The 'Poseidon' Effect: Hollywood's Greatest Disasters

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.

These films have also had tremendous impact on popular culture, as well as the stars who have appeared in them. Here are reflections on a few of them:

"The Towering Inferno" (1974) -- The world's largest building burns down on the night it opens in this Allen extravaganza. Few movies grow scarier as the years pass, but the scenes of people jumping from skyscraper windows are nearly impossible to watch without being reminded of the tragedy at the World Trade Center. Don't expect a remake any time soon.

Also frightening, but in a far different way, is watching O.J. Simpson in the role that helped launch his film career. In its day, however, "Inferno" was a smash success, earning eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and winning in three technical categories.

One more scary thought: This film earned the legendary Fred Astaire the only Oscar nomination he'd ever receive, and he doesn't even dance.

"Earthquake" (1974) -- While an over-emoting Charlton Heston has sent chills up many spines, in this film he's aided with a cinematic innovation -- called Sensurround -- that caused theater seats to shake as an earthquake reduces Los Angeles to rubble.

The Sensurround technology was achieved by installing high-powered bass amplifiers on the theater floor, and the sensation was so strong when the movie premiered at Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theatre that it caused plaster to fall from the ceiling as it was being tested.

Thank goodness the script for "Earthquake 2" was never produced. In it, stars from the first movie -- including George Kennedy, Victoria Principal and Richard Roundtree -- were supposed to move to San Francisco to recover from their seismic trauma. Heston -- who was uneasy about having to appear in the embarrassing sequel "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" -- actually insisted that his "Earthquake" character be killed off.

Los Angeles again faced destruction in 1997's "Volcano" and would have been buried in molten lava if not for Tommy Lee Jones and a brainy Anne Heche.

"Airport" (1970) -- While Kennedy didn't star in "Earthquake 2," he had the distinction of being the only star to appear in all four "Airport" movies, helping to explore nearly every calamity an air traveler could endure, including a hijacking (the original), a midair collision ("Airport 1975"), a nose dive into the ocean ("Airport '77"), and dodging nuclear missiles at supersonic speed ("The Concorde: Airport '79").

While the series didn't actually do much to inspire air safety innovations, surely it inspired the great spoof "Airplane" (and, as Leslie Nielsen would say, don't call me Shirley.)

"Twister" (1996) -- Before Bill Paxton became TV's most famous polygamist on HBO's "Big Love," he was a weatherman trying to get his storm-chaser wife to sign divorce papers so he could run off with his girlfriend. Soon, the three get caught up in the "suck zone" as it's called, and old passions are stirred up.

Paxton could have forecast an advancing front of weather-related disaster films. In the years to come, we'd find George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg as fishermen swallowed by a killer hurricane in "The Perfect Storm" (2000) and Dennis Quaid as a heroic climatologist in "The Day After Tomorrow."

"Deep Impact" (1998) -- Disaster films are usually a race against time. In this case, it was a race between two asteroid-hitting-Earth movies, both premiering in 1998. "Deep Impact" won the foot race, hitting theaters on May 8, two months ahead of "Armageddon." "Armageddon" won the more important battle by outgrossing its rival internationally by about $200 million.

Perhaps moviegoers just went with the more lighthearted film, and that tone was clear in the movies' tag lines. "Deep Impact": " Heaven and Earth are about to collide." "Armageddon": "Earth. It Was Fun While It Lasted."

It also might have come down to this: Whom do you want to save the planet? Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Ben Affleck, or Robert Duvall, Tea Leoni and Elijah Wood?

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.