The 'Poseidon' Effect: Hollywood's Greatest Disasters

A Tradition of Big-Budget, Star-Studded Earthquakes, Tidal Waves, Killer Storms and Other Catastrophes


May 9, 2006 —  Never fear a 150-foot tidal wave if you're in Hollywood.

The Poseidon will keep sailing as long as it sells, and even if you're not going down with this ship, you're still doomed … to watch the same movie again and again.

You can't talk about the remake of "The Poseidon Adventure," which opens Friday, without first mentioning that it's hitting theaters less than six months after a TV remake, also called "The Poseidon Adventure," and we should also acknowledge that the 1972 classic spun off a laughably bad sequel, "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure."

Oh, you can quibble with plot changes, if you must. In the NBC version last year, it was a terrorist — not a tidal wave — that caused the cruise ship to capsize. The boat still goes bottom up, and a ragtag group of passengers — led by a priest and a homeland security agent — must scale the decks of the upside-down vessel, if they are to survive.

Of course, the new version, simply called "Poseidon" and starring Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss and Emmy Rossum, can't help but conjure up memories of a certain iceberg-ravaged ship that counted Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio among its flotsam and jetsam.

Indeed, the original "Poseidon" had a tremendous impact on Hollywood, starting a tradition for big-budget, star-studded disaster films that became the rage in the 1970s, and, while fading at points, never really went away.

In subsequent films, it was never again quite so easy to recapture those magic, big-screen moments on the sinking boat, like when the grandmotherly Shelley Winters dives into a submerged deck to rescue Gene Hackman or when Ernest Borgnine — in his tattered tuxedo — cries over his dead wife.

But producer Irwin Allen — the so-called master of disaster — would move on to "The Towering Inferno" (1974) and then to his killer bee saga, "The Swarm" (1978), before taking on volcanoes in "When Time Ran Out."

Perhaps no Hollywood genre gets kicked around as much, but disaster films say a lot about what scares America the most — and those fears have shifted over the years.