The Poseidon Adventure and a Brief History of the Capsized Ship Movie

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The Poseidon Adventure and a Brief History of the Capsized Ship Movie

It’s my humble opinion that water belongs outside a boat. Once it decides to come on board, disaster is imminent. Water takes my breath away with its awesome, unpredictable fury. That’s why I only sail from the safety of the cinema. Too bad there are so many shipwreck movies.

As a seminal spectacle that combines social stories with superhuman forces of Nature and special effects, The Poseidon Adventure has had a lasting influence on the sea disaster films following in its wake over the last 50 years. Overturned Ship stories are not pirate fables, naval tales, submarine thrillers or murder mysteries. The Poseidon Adventure takes us on a different journey, solidifying a genre in which a group of civilians must survive the cruel fate of Nature and their world is turned upside-down. There were many sea adventures before The Poseidon Adventure, but its tremendous success solidified a blueprint still being followed today.

Here is a brief history of the Overturned Ship movie:

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Produced by Irwin Allen, known as the “Master of Disaster” for other films like The Towering Inferno (1973), The Poseidon Adventure set a course towards a new genre of spectacle that puts society to a stress test. Before Jaws or Star Wars, Allen was interested in the blockbuster scale and scope cinema offered, its ability to transport and terrify us. His idea was to bring recent advances in cinema technology face to face with nature. Director Roger Neame, influenced by his past in melodramas, adds pathos to these stories. Together, they make The Poseidon Adventure a fantastic voyage about both society at large and the humanity within. As a film from the early 1970s, The Poseidon Adventure rode a wave of sexual and secular liberation in America. Our hero is Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), a “with it” pastor who’s “angry, rebellious, and critical.” He’ll have to lead the few surviving passengers through the valley of darkness—and the engine room. His flock (featuring Ernest Borgnine, Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters) will have to choose between saving themselves and saving their souls. The Poseidon Adventure, above all else, is about human resourcefulness. Its characters use what detritus they can find to survive the disaster. But more than that, it’s a model for the ingenuity and vision it takes to make an overturned ship adventure. Not only will the same stock character traits repeat over waves of interest in the genre, but so will the methods of creating tension for the audience.


Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)

Before the S.S. Poseidon could be fully submerged into the cultural lexicon, Allen was already returning to her corpse to salvage what other bits of cinema he could find. Directed by Allen himself this time, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure is one of those rare sequels to a disaster film that picks up where the first left off and attempts to have yet another disaster. Sadly the only jaw-dropping disaster is the film itself. Beyond follows two competing salvage teams who try to rob the overturned cruise liner of her remaining hidden treasures. If they happen to save some lives, so be it. Despite wildly unexpected shootouts and buoyant performances by Michael Cane, Sally Field, Peter Boyle, Karl Malden, Shirley Knight and Shirley Jones, it’s a bit of a slog to swim through. In the original, there’s an immediacy to the action that sustains the tension. But here, we’re just treading through old waters. This sequel about salvaging is, quite literally, a soggy collection of salvaged tropes from the first installment rearranged into a murky treasure hunt. Still, Beyond is essential among the ripples caused by The Poseidon Adventure, because it represents a habit of genre cinema: Forever returning over and over to the same plots, motifs, themes and grammars of (profitable) films that have come before.


Titanic (1997)

The VHS set had it right; James Cameron’s Titanic is two films in one. The first half sets up star-crossed lovers on the decks of dramatic irony. Then we hit the iceberg and descend into a rapidly suffocating disaster film. As another luxury liner, Titanic, like Poseidon Adventure, is a tale of class at sea. Cameron may not improve on this formula, but he casts a shipshape ensemble that can easily sail through his script. Like all overturned ship tales, Titanic can’t help but be a commentary on contemporary times. For better or worse, depending on how cooked you like your camp, her passengers are more 1990s than 1910s. They make self-conscious comments on Freud, nouveau richeness, and gender inequity. Rose’s feminist individuality is cut from the cloth of “Girl Power,” and Jack’s class play feels informed by a sense of upward mobility that permeated the Clinton Era. In its harrowing second half, Titanic sets all of these social standards adrift in a sea of terror and spectacle. It’s when the film becomes a proud display of cinematic control over water and illusion. Like sea spectacles that have come before it, Titanic embraces the use of models and miniatures to give nature its looming and destructive presence. But what it adds is a scalable sense of grandeur. Thanks to advances in green screen, CGI and photographic technologies, Cameron’s camera is much more mobile than Ronald Neame’s in the early 1970s. It cranes harder, glides longer and, crucially, it can take on more water. Just as Poseidon Adventure was for the adventure films of the 1950s, Titanic was a watershed moment for sea disaster films because it created the technology, demand and possibility for the genre to expand to epic proportions.


Deep Rising (1998)

Now that space has been opened inside the ship, it’s time to fill it. Before he would redefine the desert for budding bisexuals with his Mummy series, Stephen Sommers directed the wet and wild film Deep Rising. Bombastically combining cruise liner disaster and sea monster adventure, it’s an aggressively late-’90s tale of two thieves (Treat Williams and Famke Janssen) who must make it to the safety of a jet ski or risk being eaten by the horrible monster that’s risen from the depths. Sommers’ enthusiastic embrace of CGI builds to a grand display when we confront his Eldritch being. For most of the film, we see only its tentacles as it snakes through the ship, The Argonautica, taking out luxury passengers sucker-fulls at a time. Like Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, this is a bottom-up look at class dynamics. We root for our working-class thieves and their allies on staff. If cruise ship disasters like The Poseidon Adventure turn society upside-down, the sea beast film levels all of us before nature. By skillfully combining the two, Sommers creates a spectacle drenched in action and horror, which shipwrecks class relations more than any of the films we’ve considered thus far.


The Perfect Storm (2000)

If Sommers’ film was a radar indicator of a rising tide of populism in American cinema, the late Wolfgang Petersen is riding its crest. Not many overturned ship tales fully embrace a working-class perspective. All too often, films like The Poseidon Adventure are focused on rich folks because they’re set on cruise liners or yachts. But with his heartstopping drama The Perfect Storm, Petersen takes the best elements of the sea disaster film—with its trembling sense of scale and isolation—strips it of its amenities, and creates a harrowing tale about the perils of capitalism. Based on the true story of the Andrea Gail, lost at sea in 1991 during a tremendous nor’easter following Hurricane Grace, The Perfect Storm follows a motley but handsome crew as they get trapped pursuing a big catch. This isn’t Twister at sea. These men don’t go out chasing the storm. They go out because their financial conditions require it. The high-risk, high-reward mentality embedded in commercial fishing often means risking your life forever to survive a while longer. When Petersen finally brings the 40-foot wave crashing onto the Andrea Gail, it’s an apt and dreadful metaphor for capitalism’s destruction of working people.


Poseidon (2006)

Petersen steers his penchant for populist peril back to port with Poseidon. Bringing his sensibility for contemporary action filmmaking, Petersen improves on the stunts and terror of the original to suit a new audience. In keeping with a political culture dominated by “rogue actors,” the tsunami is now a “rogue wave.” When she hits, Petersen hits us with the conventional model shots and rotating set but then delivers more fire and water than the two Poseidon Adventures that had sailed before it. But what Petersen updates is the society on the ship. Comparing the two, we can see which American values have changed and which remain firmly anchored. Explicitly a post-9/11 tale, our fearsome leader (the ever-dashing daddy, Kurt Russell) is no longer a preacher, but a public servant, first a firefighter and then mayor of New York. Instead of coming to terms with his faith, he’ll come to terms with his masculinity and fatherhood. His precious daughter (Emmy Rossum, freshly released from the Phantom’s lair) is growing up. By the end, he’ll literally have to learn to let her live on her own. Though it may be a tragic tale of self-sacrifice, this being 2006, Fergie-Ferg is also here, and we’ve got a gay on board! While the original had camp icon Roddy McDowall as a “straight” crew member, this voyage has heterosexual and fan of bigger boats, Richard Dreyfuss as an emotionally stunted gay passenger. I suppose you could call it a nod; I call it an earring and an affect. But the entire ship’s manifest is composed of stereotypes. For better and (primarily) for worse, that’s how disaster films work. We don’t have time to develop rich characters—the ship’s bloody sinking! It’s just that some stereotypes are already drowning before the voyage has even begun. Still, by salvaging a known property and plot, Petersen can swing big with his social commentary and underscore that, at their best, disaster films are about a broad section of society helping each other survive.


Titanic II (2010)

In many overturned ship stories, the captain often orders the crew to push the ship harder and faster. That’s because these stories are also about humanity’s foolish hubris in the face of nature. The S.S. Poseidon, the RMS Titanic, and the Andrea Gail believe good business is worth any cause. The delusional determination of the powerful in command ultimately dooms the ships and all the souls on board. But there is perhaps no better parable of hubris than Titanic II. This SYFY film takes place 100 years after the sinking of the Titanic as a new ship, Titanic II, launches her maiden voyage back across the ocean from New York to Southampton. But when a tsunami wave carrying icebergs crashes into its side, it seems that history is doomed to repeat itself. Fortunately for the cast and crew of Titanic II, they didn’t set out to make the grandest picture ever made. They knew they could make a fun and ludicrous tale and did just that, which is smooth sailing into the hearts of any fan of schlock and mockbusters. But unlike the directors discussed here, Shane Van Dyke’s work remains modest in the ecosystem of the movie business.


Noah (2014)

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is anything but humble. His journey back to the original epic boat story continues to confound criticism with its loose, loose, loose interpretation of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, fanciful world-building and breathtaking water sequences. It is still a story of survival and keeping the ocean out. Blessed as it is by God, the wooden ark may not be at risk of sinking like all the other ships we’ve discussed, but it does ride the waves of society turned upside-down and drowned out. In this hull, amid all the pairs of animals, is the hope for a new world free from sin. For all the wild license he takes with the story, Aronofsky remains committed to the essential structure of disaster films as a triangle of conflict between the individual, society and Nature.


In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Ron Howard’s gnawing ship epic reinjects a commentary on commercialism that Noah elides. Based on the trials of the whaleship Essex in the 1820s, which inspired Moby-Dick. In the Heart of the Sea uses the ship as a microcosm of society. Each crew member was pushed to sea because of the industrial revolution in one way or another. Like the crew in The Perfect Storm, they’re searching for the big kill that will bring in the big bucks. Howard’s film combines some of the best creature feature elements with a climbing sense of isolation and panic. They will face behemoths from below and dissent from within. Relations, like the ship, will splinter. And their desperation will end up quite literally eating them alive.


Disasters at Sea (2018 – Present)

By the 2010s, luxury liners were staying afloat, more likely to be overrun by disease, pirates or zombies than by water. The cruise ship empires were beginning their final wane on the seas before COVID would shore most of them up for good. But that doesn’t mean The Poseidon Adventure has sunk to the ocean floor of American popular culture. While stories of overturned cruises have faded, some of the same camerawork and effects that Ronald Neame used can be found on television. Smithsonian Channel’s docuseries Disasters at Sea recreates actual maritime disasters with stock shot sequences we’ve internalized through decades of disaster films. The canted angles, fear-stricken close-ups, water rushing through corridors, and digitized wreckage gush with terror and tragedy. The opening acts of each episode are designed to hook us with the human cost of these accidents. The second act investigates the cause of the wreck and what’s been done to prevent it from continuing. Most of the depicted disasters result from capitalism stretching human and ship bodies too thin. Maybe the movies got that part right. Throughout their long history on the ocean, ships have been nationless spaces where classes, races and genders mix and are put at risk. Following the wave of popularity set out by The Poseidon Adventure, the best examples contain a cross-section resembling the film’s audience. An overturned ship story can be on any kind of ship; it’s the story of human survival that’s most important. It’s not about the disaster, but the morning after.

B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool, where they’re also the cohost of The Meh-thod Podcast discussing great actors in less-than-great films. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.

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