Sometimes I look at the hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into movie theaters and feel out of touch. It boggles my mind that a movie like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen can sell over fifty-million theater tickets in the US. My movie tastes seem so far outside the norm that I can’t even comprehend why tens of millions of people would pay to see this movie. Am I such a movie snob that I can’t find any joy in the films that the average movie goer enjoys? Am I a part of the cinema elite, out of touch with the needs and hopes and desires of the movie going public? Is it my problem or everyone else’s that I find nothing in these movies?

These fears resurfaced as I sat down to watch The Poseidon Adventure, Irwin Allen and Ronald Neame’s famous disaster movie. Upon its release in 1972, the film grossed nearly half a billion inflation adjusted dollars, putting it in the same league as movies like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the original Superman. Over the first half-hour, the film painstakingly introduces a raft of clichéd characters. The rebellious priest, the bickering brother and sister, the hard-boiled cop with an ex-prostitute wife. “Please, make it stop,” I thought. I don’t know how many times I rolled my eyes at the hammy acting and ridiculous dialog. I couldn’t help but think that this would be yet another movie that would make me feel isolated from the average moviegoer.

After an impressive scene where the S.S. Poseidon capsizes, I had a little more hope, but quickly returned to sighing at the film’s clunky construction. “Why must every character always recite every thought that enters their head? Why is every emotion expressed as either shouting, whining, or crying?” I wondered. “Why are all the action sequences so mundane? Why am I watching a movie about a bunch of ordinary people climbing ladders and walking through hot rooms?” I bristled. Even as I tried to unleash an unceasing torrent of scorn upon the film, though, I could feel something changing. Much to my relief, I was starting to enjoy myself. And with that relief came an understanding of the importance of movies like this.

What I’ve begun to realize is that The Poseidon Adventure is not a good film in any critical sense of the word, but it’s praiseworthy nonetheless. The egregious exposition, the excessive emotionality, and the banal action combine into an exploration of any viewer’s most primal instincts. The film turns away from being an exercise in empathy or intellectual exploration and instead becomes a fun vehicle for fun self-evaluation. As the survivors drag themselves from one decision point and obstacle to the next, viewers aren’t asked to empathize with any of them. Instead, they’re asked to look upon the array of unambiguous responses to the situation and pick which one represents them the best. What would I do in this situation? Would I cower in the dark awaiting death? Would I take charge? Would I cling to my sister?

The Poseidon Adventure, then, is the perfect example of an honestly populist film. It eschews most of the trappings of critically laudatory cinema in favor of speaking to every last member of the movie going public. It shuns believability and subtlety for entertainment. It replaces extraordinary people with the whining, shouting, scared masses. It exchanges complex motivations for a very simple one: survival. The film turns to everyone who thought The Godfather, released in the same year, was too heavy or slow or complicated and screams, “Movies are for you! Movies are about you!” It’s a beautiful, inclusive vision of cinema that’s easy for cinephiles like myself, enamored with the French New Wave, to scoff at for lacking nuance and creativity. If the critic’s top picks are the mind of cinema, movies like The Poseidon Adventure are its heart. Without both, there is no life at the movies.

And yet I can’t help but think of The Poseidon Adventure as a cousin of lifeless abominations like The Da Vinci Code or The Day After Tomorrow. Perhaps that’s because there’s a sinister side to cinematic populism. The cynical among the powers that be in Hollywood can abuse the public’s love for these movies in their name. They can slink away from creating cinema that enlightens everyone to creating garbage that draws on humanity’s basest instincts to get butts in seats and dollars in bank accounts. They take features like action, adventure, comedy, and romance that attract people to movies and blow them out into monstrous proportions. They inject dopamine straight into our pleasure centers without exploring any of the humanity. A movie starring a beautiful woman grows into movie with a leering camera and a scantily clad heroine. A thrilling car chase metastasizes into nonsensical mishmash of cuts and explosions. A broad comedy evolves into a collage of disgusting and incoherent punchlines.  “But aren’t they entertained?” executives might reply to the cries of the cinema elite who complain of the endless retreads of the Transformers series, with their meaningless violence, egregious titillation, and soulless narratives. And as these misanthropes line their pockets, an art form which, at its best, elevates the soul, is slowly debased. The public loses faith in the power of cinema to raise them up because they grow accustomed to cinema which pulls us down. Too much of this and the whole enterprise of cinema is destined for destruction.

Cinema, like all art, walks a razor’s edge between the arcane ideals of its elites and the desire of the movie going public to lose themselves in the creativity of others. My own tendency, after spending years watching cinema, is to align with the tastes of the elite. I want more P.T. Anderson. I want more Jean Renoir. But I must recognize that overindulging the elitist streak of cinema risks consigning it to the kind of irrelevance that arguably plagues contemporary classical music and art. The fact is, the populist streak of cinema is just as valuable as it’s elitist one. A movie that honestly cares for all people like The Poseidon Adventure or Star Wars: Episode IV should elicit as much respect as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Tokyo Story. Without people to speak for the value of both sides of cinema, there is no cinema at all. Instead, we’re left with anti-films like Grown Ups 2 which exist only to serve the financial interests of their creators. And for that, I must admit, I’m a movie snob. I’ll try to do better. I promise.