Masters of Disaster is back, and this week Jonathon Dabell gives his thoughts on Beyond The Poseidon Adventure (1979) starring Michael Caine, Sally Field and Telly Savalas.
After the smash-hit movie The Poseidon Adventure (1972), author Paul Gallico (who’d written the original novel) did something rather unusual and unprecedented. He wrote a sequel… but not a sequel to his own novel. Instead, he wrote a direct sequel to the film version which had been released in 1972. Presumably, Gallico was hoping a sequel would be made and decided to get in there first by actually writing the follow-up novel himself.
Indeed, Gallico’s book is credited as the source for this 1979 movie. But the similarities are token at best… and that’s too bad, because the book is a whole lot better than the movie. Maybe screenwriter Nelson Gidding and director Irwin Allen should have paid more attention to Gallico’s book, as it has to be said they’ve made rather a hash of things here.
It’s the morning after the night before. The SS Poseidon lays in the Mediterranean, overturned and rapidly sinking, as daylight dawns on New Year’s Day. Desperate, debt-ridden tugboat captain Mike Turner (Michael Caine) sees a rescue helicopter heading away from the Poseidon and decides there might just be enough time to board the stricken liner before she goes down, entering through a hole cut in the hull by the coastguard, and heading for the purser’s office. He plans a quick raid on the safe, hoping it could yield enough cash and other valuables to get him out of his predicament. He persuades his shipmate Wilbur (Karl Malden) and a clumsy woman they’ve picked up during their travels, Celeste (Sally Field), to join him on the perilous descent.
Their plans are diverted when a second party arrives, headed by the suave Stefan Svevo (Telly Savalas). Svevo claims he and his team are doctors who have come to search for, and aid, potential survivors. Turner insists that any salvage rights remain his, but agrees that the doctor and his men can come along to look for passengers in need of rescue.
Once inside the ticking time-bomb that is the SS Poseidon, things change rapidly. The boarders are soon cut off from returning by the same way, and things quickly go from bad to worse. Svevo’s group turn out to be industrial saboteurs in search of a priceless cargo; meanwhile, Turner’s group find numerous survivors in the wreckage and their initial plans to raid the purser’s safe are replaced by a sense of duty in getting these frightened passengers out alive. Their efforts are jeopardised by the presence of Svevo and his heavies.
The one aspect of Beyond The Poseidon Adventure which works – or at least works a little – is the interplay between the various diverse characters. Caine’s snapping hero who is nasty-tongued but ultimately good-at-heart, Savalas’s silky smooth villain, Field’s quirky and fast-talking romantic interest, Peter Boyle’s cocky and arrogant ex-army sergeant searching for his daughter, Jack Warden’s stubbornly proud blind man, Malden’s loyal but seriously ill shipmate and Slim Pickens’ alcoholic Munchausening caterer all have their moments and interact rather nicely throughout. There are some snappy exchanges of dialogue and their performances are more than adequate.
The problem lies in the script, which comprises of a cliched assortment of hazards all handled previously (and better) in the earlier film. Explosions rock the ship; corridors fill with water; unsturdy gangplanks have to be traversed; claustrophobic tunnels are crawled through… but it’s all be done before. The guessing game of who will live and who will die – so crucial to these 70s disaster offerings – isn’t particularly interesting, mainly because the script doesn’t allow the actors to create characterisations of any real dimension. Granted, they’re all trying hard and delivering their lines convincingly enough… but the story and its periodic twists seem to work against them continually. The idea of throwing in gun-toting villains as a further hazard means the film veers more into action/adventure territory, when it would probably have been better off simply concentrating on being a survival drama. Likewise, Allen’s direction is rather plodding. He moves from each hazard to the next in schematic style, dwelling for up to ten minutes on things as mundane as the protagonists jumping over a hole in the deck one by one, or climbing a ladder one at a time, or swimming through a hatch in pairs, etc. It’s all a bit laborious.
Also, the effects are fairly ropey. Shots of the upturned ship seen from a submerged angle are clearly achieved via unconvincing model work, and whenever an explosion shakes the vessel the actors lurch around in an uncoordinated tangle of flailing arms and legs. One is almost reminded of the wacky flapping and diving around that used to constitute a fight scene in the old Batman TV show.
Ultimately, I’m awarding a few points for glimpses of snappy dialogue, enthusiastic (if doomed) performances, and a couple of half-decent sequences. Overall, though, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure is a fairly weak and unnecessary sequel to a genre classic. It simply isn’t in the same league, and must go down as a failure generally-speaking. (The book, on the other hand, is worth a read if you ever get the chance).
MoM Rating: 4/10