Although my background is academic, I now work in the field of climate change. And I’ve quickly learned that an occupational hazard of working on climate change is that you start to see it everywhere you look. That’s not surprising, I suppose, considering that climate change is, without any doubt and by a wide margin, clearly the most important problem facing America and the whole world right now, making it difficult to escape. I’ve looked at popular movies before and seen climate change allegories (even in films that ostensibly have nothing to do with climate change), but I did not expect, a couple of Saturday nights ago when I sat down to re-watch one of the most notoriously cheesy disaster flicks from the 1970s, to come away with an even more powerful allegory for our biggest problem. But yes, it’s true: I saw The Poseidon Adventure as a pretty powerful metaphor.
There’s something delightfully campy and non-serious about The Poseidon Adventure. While not the first of the 1970s disaster films or even the best, one could say that the genre, as especially epitomized by Hollywood producer Irwin Allen, reached its apotheosis with this rather infamous picture. The film is suffused with cliches, sodden with ropy dialogue, two-dimensional characters, laughable model work and festooned with some of the most garish and ridiculous clothes from the era. But despite all that, audiences, both then and now, tend to enjoy it immensely. I have heard that it’s especially a cult object among gay audiences. Scoring a $127 million box office take in 1972 (which is the equivalent of an eye-popping $740 million today), it’s safe to say that The Poseidon Adventure is a film more beloved than most, regardless of the reasons why it resonates.
The plot is pretty simple. An ancient ocean liner, the S.S. Poseidon, is on her last voyage before being retired to a scrap yard. All manner of characters are on board, including an irascible young reverend (Gene Hackman), a tough-as-nails police detective (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-hooker wife (Stella Stevens), a creepy and perhaps predatory haberdasher (Red Buttons), and one of the most annoying children ever to appear in a motion picture (Eric Shea). On New Year’s Eve, the ship, already top-heavy and running too fast against the orders of her captain (Leslie Nielsen), is swamped by a massive tsunami caused by an underwater earthquake off the Greek coast. The ship capsizes, killing many of its complement and crew. Reverend Scott, the Hackman character, leads a small band of survivors to climb upwards through the ship, deck by deck, to reach the now-upturned bottom where they hope rescue will be easier. Everyone in the group gets a chance to shine, but not all come out alive.
So what does this have to do with climate change? Ostensibly nothing; although global warming and its manmade cause was known in 1972 (and even earlier than that), the words “carbon dioxide” or “sea level rise” are never uttered in the picture. Why would they be? Yet the film contains some clear parallels with our societal-level climate problems.
In The Poseidon Adventure, a tsunami swamps the ocean liner, causing havoc within. This terse sequence is one of the best-ever “disaster” sequences in this uniquely 1970s genre.
First is the Poseidon itself. The ship, made in the film to match the exteriors of the real ocean liner Queen Mary (aboard which several scenes were filmed), is beautiful, but it’s old and clunky, a relic of another time. Especially in the later scenes as the characters enter the engine room we see the guts of the ship, all oil-smeared girders and exposed rivets, essentially 1930s technology that looks odd and out of place in the garish, colorful 1970s. Construction on the real Queen Mary began in 1931. Similarly, the technology that is driving us to disaster in the realm of climate change–fossil fuel infrastructure, principally the internal combustion engine–is also old, clunky and not well-suited for our modern age. The internal combustion engine is 19th century technology. To beat climate change we must change our society and our economy over to 21st century energy–wind, solar and other renewable, clean sources–and put aside the old ways that are better left in the past. Beautiful as she is, the film treats the Poseidon herself as doomed from the beginning. This is certainly true of the fossil fuel economy.
Second, the disaster that overwhelms Poseidon is not entirely natural in origin. The early scenes in the movie establish that the captain has serious concerns that the ship is top-heavy, but his request to take on more ballast is overruled by a corporate representative on the bridge who is afraid additional ballast will slow the ship down and cost the owners more. Today, like Poseidon’s captain, any responsible person who has studied the problem of climate change knows that our global society and economy is in danger from over-use of fossil fuels. But the corporate rep–the economic interests that continue to profit from outdated fossil fuels–cares more about short-term financial risk than the safety of our collective ship. When the tidal wave finally comes, Poseidon is ill-equipped to deal with it. A tsunami of climate-related impacts is already beginning to swamp us. If we don’t want to get turned over, we, as a society, have to make the responsible choice.
Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) faces resistance in convincing others to join his attempt to climb through the ship. When it comes to climate change, we must not be complacent and wait for someone to rescue us.
Once the ship does turn over, the genesis of the survivors’ odyssey shows us another parallel to climate change. In the shattered ballroom, the purser–the highest-ranking senior officer to survive–tells everybody, “Stay where you are! Help will be here any minute!” But he takes no action, pinning his hopes on rescue coming from the outside. Indeed, Reverend Scott must defy him, and convince others to disregard the purser’s authority, to begin to leave the ballroom and get to a higher deck. Right now, the authorities–especially governments, like ours, which has repudiated the Paris Accords–are not unlike the wounded purser in the ballroom, paralyzed by inaction, while the people over whom he holds power are increasingly skeptical that he’s working the problem. It is not governments that will take the laboring oar on climate change mitigation and adaptation. It’s businesses, companies, communities and individuals. No one is going to rescue humanity from its climate problems. We must make the journey ourselves, by acting on the problem, not waiting for someone else to solve it.
Finally, there’s the song. No discussion of The Poseidon Adventure is complete without reference to the song, “The Morning After,” which is undoubtedly one of the cheesiest ditties ever to emerge from a motion picture–and fitting given the cheesy film that gives birth to it. The song is performed toward the beginning of the film in the ship’s ballroom, but a single sung by Maureen McGovern (who does not sing it in the film) became a runaway hit in 1973, garnering an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The lyrics of the song are supposed to foreshadow the survivors’ hope. “Oh can’t you see the morning after…it’s waiting right outside the storm…why don’t we cross the bridge together?”
The song from The Poseidon Adventure, called “The Morning After,” is almost painfully corny. But it too has a lesson for someone looking for hope when it comes to climate change.
Hope is the key element of climate change action. I remain firmly convinced that we will beat climate change, not just because we have to, but because ultimately we will all benefit from the better, stronger world that will result from our efforts to solve it: a world with cleaner energy, more (and better) jobs, better technology, and more profit and prosperity for a much wider segment of society. It will be an arduous task to get there, as the survivors’ climb through the Poseidon‘s decks is in the film, but there is a morning after the storm of climate change. We must be motivated to reach it. The Poseidon Adventure thrives on hope, and so does the struggle against climate change.
Maybe I think too much about climate change. Maybe seeing climate change allegories in 1970s disaster films means I need to stop bringing my work home with me. But the magic of classic movies is that those of us in successor generations can reinterpret them to be relevant to our modern circumstances. No one who made The Poseidon Adventure in 1972 was thinking about global warming, but I think the message is still there. The disaster of man-made climate change will not be the end of us.