Aah, the '70s. The age of energy crisis, political turmoil ... and disaster movies. With Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon set to make a big splash on movie screens next week, it might be time to look at the top disaster flicks of the '70s ... and start making bets on which will be the next one to be remade. These films had cutting-edge effects, top casts and high-power studio screenwriting and production behind them ... by the standards of the day, anyhow. Time has not been kind to many of these films, and some of them now work far better as cultural artifacts than as actual movies. But at heart, they all have a certain something -- hard-core premises, ambition and the kind of casting you'd get if you put your finger down at random in the Beverly Hills phone book.
1) Airport (1970)
The Pitch: As one of the nation's busiest airports is shut down by snowfall, a suicidal passenger carrying a bomb manages to smuggle and detonate the device on board a 707. With airport chief Burt Lancaster and chief engineer George Kennedy trying to open a runway for the crippled flight, pilot Dean Martin struggles to get the plane down safely.
The High Points: The macho, macho combo of Lancaster, Kennedy and Martin -- plus genre-defining elements like technobabble, sprawling casts and ace snappy banter.
Unintentional Disaster Moment: This is the film that earns Helen Hayes her second Oscar?
2) The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
The Pitch: See illustration. Or, a top-of-the-line liner is swamped by a huge wave and completely capsized; as the boat collapses, sinks and burns simultaneously (which you'd think would be tough, but it manages to happen somehow) as a group of passengers including Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson and Red Buttons try to get out alive.
The High Points: Without a doubt, Hackman's turtleneck-clad man of God dangling from a superheated pipe over a flaming abyss, railing at Him with true wrath.
Unintentional Disaster Moment: Not a moment, but more of a motif: Everyone in this movie seems about 800 years old. That is not the case, but the top-line cast of The Poseidon Adventure does average out far closer to retirement age than one might think.
3) The Towering Inferno (1974)
The Pitch: A very tall building is on fire. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The High Points: Paul Newman and Steve McQueen as the architect and fire-fighter who work -- despite disagreements -- to get the cast out of the burning San Francisco skyscraper. At the finale, McQueen is rueful. "You know we got lucky tonight, body count's less then 200. Someday your gonna kill ten-thousand in one of these firetraps, and I'll keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us how to build them. " Newman speaks from his soot-stained heart: "O.K, I'm asking."
Unintentional Disaster Moment: Why is it that we laugh at the thought of O.J. Simpson as a security guard? I mean, are we that easily amused?
4) Earthquake (1974)
The Pitch: See title. Or: California slides into the ocean, as the mystics and statistics say it will. After the quake, a broad spectrum of L.A. residents including Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, George Kennedy, Victoria Principal, Lorne Greene and Geneviève Bujold -- I mean, really broad -- try to make it to safety, with fire, looting, flooding and motorcycle jumps along the way.
The High Points: Earthquake was shot in Sensurround, an attempt to shake your booty in time with the narrative through one of Hollywood's first experiments in boomin' systems; plus, one of the most bizarre cameos in movie history.
Unintentional Disaster Moment: Marjoe Gortner's power-mad National Guardsman. As Jeff Anderson observed of Ryan Reynolds, Marjoe Gortner can't even act crazy.
5) Airport '75 (1975)
The Pitch: After a mid-air collision between an airliner and a small plane, THE STEWARDESS IS FLYING THE PLANE!
The High Points: Charlton Heston, baby -- as the hotshot jet-jock talking his stewardess-turned-pilot girlfriend Karen Black back to the ground. Plus, George Kennedy is back. And THE STEWARDESS IS FLYING THE PLANE!
Unintentional Disaster Moment: Not nearly as good as the first, but profitable enough to lead to two more films. Ouch. And Gloria Swanson as Gloria Swanson.
6) Hindenburg (1975)
The Pitch: A slow-moving vessel, made of nothing more than hot gas trapped under a thin skin, has a bomb on board. Any metaphor for the finished product is just good fortune.
The High Points: Well, Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott are in it ... and director Robert Wise filmed the explosion of the ship with hand-cranked cameras to match the original footage.
Unintentional Disaster Moment: It's hard to cultivate a sense of real tension on a ship that's propelled by the wind, frankly.
7) The Swarm (1978)
The Pitch: Bees -- African Killer Bees -- come to America. They are willing to kill people in greater numbers and for less pay than American bees: Think of The Swarm as an early outsourcing horror film.
The High Points: Well, it was the feature-film directorial debut of disaster producer Irwin Allen, who produced many of the classics above -- Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure -- and it's a chance to see a man who defined a genre direct a film in it.
Unintentional Disaster Moment: Michael Caine's turtleneck-wearing doctor. And is that Henry Fonda being menaced by a giant, stop-motion bee?
Are there any films, highlights or low points we missed?