Here’s something really rare: A re-make that’s actually better than the original. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was what really got the “disaster movie” vogue rolling, though Airport was two years earlier. For a while they were the hottest thing in Hollywood, pretty much culminating in The Towering Inferno. Looking back, they really weren’t very good. (Exception: Richard Lester’s Juggernaut, which didn’t do any business. I guess people didn’t really want interesting character development in these turkeys.) They’re still with us, I guess, with a few disasters coming out every year, but most of them are fairly pulpish, low-budget affairs.
Not this one. It cost $160,000,000, and you can see why. It was shot entirely on the sound stages at Warner Brothers, except for one day of location shooting at the Sepulveda Dam, which we visited a while ago. They shot one green-screen thing there, which was later composited into a really good, very long shot of the ship’s exterior, which was entirely CGI, like Titanic. But it’s much more detailed. Almost a decade has made a big difference in computer capacity.
I say this is better than the original for several reasons. It delivers what it promises, which is big SFX, big stunts, lots of water, hair-raising escapes. You didn’t buy a ticket to this expecting nuanced character development, did you? No, you went to see a roller coaster ride, and this delivers. The original was mind-boggling in its day, and it also delivered on the spectacle. The ship rolling over was one of those memorable scenes, something you’d never seen before. Well, we’ve seen everything now, and though it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Gene Hackman version, I do remember that Gene Hackman was a pain in the ass in the original, as a priest always pushing his philosophy of self-reliance. We didn’t come here for sermons, man. I also recall that Carol Lynley spent the whole picture trembling and weeping. Pain in the ass. The little kid was a pain in the ass, as was Red Buttons … pretty much everybody, now that I think of it, including Shelley Winters, who I was not as taken with as everyone else seemed to have been.
This movie avoids almost all of that. The pain in the ass character is dispatched pretty quickly, before he can really start to rankle. Even the kid screws up only once. There’s not a lot of moralizing, only survival. You establish a few quick sketches of your characters, you flip the ship over, and you get down to business. The filming must have been harrowing, with most everybody up to their necks in water all day long for months. The excellent DVD “Making of” featurette details some of this stuff. The sets for the ballroom and the ten-story atrium were both practical … and had to be built twice, once right side up, and again upside down.
For some reason it laid an egg in this country, though it managed to recoup its investment worldwide. Myself, I wish now I’d seen in the theater, on the big screen.