Our review of The Poseidon Adventure: Special Edition, published June 12th, 2006, is also available.
Fox has stepped up to the plate with this glorious transfer of a film that many consider the template of all disaster movies.
All right, all right. If any of you have read my Jury Of One column, then you'll know that The Poseidon Adventure is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I may be somewhat biased. Even so, Fox's stellar treatment of this classic action film had me rushing to the store to buy a copy despite the fact that I already owned both a widescreen and full frame VHS copy. I can't possibly tell you how many times I've seen this film, but I know I saw it in the theater at least three times in 1972. I loved the film so much that I brought a portable cassette player into the theater and recorded dialogue from the film as a primitive form of home video; I guess you could call it home audio.
For those not in the know, Irwin Allen's The Poseidon Adventure is the breathtaking story of a cruise ship capsized by a tidal wave, the result of an undersea earthquake. At the time of the disaster, many of the ship's passengers are celebrating New Year's Eve in the Grand Ballroom of the ocean liner. The film then details the trials of ten survivors as they desperately make their way to the ship's hull, which is now their only hope for escape, something they must do before the ship sinks to the ocean floor. Along the way, lives are lost, relationships are formed and subplots are as layered as the levels of the Titanic.
Our hero, Reverend Scott, played by the inimitable Gene Hackman, leads this band of stereotypes with an undying spirit; nothing will stand in his way. Although there is a subplot introduced early in the picture which questions Scott's belief in God, it is his belief in the human spirit that guides these lost people to hope, no matter how unreachable that may be. A lesser actor could have sunk, sank? (no pun intended) this film, but it is Hackman's energy and determination that carries the film and pulls us in. We feel like we're trying to escape as well, and we'd follow him anywhere. The supporting cast is also quite effective, featuring standout performances from Oscar nominated Shelley Winters as a Jewish grandmother on a journey to see her grandchildren for the first time (need I tell you what happens?), Ernest Borgnine as a New York cop recently married to ex-hooker Stella Stevens, and Red Buttons as a lonely haberdasher searching for companionship which he finds in Carol Lynley, a lounge act singer who has suffered a tragic loss as a result of the disaster. Rounding out the cast of survivors are Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea as parent-less siblings, Jack Albertson as Winters' husband and Roddy McDowall as a steward along for the ride. There are subplots far too many to mention. Some are credible, some are bearable. There's also an enticing subtext involving Hackman's preacher and young lady Pamela Sue Martin. Their scenes together suggest a romance that could never be.
The screenplay written by Sterling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes does its best to compact Paul Gallico's sprawling novel into a fast paced two-hour action film. While the novel contains more stereotypes and semi-graphic sexual encounters (in a sinking ship?!), their screenplay keeps the film pumping and follows the rule that every good action movie should follow: throw us one cool death every half hour or so. Keeps us happy. There's actually gore galore in this PG-rated film; it's just that those full frame Channel 9 versions never did this movie justice! For instance, take a look at the crystal clear quality of the severely ear-burned, frozen in time corpse (56:51) melting in the steam room, the detail in the man's facial crevices is incredible. Also, check out the scene where Stella, Red and Carol are trying to scramble upstairs as water pours in from below. Widescreen reveals an incomplete corpse floating into view at 1:01:36, as well as a nice shot of Linda Rogo's corpse lying in flames after a high stunt fall from an upside down fire escape at 1:45:08.
The Poseidon Adventure won an Academy Award for Visual Effects in 1973 and rightfully so. The only lame special effect that a DVD quality version of this film reveals is the ocean liner shot over the opening credits. While it's supposed to be a majestic shot of the ship traversing the ocean, I can now tell it's about a 24-foot model in a flat water tank in Century City. While I know that selling this shot early in the picture was necessary for later effects to achieve a sense of reality, it's now those later effects that look more realistic.
John Williams' magnificent score adds majesty to the boat and desperation to the passenger's dilemma; it's a shame that Fox couldn't remaster the soundtrack in 5.1 surround. His orchestrations carefully manipulate viewers of this film with haunting themes that seem to contradict themselves; as the melody rises (symbolizing hope), the bass notes plod drastically downward in contrast. The studio has done their best for the moment, however, with a two channel digital mono mix.
This film set the precedent for a string of disaster movies (some good and some bad) such as The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and the Airport series. The formula started to taper off with Allen's Flood! and Fire! made for TV movies.
Unfortunately, there is no anamorphic video transfer of this film on this version of the disc, and that's a shame because this film needs to be big and monaurally loud. The picture is unbelievably sharp for a film over 25 years old and THX has stepped in to really give this film a transfer that finally does this film justice. I feel like I'm looking through a window in some of these scenes. Flesh tones are solid, despite radical lighting changes throughout the film and I see no evidence whatsoever of scratches in the print, another asset of THX's involvement.
The Dolby two-channel mono audio track is adequate at best, but ironically, the menu screens are minutely animated and appear to be in 5.1 surround replete with underwater churning effects and sonar.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The occasionally eye-rolling stereotypes and creaky dialogue may send '90s movie fans straight for the high speed frame advance button on their remotes.
This is moviemaking at its finest, and this film should be discovered and re-discovered in glorious digital widescreen by all who hold movies sacred.
Fox redefines their commitment to excellence with the attention shown to this disc. Acquitted on all counts of overpricing and lackluster attention to DVD.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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