Friday, December 31, 2010

The Poseidon Adventure (1971) & Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)

          For some reason, I’ve always remembered a remark that Will Smith made around the time he broke through as a big-screen star with 1994’s Independence Day: When asked how he got so much mileage out of so little screen time, Smith explained that he studied Ernest Borgnine’s performance in The Poseidon Adventure because of how vigorously Borgnine attacked every scene. Smith was onto something, because even though Irwin Allen’s production of The Poseidon Adventure deserves its reputation as one of the cheesiest movies of the ’70s, it’s undeniably compelling for the same reason that Borgnine’s supporting performance is effective—the picture will do anything to get a reaction. Based on a novel by Paul Gallico, the story about a luxury liner turned upside down by a giant rogue wave is silly, because it presumes that the liner can stay afloat long enough for survivors to seek rescue through a hole in the bottom of the hull, but the movie is jam-packed with action, melodrama, romance, schmaltz, and spectacle. What’s not to like about unpretentious hokum that intercuts shots of gussied-up New Year’s Eve revelers singing “Auld Lang Syne” with vignettes of the ship’s stoic captain (Leslie Nielsen!) watching watery doom approach a few decks above their heads? Perfecting the disaster-movie template established by Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure offers a slapdash ensemble of familiar faces romping through one overwrought crisis after another. In sheer paycheck-cashing mode, Gene Hackman plays the hero of the piece, a swaggering priest who rediscovers his purpose in life by leading a band of hearty survivors to possible salvation; his performance is so faux-intense that it’s embarrassing and thrilling at the same time. Lending campy gravitas are Borgnine and other showbiz veterans, including Jack Albertson, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall, and the flamboyantly buoyant Shelley Winters (“In the water, I’m a very skinny lady!”). Meanwhile, Carol Lynley, Pamela Sue Martin, and Stella Stevens shriek their lungs out in various states of soggy undress.
          The soap-opera storylines are drab, like the one about marital strife between a crass cop (Borgnine) and an ex-hooker (Stevens), but the fun of the picture is watching broadly sketched caricatures clash with each other against a backdrop of death and devastation. Allen spent a bundle on massive sets that could be flipped upside down and flooded, so what’s happening onscreen feels real because the actors actually got soaked, and drowning is such a universal phobia that it’s impossible not to sympathize with the characters’ anxiety. On top of everything, there’s a sky-high kitsch factor, especially when Lynley lip-syncs the movie’s atrocious but Oscar-winning theme song “The Morning After”—so whether you embrace the flick for its legit thrills or its unintentional humor, The Poseidon Adventure is a great ride.
          Allen reprised the story several years later, when his career was faltering; the sleep-inducing Beyond the Poseidon Adventure stars a bored Michael Caine as a sea captain who tries to salvage loot from wreck of the Poseidon shortly after the last moments of the original movie. Peter Boyle, Sally Field, and Jack Warden join the festivities, with Karl Malden playing Caine’s salty sidekick and Telly Savalas portraying the main villain. Unfortunately, the direction and script are so lifeless that even the colorful cast isn’t enough to keep the sequel afloatBeyond the Poseidon Adventure is a grade-Z heist picture that merely happens to take place on an abandoned boat.

The Poseidon Adventure: GROOVY
Beyond the Poseidon Adventure: LAME

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