in Vietnam reveals the true decadence of Poseidon Adventure‘s nostalgic appeal.
Previously released in a non-anamorphic transfer pretty much carted over from Fox's widescreen VHS release (which, I'm not ashamed to admit, were key in getting me on the aspect ratio bandwagon back in the late '90s), this special edition looks remarkable. The print looks flawless. My biggest caveat here and with the concurrent release of The Towering Inferno, which otherwise looks even better, is that I couldn't help but note that some of the most garish, bold '70s hues in the sets and polyester costumes appeared to be toned down ever so slightly. I seem to remember a lot more mustard yellow in that ballroom. The sound mix is stereo, and it too sounds leagues (huh, huh) better than the previous mono mix. "The Morning After" never sounded so drippy.
Stuffed to the gills. (Alright, enough of that.) There are two commentary tracks, the first with director Ronald Neame, who is a decent sport about Irwin Allen's uncontested authorship and offers a good deal of behind-the-scenes memories for the fans, and the other devoted to the film's trio of nubile, bathing beauties: Pamela Sue Martin, Carol Lynley, and Stella Stevens. While I've got nothing against these three (and actually quite like Stevens's candor), it's a crippling loss that this DVD wasn't produced a few years earlier so Shelly Winters could've been hoisted into this line-up. On the same note, I couldn't guess as to why Gene Hackman is such a holdout throughout the disc. He doesn't appear in any of the disk's copious featurettes which run well over an hour strung together and include Neame (who really seems to think the film is more popular with today's teenage boys than with plump, fiftysomething drag queens stuck on Shelly), Martin, Lynley, and Stevens as well as Maureen McGovern, the stud who fell down into that big glass light fixture, and the inimitable Sheila Allen (Irwin's wife who made cameos in nearly all his disaster flicks and who is to Irwin Allen junkies what Edith Massey is to John Waters fans). A half-hour episode of AMC's Backstory on the film gets us into redundant territory, and there are almost too many publicity materials (though some of those posters are priceless examples of Allen's hucksterism-"the most successful movie in
America THE WORLD!"). The most interesting extra feature allows you to track the cast's journey through the ship on a schematic map you can switch over to while the film is running. It doesn't, however, reveal where Stella Stevens left her panties.
The new edition of The Poseidon Adventure is as hefty as Shelly Winters, but the improved image quality proves that when underwater the film, like Winters, is "a very skinny lady."