Upon the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 commentators have argued that American popular cultural has not changed significantly. Any minor changes have been in the direction of more vulnerable heroes and stories expressing greater uncertainty. A significant cultural change, however, occurred around 1980. The effects of this change are still with us and have not been affected by 9-11. A good way to gauge this development is to compare The Poseidon Adventure (1972, directed by Ronald Neame) with its 2006 remake, Poseidon, directed by Wolfgang Petersen.
Most critics have generalized disaster films as reassuring exemplars of old-fashioned entertainment. J. Hoberman has described seventies disaster films as politically retrograde artifacts in which “the sixties didn’t happen.” But on the S.S. Poseidon, a luxury liner on its final voyage from New York City to Athens, sixties’ rebelliousness has become the norm. The first scene of the film depicts a child passenger, Robin Shelby, (Eric Shea), sneaking onto the bridge and being scolded by Captain Harrison (Leslie Nielsen). This bit of business is a miniaturized, sentimentalized version of the youth-adult conflicts that roiled the 1960s. Elsewhere in the opening sequences of the film the ship’s doctor’s judgment is questioned, Robin refuses to obey his older sister, a people’s priest argues with the ship’s Chaplain, and the Captain argues with a businessman more concerned with money than the ship’s safety. The ship’s Purser jokes that the Captain doesn’t really run the ship, which will become a reality very soon. The Poseidon needs something much less potent than a tidal wave to turn it upside down.
Poseidon also begins with youthful rebellion. Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell) enters his stateroom aboard the New York-bound SS Poseidon to find his daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum) snuggling with her boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel). Ramsey delivers a typical speech about keeping things G-rated under his roof. But rather than take it in stride Jennifer becomes enraged and storms out of the room, rejecting his discipline as patronizing. But her rebellion is short-lived. After the ship is capsized by a gigantic wave Jennifer willingly reverts to child status. In order to continue their ascent through the ship Ramsey and Jennifer must slide across a firehose suspended across the ship’s devastated lobby. To psyche themselves up for this risky venture they pretend to reconstitute an earlier father-daughter relationship. Ramsey affectionately reminds Jennifer of her childhood propensity for getting lost and asks her if she would mind a piggyback ride. “Not today,” she says. After their successful crossing Jennifer doesn’t challenge her father again. Ramsey’s reassertion of control over his daughter, her willingness to return to dependency, to be infantilized, marks Poseidon as more trustful of authority figures, more conservative than its predecessor. Disaster requires that “natural leaders” (usually men) take charge and take the biggest risks. Father knows best.
The 1972 film is no less interested in strong male leadership, but it is more populist-pluralist, more skeptical of authority. Rebellion intensifies after a tidal wave capsizes the ship on New Year’s Eve. Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) disobeys the Purser and leads a group of survivors out of the main ballroom to journey upwards through the ship to attempt an escape through the upturned hull. Scott and his party ignores authority again when they refuse to join a group of survivors lead by the ship’s doctor, which is heading towards the bridge in the hope that the Captain is still alive and can help them.
Populist-pluralism is demonstrated in the creation of the group’s escape plan. James Martin (Red Buttons) correctly observes that any rescue attempt will have to come from the hull above them. Scott quickly agrees with Martin and starts a dissident movement to leave the ballroom and climb upwards to the hull. Young Robin provides the useful factoid that the ship’s hull is thinnest at the propeller shaft at the stern, making it the most likely spot to escape the ship. Although a triad of characters also provides motivation and information for Poseidon‘s rescue plan, the plan develops from the “top down.” Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas) starts to leave the ballroom on his own and others beg him to take them along. The pluralist-teamwork theme is also present: Ramsey establishes himself as a co-leader by combining his desire to find Jennifer with John’s escape plan.
But while Scott’s rescue effort has a more pluralist beginning, intragroup conflict plagues the group’s journey. The Poseidon Adventure, reflecting the “crisis of confidence” of the period, devotes more time to leadership struggles than any other disaster film, giving the film more dramatic interest and historical relevance than most other examples of the genre. Scott is constantly challenged by the boisterous Detective Lt. Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine). At one point Rogo mutinies against Scott’s leadership and demands that Scott personally reconnoiter the engine room (the goal of their journey) to see if it is passable. Unlike the Scott-Rogo relationship, Ramsey never disputes or undermines Johns. Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon), however, does challenge Ramsey’s authority, much like Rogo challenged Scott. “You ain’t the boss anymore,” he angrily tells Ramsey. But unlike Jennifer, who gave up her rebelliousness and survives, Larry remains an unrepentant Ramsey-basher and is quickly punished: he dies crossing the ship’s lobby. Rebel against authority at your own peril.
Within Scott’s group the distinction between leaders and followers does not stay fixed, at least not for very long. The heroic role may even pass from men to women. When Scott becomes trapped in a flooded corridor a heavy-set grandmother, Belle Rosen, (Shelley Winters) dives and rescues him. After Belle dies of a coronary, Rogo praises her; “You had a lotta guts, lady. A lotta guts.” No woman — in fact, hardly anyone other than Ramsey and Johns — get to show any “guts” in Poseidon. Elena Gonzalez (Mia Maestro) successfully dislodges a stuck survivor in a tense air duct scene, but it’s not nearly as surprising and dramatic as Belle’s rescue of Scott.
A somewhat perfunctory nod towards gender equity occurs earlier. Soon after the ship capsizes Jennifer and Maggie James (Jacinda Barrett) struggle unsuccessfully to free Christian from collapsed scaffolding in the ship’s nightclub. Lucky Larry intervenes and demonstrates the proper way to use a lever. But despite using a better technique the scaffolding won’t budge and Larry gives up. Jennifer however, won’t give up. Like any good disaster film hero she inspires others to persevere and they eventually lift the debris off Christian. In standard pluralist fashion, then, male mechanical aptitude and female devotion and constancy combine to get the job done. An additional swipe at reflexive sexism is taken later when Ramsey thanks Christian for saving Jennifer when in fact Jennifer saved Christian. The closest equivalent to the Belle-Scott rescue scene in Poseidon, however, reorders age and genders roles backwards. Maggie is separated by a wire mesh from her young son Conor (Jimmy Bennett) as the space around them fills with water. But instead of a woman rescuing a man, a man (Johns) rescues the boy while the woman looks on. Rather than showing guts, Maggie is immobilized with grief and fear while a man gets the job done for her.
Critics Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner note how The Poseidon Adventure was “the first disaster film to sympathetically incorporate young people.” The youngest character, Robin, provides crucial plot information (while the next youngest character, his sister, provides crucial sex appeal). The ever-skeptical Rogo dismisses Robin’s input, essentially telling the boy to let the grown-ups handle this. But Robin is ultimately proved right. In Poseidon, however, the proper relationship of the generations that Rogo desires has been achieved. This time, the propeller shaft idea comes from an adult; Johns. And in a complete reversal of the 1972 film an adult has to explain to a skeptical child why this is a good idea. In 2006 Conor can be an annoyance by wandering off alone and becoming trapped as well as a savior by using his small fingers to open a sealed grate confining the protagonists. But unlike his 1972 counterpart Conor lacks youth culture impudence or any rescue ideas of his own. Near the end of the film, Christian volunteers for a dangerous underwater mission in place of Ramsey (threatening to expand the category of natural leaders to younger adults). But Ramsey sneaks off and undertakes the mission before Christian can get going. Ramsey nobly sacrifices his life for others but also preserves the exclusive leadership class of experienced males. Between the two films one can sense the fading of the 1960s glamorization of youth and the rise of the ideology of Reagan-Bush-Bush: Grown-ups are in charge again.
There is an instructive parallel between Red Buttons’ lonely haberdasher in 1972 and Richard Dreyfuss’ heartbroken gay architect in 2006. James Martin, (Buttons) laments the lack of romance in his busy life. Richard Nelson (Dreyfuss) laments his recent abandonment by his longtime companion. Both men have polished manners, stylish attire and are physically unimposing. They are outside the norms of movie physical heroism. “Wimps,” if you will. Martin even jokes about not having virility. But overall, Nelson’s story is Martin’s story turned inside out. While Martin is accorded twee nobility, Nelson is merely pathetic. While the optimistic Martin has the crucial insight that they can be rescued through the hull, and near the end of the film provokes a despondent Rogo into action, the defeatist Nelson merely chimes in unhelpfully that, as an architect, he knows that ships are designed to float right side up, not upside down.
As their journey begins, Martin bonds with the younger Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), a delicate flower child/singer in go-go boots and hot pants grieving over the death of her brother. Martin dedicates himself to making sure Nonnie keeps up with the others and survives. Nelson also takes a protective interest in a younger woman (Elena). But unlike Nonnie, Elena dies. Whereas Martin could play the heroic male and help Nonnie through submerged passages, Nelson becomes stuck in an airshaft, trapping others below, requiring Elena has to dislodge him.Although Nelson does help ably when the group crosses an elevator shaft, the incident concludes badly. In order to escape the shaft, Nelson must shake off a man hanging onto Nelson’s legs (Nelson does this at Johns’ prompting). The man falls to a painful death. Disaster films rarely pose “lifeboat ethics” dilemmas this brutally. But according to the movie’s logic of natural leadership, better that Nelson do this than Ramsey or Johns, whose heroic statuses must remain untainted for the group to survive. Nelson is offered no opportunity to redeem himself and for the rest of the film he fades into the background as one of the rescued. The lesson? In 1972 the meek, while not inheriting the earth, could at least contribute to a group effort and try on the mantle of heroism. In 2006 a middle-aged gay architect can expect much less and less can be expected of him. The meek merely get in the way.
If women, children, and “wimps” come off worse in 2006, officialdom comes off better. The Poseidon’s 1972 crew bears much responsibility for the tragedy. The crew gets plenty of advanced warning in the form of radio messages and radar signals, but only takes action when they see the wave with their own eyes and it is too late to do much more than brace for the impact (an allegory of incompetent American leadership in the seventies is suggested here as well). The 1972 film also features a businessman villain. Linarcos (Fred Sadoff) is a representative of the ship’s owners. During the gale which opens the film, the Captain complains about how Linarcos had earlier countermanded his decision to take on ballast to stabilize the ship because doing so would slow the ship’s progress to its final destination: disassembly and the scrap heap. In American cinema it is always a bad thing when a politician or businessman in a suit exerts power over a man in uniform (think of the mayor and business leaders in Jaws, 1975, countermanding Chief Brody). Although Linarcos is not responsible for the tidal wave, the disordered leadership of the Poseidon is part of what makes the ship vulnerable to disaster. When the wave breaks in front of the ship a reaction shot of the Captain is followed by a shot of Linarcos, implicitly including him as one of the guilty parties.
By contrast the 2006 Poseidon crew is completely blindsided and blameless for the disaster. A “rogue wave” sounds a lot like a “rogue state,” something totally unpredictable, completely beyond American responsibility and control. There is no nasty businessman pulling rank on the Captain. There is no advanced radar signal for the Captain to ignore. In fact, Chief Officer Reynolds (Kirk B. R. Woller) senses something wrong in the sea before the wave appears. He is the equivalent of the government agencies that investigated the 9-11 perpetrators but were unable to prevent the actual attacks. And while only one rescue helicopter reached the upturned Poseidon in 1972, the final shot of the 2006 film is an aerial panorama of an ocean buzzing with rescue vehicles. Average citizens in distress can count on a swift government response (another 9-11 reference).
The leader-protagonists of each film are also characterized in crucially different ways. Although both Scott and Johns-Ramsey disobey ship’s officers when they lead their parties out of the ballroom, Scott’s rebelliousness goes to the heart of his character. Scott’s aggressive social gospel of “winning” places him at odds with the mild, pacifist ship’s Chaplain (Arthur O’Connell). Scott’s advocacy of poor people hypothetically setting fire to buildings to keep warm sounds like an indirect approval of the Watts Riots (Rogo later attributes Scott’s rough manner to the slums). Scott even dares to chastise God when things look bleak.
Ramsey, however, is a pure representative of institutional authority. He is an ex-fireman and an ex-Mayor of New York City. If Scott evokes a dissident leader like anti-war Senator George McGovern, Ramsey evokes and combines memories of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the heroic New York City firefighters of 9-11. Ramsey demonstrates that mainstream values don’t require a non-conformist pose (the old Reagan ethos). Since society is less disordered, and institutional authority more trustworthy, a less rebellious leadership style is required. Whereas Ramsey is a centrist by nature, Johns — the de facto rescue leader — undergoes a centrist transformation. Johns evolves from a gambler who preys on the weak to a hero who rescues the weak. At first, Johns intends to rescue only himself. He declares “Look, man, I work better on my own,” the basic rugged individualist credo. But Johns quickly adjusts to group activity, eventually taking the lead of the rescue party.
To be fair to conservatives, contemporary Hollywood films are often sprinkled with expressions of pluralism (“political correctness” in their parlance) that counterbalance conservative elements. Poseidon is no exception. The Captain of the ship is African-American, two of the protagonists are Latino, and a gay man is among the survivors. Larry’s disrespectful attitude towards Ramsey resembles Blue State “Bush-bashing”. Just as liberals “unfairly” criticize Bush, who is trying to defend us, Larry pointlessly excoriates Ramsey, who is trying to rescue him. But unlike blockbusters such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Revenge of the Sith (2005), and War of the Worlds (2005), which took veiled and not-so-veiled swipes at the Bush Administration (duly noted by conservatives), Poseidon allegorizes Bush-Cheney’s favored image of itself: a cohesive team of responsible leaders protecting the public in the face of catastrophe.
While seventies disaster films often conclude with images of ruin and despair — Steve McQueen glancing sadly at the covered bodies of dead firefighters near the end of The Towering Inferno (1974) — Millennial disaster films are more optimistic and conclude with images of rejuvenation. The Force 5 tornado in Twister (1996) conveniently punishes the villains, serves to romantically reunite the heroes, and morphs into an expression of the Spielbergian Sublime. Volcano (1997), after lava floes turn Hancock Park into Jurassic Park, concludes with a post-Rodney King parable of racial harmony. In Titanic (1997) the deaths of 1,500 people serve to liberate Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet) from the constraints of the British class system and Victorian chauvinism. The film concludes with a glowing fantasy restoration of the sunken ship, with Rose reunited with her dead lover. The ice age that blankets North America in The Day After Tomorrow starts with tornadoes and tidal waves, but ultimately cleanses the earth’s atmosphere of pollution and the American government of arrogance.
The differences in plot and imagery suggest that the 1970s were, to use the cliché, “uncertain times” — much more so than our time. The Poseidon Adventure, as much as any film, reflects the mood of the seventies. Just as the Poseidon is struck by a tidal wave soon after surviving a gale, America — having endured racial discord, assassinations, counter-cultural turmoil, and civil disturbances in the sixties — was knocked by inflation, unemployment, gas lines, a Presidential resignation, final defeat in Vietnam, and a hostage crisis in the seventies. Majorities believed America was on the wrong course and that the future would be worse than the past. Millennial disaster films don’t express this level of pessimism, indicating that an equivalent level of pessimism doesn’t exist in society at large, even after 9-11. Proof can be seen in the fact that Daylight (1996), the Millennial disaster film that most resembles its claustrophobic seventies forebears, performed less well domestically than its competitors.
Despite unjustified fears of the Y2K social breakdown (a disaster film that never happened) and justified post-9-11 fears of terrorism, recent American disaster films have been geared towards redemption and renewal. Granted, it’s hard to find something positive in a capsized ocean liner or in the rubble of American monuments, but American optimism insists on it. And Hollywood films, despite what is often alleged, have been serving us this optimism for decades.