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.