Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon is a throwback to that cheesiest but most endearing of genres: the 1970s disaster movie. Starting with the original The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Hollywood was struck by a series of entertaining-to-middling disaster films: The Towering Inferno (burning skyscraper), The Swarm (deadly African bee attack), The Cassandra Crossing (passengers on a train exposed to a virus), Earthquake (earthquake), Meteor (meteor) – and the sequels to the original Airport, whose very titles signposted their lack of imagination (Airport '75, Airport '77, Airport '79 they were called).
Some of these were among my favourite movies when I was just discovering non-Hindi cinema. One quality they shared with Bollywood was that their "plots" were driven purely by convenience and the need to set up one paisa vasool scene after another; logic was never allowed to stick its foot in the door. Also, for all that these films involved people battling terrible calamities, there was always a reassuring cosiness about them, which was very appealing to a young viewer. Most of them featured ensemble casts (including a number of familiar character actors) and much of the pleasure came from watching these people strategising, bickering about options and eventually triumphing over large fires, bacterial attacks or plane bombers. As a viewer one knew that a couple of the characters would have to be bumped off as the story progressed. But nothing too bad would ever happen to the most likable people, and everything would work out all right in the end – though your definition of "all right" had to be a very broad one. As long as Paul Newman and Steve MacQueen made it down that burning elevator shaft fine, it was all goodwill. As long as Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner survived the deadly quake, it mattered little that the rest of Los Angeles had been levelled.
Some of the more recent disaster films (Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow) have been extremely watchable, but they haven't had the same charm – they've usually been more concerned with showing off spectacular special effects – and so I didn't expect much of the new Poseidon. On the whole I was pleasantly surprised. This is partly a homage to the disarming simplicity of the original, but it's also a surprisingly gripping film in its own right.
For starters, it has the no-complications format down pat. There's the brief set-up that introduces us to the protagonists, all of whom must be readily identifiable character types: the intrepid gambler who will take the initiative when something different needs to be done; the cynical ex-fireman; his feisty teenage daughter; her hunky but sensitive boyfriend; the single mother and her precocious little son; the mousy stowaway. There's the disaster, in the form of a 150-foot "rogue wave" that strikes the luxury liner these people are travelling on. The ship neatly flips over and the survivors, who just a few moments earlier were air-kissing, ballroom dancing, cooing oohs and ahs and generally being upper-crust sophisticates, now find themselves in the much less dignified position of staggering about amidst giant chandeliers (the room being upside down). Most of them are content to stay in the unbreached grand ballroom and wait for rescuers, but our band decides to be more pro-active. They start to work their way up to the "bottom" of the ship (the part that's now above water).
This leads to a series of harrowing adventures where the characters get a chance to play out (or transcend) their basic natures, make unexpected displays of heroism and romantic pronouncements. (Note to viewers unfamiliar with the requirements of this genre: don't expect to understand every plot detail. You don't need to know your starboard from your port, or the precise location of every escape hatch. This film must be appreciated on a sequence-by-sequence basis - where do these guys need to get next, what are the possible obstacles in their way and how will they overcome them?) Petersen, aided by reasonably competent actors, does a good job of maintaining tension most of the way through. And thankfully he doesn't depend too much on fancy special effects, though there are a few spectacular shots (not least the giant wave right at the beginning, which had me thinking of Herman Melville's observation that we're all still on Noah's Ark – since two-thirds of the planet is covered by water).
Best of all, Poseidon has the ending I was eagerly waiting for. Our heroes have escaped the sinking leviathan, clambered safely onto lifeboats and succeeded in attracting rescue helicopters, and now we're pumping our fists along with them. Never mind the thousand others who have just gone down with the ship.
P.S. I’ve been accused of giggling my way through much of the film, but in my defence it was mainly nervous giggling - except for the time near the end when the characters had almost made it to the top (read bottom) of the ship and I imagined another giant wave suddenly appearing and turning the thing the right way up again.