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The disasters that ate Hollywood

'Poseidon' follows in an explosive tradition

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Josh Lucas leads some survivors through the depths of "Poseidon."

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(CNN) -- Hollywood has always been fond of the all-star film. From "Grand Hotel" to "The Greatest Show on Earth," "Around the World in Eighty Days" and "Judgment at Nuremberg," packing a film with stars has often been a sure-fire marketing strategy, if not always a way to make a great film.

Now take all those stars and put them in a horrific situation -- a ship turned upside-down, for example, or a skyscraper in flames -- and you have the modern disaster movie.

And the "Master of Disaster" was Irwin Allen.

Allen had been a successful writer and editor before he got into films. He won an Oscar for his 1953 documentary "The Sea Around Us" and produced the '60s TV series "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," "The Time Tunnel" and "Land of the Giants."

Then came "The Poseidon Adventure."

"Airport" (1970), producer Ross Hunter's blockbuster film version of the Arthur Hailey novel, had already demonstrated a market for the disaster-movie formula. Allen, using Paul Gallico's novel as a starting-off point, extended the formula to include monumental special effects that were even bigger than the stars.

His 1972 "Poseidon," starring Gene Hackman (fresh off his Oscar win for "The French Connection"), Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons and the unforgettable Shelley Winters ("You see, Mr. Scott? In the water I'm a very skinny lady") was hokey, spectacular -- and incredibly successful. It was a summer popcorn flick before the type established itself.

After "Poseidon" came "The Towering Inferno" (1974), a movie containing such big stars -- Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, William Holden -- that a novel way had to be devised to give both Newman and McQueen top billing. (In the posters, McQueen's name comes first, but Newman's is higher. According to the Internet Movie Database, McQueen also required that he and Newman have exactly the same number of lines.)

"Inferno" was a huge success, as were other films of the era -- "Earthquake" (1974 -- in SENSORROUND!) and "Airport 1975" (1974). But 1974 was the peak of the disaster movie genre -- "The Hindenberg" (1976), "Airport '77" (1977), "The Swarm" (1978) and "When Time Ran Out ..." (1980) all tanked. The latter two were produced by Allen.

Perhaps the real sign of the end was the success of "Airplane!" [1980], which managed to parody the "Airport" films, "Zero Hour" and any number of other movies. (See this gallery for a guide to disaster moviesexternal link.)

What goes around comes around, and in today's Hollywood environment, the special effects really are the stars. Hence, "Poseidon," a "re-imagining" of "The Poseidon Adventure" that comes out this weekend.

Eye on Entertainment takes a dip.

Eye-opener

Given the expense of making a summer blockbuster, disaster-movie stars aren't quite the level of Paul Newman or Gene Hackman anymore. "Poseidon," which was rumored to cost $150 million, stars Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum and Andre Braugher. (There is at least one notable Oscar winner -- Richard Dreyfuss plays an architect.)

The characters have changed a bit. Instead of Borgnine's Rogo, a tough New York cop, there's Russell's Robert Ramsey, a former firefighter and mayor. Instead of Hackman's Rev. Frank Scott, yelling at God every step of the way, there's Lucas' Dylan Johns, a professional gambler.

The new "Poseidon" does have the requisite know-it-all kid, though, and the basic plot remains the same: giant cruise ship is overturned by a rogue wave on New Year's Eve and a ragtag group of survivors must make it to the top -- that is, the bottom -- of the ship before it sinks.

There are also tons of special effects to go the original's man-crashing-through-glass-ceiling set piece one better.

"Poseidon" is a Warner Bros. production (Warner Bros., like CNN, is a unit of Time Warner). But Twentieth Century Fox, knowing a good tie-in when they see it, recently re-released the original Allen "Poseidon" as well as "The Towering Inferno" on special-edition DVDs. Let the audience compare.

"Poseidon" comes out Friday.

On screen

  • "Just My Luck," with Lindsay Lohan, is about a lucky woman who becomes unlucky after kissing William H. Macy in "The Cooler." No, wait, she kisses someone else and becomes unlucky. Barbara Harris? Well, you get the idea. The film opens Friday.
  • "Goal! The Dream Begins" stars Kuno Becker and Stephen Dillane in a story about a poor Mexican immigrant from L.A. who gets the chance to play for a major English team. It opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • It's the end for the Bartlet administration, and the beginning of the Santos term, on "The West Wing." We'll never find out what kind of president Matt Santos would have made, though, because this is the end for "The West Wing" as well. 8 p.m. Sunday, NBC.
  • Over on Fox, Malcolm graduates -- and "Malcolm in the Middle" waves goodbye to television with its series finale. 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox.
  • CNN goes in pursuit of the people in pursuit of the stars on "CNN Presents: Chasing Angelina." 8 p.m. Saturday, CNN.
  • Sound waves

  • The great T Bone Burnett -- singer, songwriter, producer, record-company mogul, man that matters -- has two new releases Tuesday: "Twenty Twenty" (Sony/Legacy) a retrospective, and "The True False Identity" (Sony/DMZ), an album of brand-new material.
  • "Broken Boy Soldiers" (V2) is by the Raconteurs, a group including Jack White. It comes out Tuesday.
  • Hoobastank's new album, "Every Man for Himself" (Island), comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • "The Man of My Dreams" (Random House), a new book by "Prep" author Curtis Sittenfeld, comes out Tuesday.
  • "Now Is the Hour" (Houghton Mifflin), a new novel by Tom Spanbauer, comes out Monday.
  • Given all the attention to electronic eavesdropping, nuclear weapons and political games, the story of atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer is always illuminating. "The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer" (Penguin), Priscilla J. McMillan's well-reviewed book about the end of Oppenheimer's career, recently came out in paperback; "American Prometheus" (Vintage), Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman's National Book Award-winning biography, was also recently released in paperback.
  • Video center

  • "The Producers" -- the 2005 musical, not the 1968 comedy -- comes out on DVD Tuesday.
  • The second season of "Hill Street Blues" comes out on DVD Tuesday.
  • Though it's only been a little more than a year since it came out on DVD, "Napoleon Dynamite" now has a special "Like, the Best Special Edition Ever!" edition coming out. Whatever. Vote for Pedro. It's due Tuesday.
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