Since its original release in 1972, Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure has gained the reputation of being a modern classic. And, certainly, it’s widely considered as being one of the preeminent disaster movies of all time. Set on a retiring ocean liner making its last voyage, The Poseidon Adventure tells the story of a New Year’s Eve celebration that gets interrupted by the sinking of a ship. It’s got a pretty impressive upside down ballroom set, it prominently features the legendary Gene Hackman, and it tells a high stakes story of survival. So it’s not hard to see why people like it.
But it’s also largely just a movie where a group of confused people stumble around in dirty access panels and anonymous hallways for much of its run time. Is it really so great that watching it should be a New Year’s Eve tradition like many have made it out to be? Especially when there are indisputable classics like The Apartment out there that also feature New Year’s Eve party scenes?
James Cameron’s Titanic is a sappy, on-the-nose romance set against the maiden voyage (and sinking) of the infamous RMS Titanic. Upon its release in 1997, Titanic won basically every award that was given out, brought in every bit of spare cash that was sitting in anyone’s pocketbooks, and captured the attention of the media machine to the point that, by the time 1998 rolled around, the backlash for the film had almost reached the same levels of fervor that the initial hype did.
It might be strange to assert that a movie as beloved as Titanic isn’t as praised as it should be, but there are people out there who really hate this movie, and for little reason. Sure, it’s a little sappy, but not disgustingly so. It’s got a few clunky moments, but nothing on the level of the clunkiness in Cameron’s later blockbuster, Avatar. And even Avatar is still packed full of jaw-dropping filmmaking. To say that Titanic is impressively staged would be quite a large understatement. Cameron made The Terminator, he’s a super power, and we shouldn’t hate on one of his movies so much just because a bunch of 11-year-old girls really loved it.
What do they have in common?
The Poseidon Adventure and Titanic are easily comparable because they’re both about sinking ships that are full of people. True, The Poseidon Adventure is more of an ensemble piece about a whole cast of characters (played by names like Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Pamela Sue Martin, Red Buttons, and Carol Lynley) and Titanic focuses almost entirely on a romantic pairing played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, but, come on…sinking boats!
Why is The Poseidon Adventure overrated?
One of the big reasons The Poseidon Adventure is so well-remembered is because of what a star-studded cast it boasts. But still, along with an always reliable performance from a true great like Hackman, this movie also contains quite a bit of terrible acting. For one, Eric Shea is prominently featured playing a precocious kid, and he’s as annoying as ten Jonathan Lipnickis every second that he’s on the screen. And, in addition to awkward child actors, there’s some big time melodrama in this movie that gets sold with less than effective acting as well. There’s a death scene of a prominent character who has acted rather heroically later on that is completely robbed of any impact because of how laughable everyone’s over the top reactions to it are. Consequently, what should be a big moment only musters up smirks. You want to call Titanic schmaltz? The Poseidon Adventure can try and fail to jerk tears with the best of them.
For a disaster movie that’s supposed to be harrowing, edge of your seat excitement, this one can feel pretty stagey and phony as well. For proof, look no further than the scene where the boat is initially hit by the tidal wave. The ship these people are traveling in has literally been flipped over, but everyone is so calm that a room full of dozens and dozens of people are all polite enough to be quiet whenever a lead with a scripted line has something that they want to say. How polite of them. There’s never really any ticking clock suspense that milks how urgent the main characters’ escaping of the boat is either. This really is just a movie about people wandering around in dirty corridors. About the third time you watch the protagonists awkwardly scale scaffolding while inappropriately epic music swells, you start to feel like what you’re watching might have been overhyped. The Poseidon Adventure could have used a lot more danger and chaos, and a few less overly scripted monologue scenes. As is, it feels like a play shoddily adapted to the screen.
Why is Titanic underpraised?
Sure, The Poseidon Adventure is known for its upside down sets, and maybe with good reason, but if we’re going to start throwing around praise for set building, then Titanic has to be at the top of the list of films deserving of some verbal affection. The sets here are huge, elaborate, and so much more expansive than the ones in Poseidon. That film has the one ballroom set, sure, but watching Titanic really gives you a sense of the geography of the ship and how everything actually looked—instructing as well as providing impressively large spaces. The movie completely immerses you in the world of the ship, and only relies on generic service tunnels as sets in the few scenes where it’s appropriate.
Generally Titanic manages to be a far more human story as well. There are a couple questionable line reads from Billy Zane and Kate Winslet, but they both have strong moments that make up for them, and none of the acting here is nearly as bad as what shows up in Poseidon. People like DiCaprio and Kathy Bates even go as far as to be really impressive in their performances, which only serves to draw you in further. Plus, while much of the later focus gets put on disaster action, Cameron always remembers to insert human moments that keep you emotionally involved with what’s happening on screen. Whether it’s the band that keeps playing, the priest delivering the sermon, or the way the rich guys being jerks really gets you rooting for DiCaprio’s character, Titanic always manages to keep your focus on people, and doesn’t rely on special effects spectacles or vague, looming threats to keep you invested in what’s happening on screen. You can crow all you want about how Titanic didn’t deserve all of the awards or riches that it acquired, but to pretend like it’s a bad film is just disingenuous.
Evening the odds.
The boat sank…get over it?