The Ninjabot

Disaster Film Review and Analysis: TOWERING INFERNO (1974), JUGGERNAUT (1974), AVALANCHE (1978), and BEYOND the POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979)

Posted on May 27, 2015 at 5:10 pm by Dylan Reynolds

In anticipation of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s new action extravaganza SAN ANDREAS- I decided to check out a quartet of disaster movies from the genre’s heyday of the 1970s and do a little review/ write up/ analysis of the disaster genre… or what we lovingly refer to today as old school “Destruction Porn”.

“Destruction Porn” is a term coined to describe movies that have seemingly been released every summer since the advent of CGI in the 90s- usually accredited to filmmakers like Dean Devlin/ Roland Emmerich (i.e. INDEPENDENCE DAY, DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 2012), James Cameron (TITANIC- the only “disaster film” to win Best Picture), and Michael Bay (ARMAGEDDON, PEARL HARBOR, and the TRANSFORMERS series). The term also encompasses other critically derided would-be blockbusters like DEEP IMPACT, DANTE’S PEAK, THE CORE, DAYLIGHT, VOLCANO, TWISTER and countless other SyFy Channel Originals.

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But the root of the genre can be traced back to the very beginnings of cinema itself- with numerous silent films being made about the “great flood”/ Noah’s Arc and the sinking of the Titanic (yes, way before Cameron got around to it). But from my research it would seem that the film DELUGE from 1933 was the first “big budget/ high concept blockbuster disaster film” that used a completely “made up premise” as an excuse for wanton mayhem and destruction for the sake of mass entertainment.

The earthquake sequence in DELUGE has some cool special effect and model work (which is of course dated today) but it’s amazing how much of the imagery has been repeated ad nauseum with the blockbusters that have followed in its wake. In fact- a side-by-side comparison with the SAN ANDREAS trailer would show them to be very similar movies.

You can check out the “earthquake sequence” from DELUGE here….

Therefore it would seem that people have always engaged in the “vicarious therapy” of watching a bunch of people getting killed as a way to deal with existential anxieties. One can assume the modern wave of “Destruction Porn” is linked to 9/11 and the various social and political issues that have resulted. And to that point- the “Golden Age” of the disaster film was in the 70s- when America was dealing with everything from Watergate, Vietnam, oil shortages, Middle East turmoil, and economic downturns (sounds kind of familiar huh?). Perhaps it was this sense that “things were falling apart” which made the genre so popular then as it is today.

TOWERING INFERNO (1974) is in many ways a quintessential example of the disaster genre- and was one the highest grossing and most critically acclaimed films of its day.

Peep the trailer:

Produced by Irwin Allen following the success of his disaster film POSEIDON ADVENTURE from two years before- both were extravagant and impressive productions that would give Allen the moniker “Master of Disaster” with his expert handling of vast and awe inspiring sets, star studded casts and ground breaking special effects. In fact- between Tower and Poseidon- one can say that Allen perfected the “disaster film formula” that came to define the genre and would show its DNA in everything from INDEPENDENCE DAY to SAN ANDREAS- thus making it one of the most stringently structured and adhered to of all the Hollywood genres outside of the slasher film.

The-Towering-Inferno-Moive-PosterIn short- with a disaster movie you have slumming A-list actors and recognizable character actors engaging in numerous over-lapping “Soap Opera-esque” sub-plots that are little more than time wasters until some type of catastrophe occurs.

TOWERING INFERNO’s cast features everyone from Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Robert Wagner and even Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson, and the young kid from the “Brady Bunch”. All them end up gathering in the “world’s tallest skyscraper” where a prolonged set up weaves together the various sub-plots and characters. Then we are treated to an extended special effects-laden sequence of “the disaster” itself. In this case some faulty electrical wiring shorts out on a lower floor- causing a fire that erupts in a hellblaze that engulfs the entire building.

The rest of the film details the attempts of survival and/ or escaping from the imminent danger. Along the way there’s oodles of melodrama with the “good guys” dying heroic deaths and the “corporate sleaze balls who caused the tragedy due to their ineptness or willful ignorance” going down like sniveling cowards. This can pretty much sum up TOWERING INFERNO’s plot- but can also provide the blueprint for all subsequent entries in the genre.

Personally- I found INFERNO to be pretty enjoyable and I appreciated it in the “they don’t make them like this anymore” sentiment. Granted- it’s overwrought and overlong- and some of the earnest melodrama gets eye rolling on more than a few occasions- but at the end of the day you can tell Allen just wants to entertain and “put on a damn good show” and what he comes up with is undeniably an influential “crowd pleasing” epic.

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So the disaster trend of the 70s first began with the release of AIRPORT (‘70), then the aforementioned Irwin Allen mega hits POSEIDON ADVENTURE (’72) and TOWERING INFERNO (’74), which were then quickly followed by another rousing success in EARTHQUAKE (’74). From there other studios and producers jumped on the bandwagon with dozens of these titles being released in subsequent years.

Even the Brits got in on the fun with what many regard as one of the most underrated examples of the genre- JUGGERNAUT (‘74). This time around- instead of an impressive American cast the UK dished out the best their country had to offer with folks like Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs), Ian Holm (Alien, Lord of the Rings), Richard Harris (Unforgiven), Omar Sharif (Lawrence of Arabia), and David Hemmings (Blow Up, Deep Red) vying for screen time.

Here’s the trailer:

The plot: A large luxury cruise ship sets off from England when in mid- trip the captain (Sharif) gets word that they have been targeted by a terrorist who calls himself the “Juggernaut”.   The madman has placed seven bombs on the ship’s lower decks and demands a ransom by the next morning or everyone on board will die. They send in a wise-ass bomb disposal expert (Harris) and his hotshot partner (Hemmings) to defuse the devices- while back on the mainland the police (Hopkins and Holm) try to track down the terrorist before it’s too late. It all culminates in a suspenseful climax where the “cutting the red or blue wire” cliché originated.

0071706_bigBesides the set up, sprawling cast and the sub-plots I actually didn’t see JUGGERNAUT as being very much of a disaster film in the traditional Irwin Allen sense. I can see where the influence of POSEIDON ADVENTURE as far as it being a “suspense thriller set on a cruise ship” comes from- but save for a few explosions and fatalities the action is very subdued. And plus there’s no actual disaster and hence no “fight for survival” with the ship’s passengers. Therefore I would say JUGGERNAUT would more accurately be labeled as a “terrorist thriller”. And to its credit the movie seems to have influenced later films of its ilk- especially with the “bomb diffusing sequences” (again- the “red or blue wire” trope) and the parallel investigation at “command center” (EXECUTIVE DECISION comes to mind).

Overall it’s refreshing to see a thriller that isn’t so “Hollywood-ized” and “paint by numbers”- and therefore JUGGERNAUT is not a completely predictable affair and thus delivers on the promise of tension and suspense. That said- there are times where one wants to give the movie a swift kick in the pants so it would actually start doing something other than just “sitting around”. In fact- the whole thing seems very British (i.e. polite)- and judging by how people behave in the film- the “ticking time clock” scenario seems to be not that big of a deal. Plus I didn’t really understand why they couldn’t figure out a way to start getting the passengers off the ship while they worked on diffusing the bombs.

Plot inconsistencies like these make the movie an odd and frustrating viewing experience at times. But like I said- there are some effective moments- especially in the film’s final act. And it’s hard to ignore the fantastic cast- which makes JUGGERNAUT a genre obscurity that’s worth checking out.

As with any period in cinema history- if there’s a trend or genre that can be pillaged for an easy buck then B-movie and exploitation producers were sure to put their hats in the ring. And since this was the 70s- “King of the B’s” Roger Corman did just that with AVALANCHE (1978)- which would be his sole contribution to the disaster genre.

Corman trailers are always entertaining- sometimes more than the movie itself:

Of course Corman didn’t quite have the budget of an Irwin Allen production for his “disaster epic” so his version of a “star studded cast” isn’t as impressive. You basically have “three leads” comprising of an “over the hill/ former heartthrob” Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk), an “on the decline” Mia Farrow (Rosemary’s Baby), and a “rising star” Robert Forster (Jackie Brown).

avalancheThe movie concerns a business tycoon (Hudson) who is trying to rekindle his marriage by inviting his ex-wife (Farrow) to a big lodge/ ski resort he’s opening. Farrow shows up but Hudson is distraught to find her not be too impressed or willing to get back together with him. Worse yet- she seems to be smitten by a young forest ranger/ photographer/ environmentalist guy (Forster) who is also a thorn in her ex-husband’s side.

Forster warns Hudson that he has built the resort smack dab in the middle of “avalanche country”. And by disturbing the environment with all the construction and deforestation he is creating a “death trap” for anyone who visits the resort. Hudson of course takes no heed and pretty soon a bunch of visitors arrive for some kind of “winter sports competition” that includes ice skating, skiing, and for some random reason a gladiatorial-esque snow mobile race.

While everyone is having a good time a plane crashes into a mountain setting off a devastating avalanche. Again- Corman doesn’t have the money to utilize ground breaking special effects so there’s basically some stock footage of real avalanches intercut with people getting pelted/ engulfed with styrofoam “white chunks”. Not much of this sequence is very convincing but it’s fairly well constructed and edited.

After the avalanche is over one would expect (as other films in the genre do) there would be another hour’s worth of “fighting for survival” and the continuation of the melodramatic sub plots set up in the first half. Instead Corman seems to approach the film like his standard drive-in monster movies- following the mantra that “once the monster is dead- the movie is over”. And as he probably rightfully assumed- with this movie the audience came to see the avalanche wipe out a bunch of fools and everything else is basically a waste of time. So the movie has maybe ten minutes worth of “survival’ and then a weird wrap up where Farrow both doesn’t get with Forster and leaves Hudson to dwell in the guilt of the tragedy that he basically caused. The ending is the equivalent of a cinematic shrug.

I still had fun watching the movie and I can always find things to appreciate in a Roger Corman production but ultimately the movie doesn’t offer much to set itself apart from the glossier productions it attempts to emulate.

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As the decade drew to a close the disaster trend started to wane in popularity. The “Master of Disaster” himself Irwin Allen would continue to ride the wave with diminishing degrees of success- including a few TV movie cash-grabs (FLOOD!, FIRE!, and CAVE-IN!) and a costly flop in the form of ‘78s killer bee flick THE SWARM. After which- Allen went “back to the well” to make a sequel to one of his most successful productions.

BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (’79) came out after Jaws/ Superman/ Star Wars and its critical and commercial failure became something of a swan song for the 70s disaster film- which gave way to the Spielberg/ Lucas fantasy/adventure “crowd pleaser” as the defacto blockbuster template for the next decade.

Here’s the trailer:

The plot: Michael Caine and his two person crew (including Sally Field) is in trouble with the bank and to make matters worse the cargo they had was lost in the violent storm from the previous evening. They happen upon the capsized ship of the Poseidon, which went down with the storm/ tidal wave as seen in the previous movie. Caine decides that they should infiltrate the ship and salvage/ plunder whatever riches they can before the ship sinks. Unfortunately a rival group also arrives lead by a sinister Telly Savalas who claims to be looking for more survivors.

01 Beyond Poseidon Adventure Posters 01 6-2-12Once inside the ship- Caine finds a safe that has a bunch of gold coins. They load up and attempt to leave but come across a motely assortment of passengers/ survivors. As the ship continues to fall apart around them- Caine’s initial goal of greed gives way to the nobler cause of leading them all to safety. But then in a twist- Savalas turns out to be a bad guy (I know, shocking) who is seeking a large cache of machine guns, grenades, and weapon grade plutonium (!) to use for his own nefarious “James Bond villain” schemes. Savalas and his goons give chase but ultimately Caine manages to lead most of the group back to his boat as the Poseidon explodes- sending the bad guys sinking down to the ocean floor.

BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is perhaps the very definition of “unneeded and unnecessary” sequel that has no real reason to exist. And even by disaster movie standards (where the plots are silly and the characters are presented in “broad strokes”) this movie manages to defy all logic and credulity. I mean seriously- why in the hell would a luxury cruise liner have boxes full of M-16s and plutonium lying around? One of the most ridiculous plot points I have encountered in recent memory.

Of course Savalas and Caine are always welcome in any movie. And one could say there’s enjoyment that can be derived from all the campiness on display. But if you want cheese and camp the better versions of the genre (i..e any of the movies mentioned above) are more worthwhile. BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE can only be recommended for completists and bad movie fans.

In conclusion- we often hear that the modern “Hollywood blockbuster” originated from a few films that were released towards the later half of the 70s- mainly SUPERMAN, JAWS and STAR WARS. But as one can see- Hollywood was making these big budget/ A list cast driven “event movies” at the beginning of the decade as well. Therefore it can be said that these disaster movies were the first true Hollywood blockbusters that were produced with the express intent of churning out lots of money.

And just like how the genre fell out of favor at the end of the 70s- today there’s talk and analysis that we as a culture are beginning to emerge out of the “destruction porn” phase as well- with audiences seemingly bored out of their minds with all of the soulless CGI laden flicks of cities and buildings crumbling. The recent backlash against MAN OF STEEL and AVENGERS 2 proves this point.

Perhaps as the events of 9/11 become more distant memories and we either accept or “move on” from them- then we will stop going to the theaters every summer to vicariously relive the events of that day over and over and/ or to rewrite its outcome.

But either way- if the disaster movie falls out of favor again we know it will eventually come back around with a vengeance. That’s because nothing says a crowd pleasing “big budget blockbuster” like seeing a bunch of stuff getting blown up and destroyed real good.

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