The Poseidon Adventure toes the line between broad camp comedy and gripping drama in ways peculiar to the odd sub-genre of disaster films that were so enormously popular in the 1970s -- and it succeeds like none before or since by its sheer audacity. This is not a subtle film, but it is an intensely sincere one, and that's what makes it so special.
A brief on-screen preface tells you everything you need to know in 33 words, the highest of high concepts: "At midnight on New Year's Eve, the S.S. Poseidon, en route from New York to Athens, met with disaster and was lost. There were only a handful of survivors. This is their story ..."
For those who live under rocks, the disaster is a tidal wave, and in the inimitable style of showman/producer Irwin Allen, it doesn't just hit on New Year's Eve -- it hits precisely at midnight, just as young women in hot pants, fading movie stars in satin gowns and leading men in tuxedoes are all helpfully gathered in the grand ballroom of the old ship, which just happens to be on her final voyage. And it doesn't just hit the ship with force, it turns it all the way over. "We're upside-down," characters helpfully note just after the ship turns upside down.
That happens after a 20-minute prelude that introduces each character in a fashion that would later be perfected by TV's The Love Boat: Short vignettes give us just enough information to know that the busty woman is a former hooker now married to a gruff cop, the old couple are Jews, the teenagers are bickering brother and sister, the handsome macho guy is a preacher exiled for his unorthodox ways.
It's the beautiful genius of The Poseidon Adventure to have a cast so game, so ready for this, that even the ridiculous moments are treated as serious drama; given some of the worst dialogue ever committed to screen, the actors make it all feel honest and genuine, if not quite fresh.
They all know that we're not here to see them act, anyway, we're here for the spectacle, and in that regard, The Poseidon Adventure delivers. This is pre-digital, epic-scale filmmaking at its finest: When that ship flips over, everything turns over, setting in motion a quest for survival that manages to be as riveting the 30th time you see it as it was the first.
The pure moviegoing joy of watching The Poseidon Adventure is knowing how real it all is: Those aren't green-screen backgrounds Shelley Winters, Gene Hackman and Stella Stevens are swimming through, it's actual water. The fire that surrounds Jack Albertson and Ernest Borgnine is as real as fire gets. This is a movie that is bound and determined to give the audience its money's worth.
So, by the final scenes, when the Man of God is climbing out of the fire to reach salvation above (symbolism alert!), even modern audiences have to give a little gasp at the sheer enormity of it all.
There used to be a phrase for films like The Poseidon Adventure: "a movie-movie." It knows it's a movie, it knows it's all for show, but Irwin Allen and his all-star cast are going to give you the best damned show the silver screen can offer.
It's a shame movies like The Poseidon Adventure are relegated to afternoon airings on AMC and to home video. We'd all be better off if every generation got to see them on the silver screen, to remember that once, movies like this were possible.
If there are moments that The Poseidon Adventure threatens to become hilariously awful, especially toward the beginning -- but when a movie wants to please you so desperately it will put both buxom Stella Stevens and wide-bodied Shelley Winters into wet costumes (for such very different reasons), you'll forgive it pretty much anything.
Perhaps the most astonishing and wonderful thing about The Poseidon Adventure is that four decades ago, it was considered family entertainment. What the kids didn't understand (the hooker, the preacher) wouldn't hurt them, and everyone could talk about the underwater sequences and that Christmas tree on the car ride home.
The Poseidon Adventure may feel dated in so many ways, but it has lost virtually none of its power to captivate an audience, to stun both grown-ups and kids into wide-eyed astonishment, and to remind us of the style and showmanship that used to grace movie screens so long ago. It's not a perfect film, but it sure is a treasure.