‘Beyond the Poseidon Adventure’ (1979): Can disaster epics afford to be this boring?

This unjoyful, remarkably inept exercise in tired disaster conventions scuttled before the anchor was even raised.

By Paul Mavis

As a New Year’s present this year, I launched a review of the o.g. disaster classic, The Poseidon Adventure, which, remarkably enough, got a nice response from the 7 or 8 geriatric lushes and queens who still read my stuff. To repay that misguided loyalty (we told you to get!), what could be more logical—or egregious—than looking at that genuine classic’s dire, laughably incompetent sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure?

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Released by Warner Bros. in 1979 (a long, long seven years after the original), woefully directed by its producer, Irwin “Master of Disaster” Allen, and starring B-dream team Michael Caine, Telly Savalas, Sally Field, Karl Malden, Shirley Jones, Jack Warden, Peter Boyle, Slim Pickens, Veronica Hamel, Angela Cartwright, and “the world’s greatest actor, Maaaaaahhhhk Haaaaahhhhhmon,” Beyond the Poseidon Adventure can’t get anything right, from an obviously rehashed, tiresome storyline and comical miscasting, to a pitiable, threadbare—and almost totally illogical—production design. The result? Zero suspense.

Worst of all, despite those stirring tag lines in the trailer and on the poster (“Courage beyond all endurance! Suspense beyond all belief! And excitement beyond…The Poseidon Adventure!“) Beyond the Poseidon Adventure can’t deliver even the basic disaster movie goods, nor are its transgressions unpardonable enough that one can enjoy it as inadvertent farce. It’s just…sad.

Only five hours after the grand SS Poseidon capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, and its last survivors were choppered off the upturned ocean liner’s hull by the French Coast Guard, plucky little tugboat Jenny putt-putts into view. Jenny‘s captain, Mike Turner (Michael Caine), lost his cargo during the same storm that overturned the Poseidon, and now he sees a last-ditch chance to head-off the Marseilles bank that’s waiting to foreclose on his little tug: salvage rights to the Poseidon, according to maritime law.

Along for the ride are his trusted childhood friend and first mate, Wilbur (Karl Malden), and Celeste Whitman (Sally Field), a spunky, motor-mouthed little liar that Wilbur befriended in North Africa. Arriving right after the Jenny is Stefan Svevo (Telly Savalas), a suspiciously glib, sinister “doctor” who wishes only to board the Poseidon with his deadly henchmen “paramedics” to offer medical aid to any survivors. Once inside the sinking Poseidon, Turner, Svevo and the rest are soon cut off from their escape route; they’re trapped within the ocean liner.

Turner sees no point in not getting his booty, which turns out to be hundreds of old gold coins inadvertently discovered when a safe crashes through the purser’s office, while Svevo splits off to seek his prize: smuggled plutonium. More survivors turn up within the settling bowels of the ship, including hot-headed father, Frank Mazzetti (Peter Boyle), his pretty daughter, Theresa (Angela Cartwright), her potential suitor, Larry Simpson (Maaaaaahhhhk Haaaaahhhhhmon), blind writer Harold Meredith (Jack Warden) and his wife, Hannah (Shirley Knight), ship’s nurse Gina Rowe (Shirley Jones), Texas oil millionaire Dewey “Tex” Hopkins (Slim Pickens), and sultry, mysterious babe, Suzanne Constantine (the lush, visibly pissed-off Veronica Hamel), who has a connection with Svevo that will prove deadly for all concerned. Soon, Captain Turner is battling not only the sinking ship but Svevo, as everyone tries to escape…beyond the Poseidon.

I think most disaster movie fans would agree that the absolute peak of the genre’s “Golden Age” came in 1974—otherwise known as “The Rapture”—when two titles from what I like to call “The Holy Four” (including 1970’s Airport and 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure) were released: Earthquake, in bone-shattering Sensurround, and the mega star-studded The Towering Inferno. The mammoth box office successes of these two disaster movies (along with Airport‘s first sequel, Airport 1975, which also cleaned-up at the theaters in ’74), were the most obvious signs of a hot-burning, wildly-successful movie fad that had been building with the public for several years.

The disaster genre was everywhere in 1974; in the movie theaters (the smart-assed Juggernaut, Disney’s dopey, fun The Island at the Top of the World, and of course Toho’s classic, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla) and the small screen (made-for-TV movies like The Day the Earth Moved, Hurricane, Heat Wave!). If you looked around to find one catalyst that brought this fad to its fever-pitch, one could make a pretty convincing case that the title of “Father of the Disaster Movie’s Golden Age” rightly belonged to movie and TV producer Irwin Allen.

A name already familiar to kids and families from his beloved, seemingly endlessly-repeated sci-fi/fantasy TV series like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, and Lost in Space, Allen’s one-two big-screen punch of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno made Allen, for a very brief moment, a household name with moviegoers which seemed to promise a guaranteed good time at the movies, before Spielberg with Jaws and Lucas with Star Wars changed how we viewed action/sci-fi/fantasy…and eclipsed Allen for good.

Like all fads and trends, the all-star disaster movie—and as a result, Allen’s own reputation as a master showman—inevitably began to fade in popularity. 1975 saw the genre’s momentum slow alarmingly with a dearth of star-packed entries (the critics took great delight in blowing up the stately, pompous The Hindenburg that year, while ignoring more energetic small-time entries like Terror of Mechagodzilla, Bug, and The Giant Spider Invasion), before bigger titles appeared in 1976 and 1977…to lesser and lesser box office and/or critical approval: The Cassandra Crossing, Two-Minute Warning, Food of the Gods, spoofs The Big Bus and Drive-In (four years before Airplane!), Rollercoaster, Damnation Alley, Airport ’77, Black Sunday, Kingdom of the Spiders, and Empire of the Ants.

By the time Irwin Allen was in pre-production on Beyond the Poseidon Adventure in 1978, the disaster genre was in free-fall, with entries like (the quite good) Gray Lady Down, (the quite awful) Avalanche, and The Medusa Touch making little impact on viewers or critics. Allen, when he was still flying high off The Towering Inferno‘s staggering success (adjusted for ticket price inflation, it’s still in the top 50 all time top-grossing movies), had signed a lucrative movie and TV deal with Warner Bros. that saw him contribute to network television’s cheapjack over-saturation of the genre, with his highly-rated Fire! and Flood! standing out among the crowd of titles like Mayday at 40,000 Feet!, Smash-Up on Interstate 5, The Savage Bees, SST: Death Flight, Crash, The Ghost of Flight 401, and Terror Out of the Sky.

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Those small-scale outings looked like masterpieces, though, compared to Allen’s own spectacularly miscalculated effort to follow-up The Towering Inferno (he’s credited with directing the fire sequences) with his return to the director’s chair for 1978’s killer bee disaster epic, The Swarm, a notorious $22 million big-screen bomb that should have convinced Allen once and for all to never personally helm one of his own productions. Undeterred, however, Allen the director proceeded with Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, releasing it in 1979, the year that the overexposed disaster genre pretty much imploded with high-cost duds like Hurricane, The Concorde…Airport ’79, Meteor, Quintet (Robert Altman, of all people), Avalanche Express and even a Canadian outing (hee hee!), City on Fire (that year’s liberal tripe hit, The China Syndrome, was more “messagey” drama than a true star-studded disaster movie).

From all the accounts I’ve read, Irwin Allen had intended to premiere Beyond the Poseidon Adventure way back in 1974, to capitalize more closely on the original 1972 blockbuster (The Poseidon Adventure is still in the top 100 all time top grossers, adjusted for inflation). Allen planned on reuniting the “surviving” cast members from that movie with a plotline that somehow buried them in a collapsed train tunnel from which they had to escape. When Allen moved from Fox to Warner’s, he took Beyond with him, while he waited for a new scenario (now set back on the still-sinking Poseidon) from Paul Gallico, the author of the original The Poseidon Adventure novel. In the novel, the Poseidon sank at the end, as Allen intended it to do in his first movie version. However, when a last-minute special effects shot of the boat going down didn’t pass muster, the Poseidon was allowed to remain afloat in the movie’s final shot, unintentionally opening the door for the sequel to return to the capsized boat.

Despite Gallico dying in 1976, the book Beyond the Poseidon Adventure was eventually published in 1978, but according to what I’ve read, Allen left out quite a bit of Gallico’s storyline, as he did with the first novel. Pre-production on Beyond took over a year, before cameras hurriedly rolled in September, 1978, to meet a rushed May, 1979 premiere deadline (in order to take advantage of the start of peak summertime moviegoing). With a budget half the size of the previous year’s flop, The Swarm (no surprise there), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure opened to not-bad numbers on May 20th, 1979 (it won the weekend with over $5 million—an entirely respectable number back then), before absolutely wretched word-of-mouth and subsequent summer blockbusters Alien, Rocky II, Moonraker, and The Amityville Horror combined to drive it out of theaters in a matter of a few short weeks.

All of which, frankly…is far more interesting than Beyond the Poseidon Adventure itself (why are the production histories of flops and bombs and dogs so much more interesting than the stories behind the hit movies that everyone loves?). Honestly, I don’t even know where to start with criticizing Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, because so much of it is wrong wrong wrong, right from the start.

Before you have a chance to start questioning that seriously questionable script, the overall cheapness of the enterprise and the almost perverse disregard for a plausible production design, are what hit you first. Forget the tinny-sounding orchestration of composer Jerry Fielding’s boring, faux-ominous score—the first wrong note that sounds the second the movie begins. Instead, just ask yourself: what the hell is a tiny tugboat doing out in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? Tugboats dock ships in ports; they don’t cruise out in deep water, yes? A giant tidal wave capsized the Poseidon in the first movie, but here it’s a storm…the same storm that only knocks a crate off the little Jenny?

You don’t question any of that, though, while you’re staring in disbelief at the obvious studio mock-up of the Jenny, as the same laughably thin jet of water, from exactly the same angle, with exactly the same force and volume, time and time again, is shot at the boat from an unseen crewman and a water hose just out of frame. The Poseidon mock-up is worse: when the hull of the 40+ year-old SS Poseidon is shown sticking out of the water at a 45 degree angle, its shiny red paint job looks sticky-wet new: not a barnacle in sight for this soon-to-be-scrapped grand old lady.

Even better, after the silliness is over of Caine and Savalas ignoring the insanity of boarding a sinking vessel that could slip below the surface at any second, once they’re inside what looks to be the sickeningly lurching Poseidon, everything inside magically levels out on the horizontal. No tilting hallways, no rocking waves. Every set-up feels like it was shot not on a boat, but deep, deep down in a rock-solid fourth-level sub-basement. It ain’t movin’.

And it’s a remarkably dry, well-lit submerged ocean liner, too, with no grime, no smoke, no dead bodies, and critically: very little rising water. Now…unless Allen didn’t have the budget for water, or he had a cast that refused, to a man, to get wet every day, how could he possibly miss this most basic plot element of the original Poseidon storyline? The whole entire point of the first movie was the relentless pursuit of the ocean water threatening to drown the fleeing cast, as they desperately scrambled onward and upward through the upside-down boat, seeking any way out they could find. The first movie’s incredible suspense began and ended with that simple mechanism.

Here, in Beyond, no such threat exists. Rather, it looks as if the slow-walking group is trying to negotiate themselves through a particularly messy Kmart store, right after a water main break. It’s such a basic yet colossal mistake in production design, you can’t help but wonder what Allen was thinking, allowing it.

Once you become acclimated to Beyond the Poseidon Adventure‘s surreal, unrealistic environment, you begin to notice how the characters and their motivations are just as patently artificial, in pro scripter Nelson Gidding’s (The Haunting, The Andromeda Strain) woeful script. We never buy the central buddy relationship of Caine and Malden as salty sailors who go way back together (what English-accented French tugboat operator wears Farah dress slacks and a fitted dress shirt…that somehow always manages to stay tucked in?), while Fields’ stowaway is as arbitrary (and thin) a story construction as you could possibly get in this type of genre outing—a genre notorious already for its usual quota of convenient, two-dimensional characterizations (we don’t get told who she is, where she comes from, or how, believably, she convinced Malden to give her a ride to North Africa…or France…or wherever they’re going).

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure has two villains—Savalas’ terrorist (but he says he isn’t one) and Boyle’s lesser loudmouth father—but the script has Caine appear far more sanguine about the obviously dangerous Savalas, than the random friction that pops up out of nowhere between him and ineffectual blowhard Boyle (a rather pathetic attempt to clone the Borgnine/Hackman fights from the first outing). The backstory revelations about the two villains are mismatched, as well: we learn absolutely nothing about Savalas’ main character, while supporting player Boyle gets to be a Freudian-challenged jealous father. It’s a piddling, low-bar dramatic conflict: he’s worried about Harmon touching his daughter (at least Borgnine had to worry about some john recognizing his gorgeous ex-prostitute wife, Stella Stevens).

Jack Warden’s blind (and bland) author is a “physical liability” substitute for Shelley Winter’s too-bulky character, while Shirley Jones’ ship’s nurse character seems destined to shadow Roddy McDowall‘s steward role from the first movie…except he actually had something to do in his movie (why on earth would Academy Award-winning Jones take this nothing role…particularly when she’s made to appear so dowdy and unattractive, for no good reason?).

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure‘s plot machinations are no more credible than its stock characters, unfortunately. Plot holes big enough to steer the Poseidon through abound, the most annoying of which is Savalas’ “plan.” What did Hamel do for him, for two years, setting this “plan” up? What is the “plan?” Is he a terrorist? He says it’s originally his plutonium…so how did he lose it, and why is he stealing it back? And for what? None of this is explained, when it’s absolutely imperative that we know why he’s on the ship (maybe it is in the extended television version, perhaps, which unfortunately hasn’t been released on DVD).

Malden’s terminal (or is it?) mystery ailment doesn’t seem too terribly pertinent, until he decides to sacrifice himself (at least I think he does) at the end of the movie…which is never actually shown (how ignominious: Malden doesn’t even get his big death scene. He literally just disappears). I’d like to think scripter Gidding and director Allen actually covered most of this, and the holes were subsequently created with the chainsaw editing hack job…but who knows?

You certainly can’t absolve Gidding from the abysmal dialogue, though. Pretty much every character is saddled with head-shaking garbage lines (Pickens’ “Ol’ ship’s a’rockin’ pretty bad, ain’t it, cap’in?” is a particular favorite), none more so, though, than Field. Field’s first line is a classic of bad moviemaking (“I’m sick,” she utters with her cutesy-pie pixieness…to which we the audience whole-heartedly agree), before she begins an unending series of asinine non sequiturs and poor wisecracks that make any viewer wish that she’ll be the first one to go under for the third and last time (when Caine states the Andrea Doria stayed afloat for ten hours before it sank, Field inexplicably rejoins, “Oh, yeah? Well I stayed up for a week once…so what?”).

No, despite Gidding’s and Allen’s laborious attempts to make “meaningful” Beyond the Poseidon Adventure‘s action scenes, by populating them with characters we “care” about, they fail. Miserably. And they’re not helped by the cast. Decidedly declasse compared to the first movie’s roster of stars (the original had 5 Oscar winners, Beyond has 2…for supporting turns), Beyond‘s anchor, Michael Caine (and he’s one of my favorites, so relax), just isn’t a match for Hackman or McQueen or Newman in terms of the physical requirements needed for this kind of role.

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Cosmically uncoordinated, knock-kneed Caine is so humorously cautious doing the simplest maneuvers here, it’s no wonder Allen usually stays nice and tight on him in close-ups, where he can do that yelling shtick that can be so hilariously hammy (indeed, Caine’s first appearance here consists of him, already at “11,” screaming at Field). Field, who can do comedy and drama with equal aplomb, unfortunately distills all of her worst characteristics and ticks and gimmicks into her Celeste character, creating one of the most grating, cringe-worthy turns you’re likely to see from this period of disaster movie making…and that’s saying something (when Allen lets her, without reason, “cry cute” in one scene, the effect is nauseatingly “precious” enough to make you forgive anything Richard Dreyfuss ever pulled).

As for Telly, well, as I’ve written before: he’s a god…but it’s depressing as hell to see this criminally underutilized actor so terminally bored (and boring) here, recycling his OHMSS Blofeld turn to absolutely no effect, while he poses and preens, slurring and spitting out impossible lines like, “I’m Dr. Stefan Svevo,” (he makes it sound like something from Dr. Seuss), and “The one marked ‘Sprague Pumps.’ Bring it up…NOW!” (I still yell that at the wife when I want more oatmeal). The rest of the cast is left to their own devices; if they look slightly ill-at-ease, as well, perhaps it’s because they saw the reception their director’s previous disaster epic, The Swarm, received that summer…and the notices that movie’s cast received from the gleefully vengeful critics.

The writer and director’s inability to draw believable characters, and the cast’s failure to at least enliven these stock personalities, however, could still have been acceptable—maybe even expected—had at least Beyond the Poseidon Adventure‘s action scenes delivered (we already know from stock disaster movie conventions that the characters are likely to be cardboard, and thus easier to knock down…or set on fire, or drown, or be blown up). After all, the characters and personal relationships in the original Poseidon weren’t all that special, either (go back and listen to hilariously self-important Hackman describe himself as a “rebel” preacher…and hit the floor in hysterics).

But the wonderfully funny performances and the plentiful action scenes in that original outing were first-rate (they work just as well today), and that was more than enough to make the movie a classic of its genre. In Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, however, the action sequences are as low-wattage and just plain dumb as the dramatic scenes are invariably inexplicable. When the two biggest “set pieces” (if you can even call them that) in your disaster movie are: 1) jumping over a 24-inch wide hole in the floor, and 2) climbing a perfectly safe ladder—a mind-numbingly boring scene that goes on forever—then you have a serious problem trying to generate some audience thrills and chills.

How can “The Master of Disaster” only give us machine gun fights at a mere ten paces, or a so-called slam-bang finale where a dangerous scuba escape from the ship takes a mere thirty seconds? They lower themselves into the open hole…and paddle to the surface. Done. That’s it. And everything in-between is the occasional explosion in the smoke stacks (how many times can those same two stacks from the first movie blow, actually?) while the actors throw themselves around the obviously stationary sets. This is where the waterlogged rehash Beyond the Poseidon Adventure commits its unpardonable cardinal sin: it’s a boring actioner—something no disaster movie can afford to be.


Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

11 thoughts on “‘Beyond the Poseidon Adventure’ (1979): Can disaster epics afford to be this boring?

      1. I watched it once on TV when I was younger. I thought it was alright but I can see how compared to the original it’s a let down.


  1. What an interesting and in depth review Mr.Mavis well done! I did see one typo though. Where is it you may be thinking? Well I’ll never tell!


  2. The story goes, some reporter asked Caine if he’d actually seen this movie after it was released. Supposedly he replied, “No, but I’ve seen the house that it paid for and that’s very nice.” Cute though probably too good to be true.


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