Monday, March 30, 2009
Nothing Was Gonna Get Worse
You’d think that after THE TOWERING INFERNO Irwin Allen would have become the biggest producer in the business, an unstoppable mid-70s combination of David O.Seznick and Jerry Bruckheimer. There’s a fascinating presentation reel done for NATO on the TOWERING DVD that includes a whole slate of films announced as coming from Irwin Allen Productions and Twentieth-Century Fox with titles like THE WALTER SYNDROME, THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED and THE CIRCUS (in 3-D!) but almost none of them ever happened. It would be intriguing to learn why. Instead, Allen’s name is on a few TV movies from the middle of the decade with titles like FLOOD! and FIRE! which I haven’t seen but I’m going to figure I can guess what they’re about. And of course there was his legendary killer bee epic THE SWARM, an awful film that is ridiculously enjoyable in its own way that has to be seen to be believed and his reputation as the Master of Disaster never recovered after that. The one film in that promo reel which did eventually get made (at Warner Bros.) was in fact BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE which is promised here as coming by Summer of ‘76 but it didn’t arrive until 1979, seven years after the original. That’s a pretty long wait for a sequel that is supposed to take place on the same day as the original. One of the more unnecessary sequels in the long, sad history of unnecessary sequels, BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is pretty lousy, without even the unintentional laughs that make something like THE SWARM so much damn fun. I feel some satisfaction at having seen it on a completist level which seems fitting for a movie that was probably made to fulfill some sort of contractual obligation. No one should want to see this film, but maybe sooner or later you just have to.
On the night the S.S. Poseidon goes down, tugboat captain Mike Turner (Michael Caine) finds himself out in the very same storm which results in losing his cargo (presumably this tiny boat doesn’t encounter the same wave that capsized the massive ocean liner—but don’t ask questions). When Turner spots the helicopter carrying the survivors from the first film flying overhead he decides to investigate with his crew that consists of first mate Wilbur Hubbard (Karl Malden) and spunky passenger Celeste Whitman (Sally Field). They soon discover the capsized Poseidon and Turner, badly in need of money after losing the cargo (“In times of real trouble, the one thing a man can depend on is the sympathy of a bank,” Caine sarcastically states in maybe the film’s one good line), decides to claim salvage rights to the boat. His plan is essentially to make his way inside and locate the Purser’s office to retrieve anything that might be in the safe. But almost immediately a much spiffier boat turns up, containing a man identifying himself as Dr. Stefan Svevo (Telly Savalas) who with several men he refers to as his henchmen, sorry, medical team, claiming to look for survivors. The two teams reach an uneasy truce (given the ridiculously sleek look of Savalas and his boat contrasted with grubby Caine and his crew, for about five minutes there’s a bit of a LIFE AQUATIC vibe going on) and make their way into the boat through the exact hole the passengers were retrieved from at the end of the first film. Soon enough they do actually find passengers but things of course go wrong leading them to be forced to search for a new way out. Of course, there’s the added problem with what Svevo really has in mind and the tension rises as I exclaim, “How much longer does this damn thing go on for?”
It feels cheap right from the very first scene of Michael Caine in his little tugboat with lame rear screen projection presumably getting splashed with buckets from just out of camera range. Directed by Allen from a screenplay by Nelson Gidding the whole film is flat-looking, with next to no style beyond just getting the shots in the can. Even during the dullest sections of the first film it manages to achieve a dank, moody creepiness—when the other survivors heading to another part of the ship turn up it always has a nightmarish tinge to it. There’s none of that feel here with much of it actually playing like the pilot for a POSEIDON TV show (what such a series would be, I have no idea) and there’s no feeling of any kind of craft behind it. When the two teams enter the ship there’s a brief moment of anticipation that comes from how it really does feel like they’re entering the same set that we remember from the end of the first film and even some presumed use of stock footage (no point in building that entire engine room set again) isn’t a problem right away. But this feeling soon goes away with many of the sets baring little resemblance to the ship we got to know in the first film and, frankly, they all look much more like sets—speaking of stock footage, it feels like there’s about a hundred cutaways to that shot from the first film of the ship upside down underwater as explosions go off. But the film is also a failure right from the beginning not just because of sub-par effects or production design but because there’s no way we can care about lead characters heading into this boat where we’ve seen a bunch of people horribly killed just to look for financial glory. Not to mention that it seems ludicrous for anyone to be going in there so the fact that we’re essentially watching a bunch of greedy idiots doesn’t really give us anyone to have much of an interest in. Even with a handful of survivors found it doesn’t feel like enough of a reason to actually be watching this movie. And considering the ticking clock of the water racing towards the lead characters in the original it just comes off as ridiculous that people are sitting down and having relaxed conversations a few times too many. Lots of stuff happens, but nothing very interesting—the film loves wasting time so all the characters can spend time jumping over a hole in the floor. There isn’t even any one big setting or setpiece like the chaos that erupts in the first film’s massive banquet hall or Shelley Winters swimming underwater. It really plays like they had to make the thing but nobody every came up with any good ideas. No spoilers, but Savalas’s plan (anyone would deduce that he's got something going on) when revealed seems like it makes no sense on several different levels—unless I’m missing something it comes off like he was planning for when the boat was capsized ahead of time. There’s a gunfight, too—I guess Allen never realized that when the S.S. Poseidon is sinking you shouldn’t need to bring in a gunfight to liven things up.
There are lots of good actors trapped in here but none of them make the iconic impression that the likes of Hackman, Borgnine, Buttons, Stevens, etc. made. That’s the nice way to put it. The not-so-nice way is to say that a few of them are pretty lousy. Caine never reaches the heights of his hysteria in THE SWARM but there’s not much he can bring to his part. He’s very much an actor doing a job here, not embarrassing himself, but not elevating things either. Telly Savalas plays Telly Savalas, Slim Pickens plays Slim Pickens, Sally Field is spectacularly annoying the whole way through and Peter Boyle is awful from the moment we see him where practically the first thing he says is, “Last night was the worst New Year’s party I’ve ever been to!” and then spends the next fifteen minutes shouting, “We gotta find my daughter!” over and over until his daughter, played by Angela Cartwright, just happens to appear. He’s essentially playing the Borgnine role, but watching him in his dirtied tuxedo I couldn’t help but think he was auditioning for the Harry Cooper role in some sort of Irwin Allen NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake. Hey, I had to think about something while watching this thing. Veronica Hamel at least adds some spunk to her role as a mysterious passenger in her brief scenes and she looks pretty great too—by that point I was desperately looking for something to be interested in. Karl Malden and Shirley Jones have a gentle, quiet scene near the end together which is probably ridiculous but at least it was something to connect with in here. Jack Warden (playing blind!) and Shirley Knight never get much of a chance to add anything and Mark Harmon is in there too as a Poseidon elevator operator, but he’d probably rather you didn’t mention it. Each of these actors probably knew exactly what this was and they shouldn’t be blamed for the result especially since there’s plenty of stuff in this script that actors should never be asked to play. The whole thing is so lifeless and pointless that no one could have made this thing work. Not that it matters, but Caine, Field and Boyle all co-starred together again eight years later in the romantic comedy SURRENDER which I saw but have next to no recollection of. Which I think will be exactly the case with this movie a few months from now.
The feeling I get is that Irwin Allen never seemed to realize that there couldn’t be a sequel to THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. It wasn’t just the boat that people responded to in the original, it was the characters, as well as the whole mythical journey concept of climbing to life, to the morning after. Those are the elements that get people to watch it again and again, whether it’s for reasons of camp or not. If a hardcore fan of the original were to watch this I could very easily imagine them saying about the plot, “Who cares about any of these people? Shelley Winters is lying dead a few dozen yards away!” The thing is, I’m not sure that they’re wrong. BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE exists, but it’s a film that pretty much consists of nothing with no reason whatsoever for it to exist and it never comes up with a convincing argument otherwise. It’s probably best viewed after you’ve seen each of the other disaster films way too many times, sort of the reason why I watched it. And now that it’s taken care of, I can move on.