Titanic (1997)

reviewed by
Ted Prigge

TITANIC (1997)
A Film Review by Ted Prigge
Copyright 1997 Ted Prigge

Writer/Director: James Cameron Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Suzy Amis, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Victor Garber, David Warner, Danny Nucci

With all the hype surrounding it, it's a shock "Titanic" isn't anti-climactic. I mean, with a budget bigger than that of "Waterworld"'s, a very simple if not tired premise, and a film that has been worked on for around three years now, it's a shock I wasn't let down. Thankfully, "Titanic" is the old-fashioned epic I had hoped for - a passionate, emotional tragedy on the level with any of the great epics of the fifties and sixties. One would have to be pretty cold-hearted not to at least feel a little sad at the finale of this one.

First off, "Titanic" has the most amazing special effects I've ever seen. Really. The ship looks realistic, the action sequences are exhilerating (yet never overwhelming), and every shot is authentic. When we first see the ship, it looks as grand as it probably did when it was first unveiled to the world. A giant ship that was arrogantly declared "unsinkable," even seeing a recreation of it isn't anti-climactic.

And when it begins to sink, it looks absolutely frightening. Thanks to a long running time, we get the feeling of every single second of the ship's descent into the cold Atlantic waters. Every single shot of the water spilling into the ship is creepy and ominous, even after we've seen it hundreds of time. There are brilliant shots on people about to be killed as a result of the flooding, most notably a shot of an old couple on a bed that is about to be swept away with water. And when the ship's rear is sticking way up in the air, still carrying hundreds of passengers who are hanging on for dear life, it's one of the most shocking sights these eyes have ever seen, that includes all the things I've seen in real life.

The film is also incredibly authentic, acting as an exact example of what it was like to live back in that particular time period. I mean, the film gets every single facet of the boat correct, probably all the way down to the kind of china they used to serve the upper class. Watching "Titanic" is like taking a literal time warp; you feel like you're one of the passengers on this boat, and when the boat is sinking, we either feel like the people in the boat watching this horrendous event, or we feel like one of the people still on the boat...depends where we are.

And the special effects are astounding. The reason it's the best I've seen in a long while is that it doesn't understate the storyline, and doesn't look like a special effect. The ship looks realistic, and it looks absolutely frightening every time we see the water slowly creeping into rooms. The film uses special effects in a way that most films don't use it: intelligently. Even before we journey back in time, we learn exactly how the ship sank, thanks to some great special effects in the beginning. Of all the films I've seen this year, "Titanic" is the best to look at.

Then there's the story...just kidding. The story's actually excellent, working flawlessly with the special effects. Sure, the premise sucks (Romeo and Juliet for the first half, "The Poseidan Adventure Part Deux" for the second), but writer/director James Cameron fuses it with so much passion, that by the finale, this is truly a tragedy. Not many people could pull this off without making it incredibly corny and melodramatic. But we care about the characters that inhibit the storyline, and by the end, even I was kind of choked up. If you know me at all, I hardly give any deep emotions for any film characters, but in this, I cared about the two protagonists as people, not characters.

If you've seen the tell-most-of-everything preview, you know that the story revolves around the present day search for a valuable piece of jewelry believed to have sunk with the Titanic. Grungy-looking Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton, who has finally found a good look for himself) heads an operation that goes down to the sunken ship with a small remote control boat (hysterically called "Snoop Dog"), and takes pictures, much like Cameron did in real life (these are real shots of the Titanic). Seeing it on the news is a survivor of the sinking ship, 101-year old Rose Dawson (Gloria Stuart), who claims to be the naked girl in a drawing they found, wearing the jewel. She's shipped out to the ship, and begins to tell the anecdote we see on screen.

Being forced to marry an arogant ass (but a rich arrogant ass) named Cal Hartley (a surprisingly effective Billy Zane), the poor Rose (Kate Winslet) is on the ship with her fiance, her mother (Frances Fisher), and Cal's entourage, including his respectable henchman, Lovejoy (David Warner, who was just in "Scream 2" as the theater director). Incessantly melancholy, she tries to kill herself, and runs into Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a third class guy who won himself a ticket from a game of poker. They instantly click, and are soon parading around, and falling in love.

After several complications (mommy doesn't like him, and Cal is getting jealous...not to mention he's poor), they are soon officially sneaking around, and by the time the ship (which was going too fast on purpose) has collided with the iceberg, we are really rooting for them to get married. Some may call this an unoriginal and simple relationship. It is. That's the beauty of it. Because of its simplicity and universal relation to any star-crossed love affair (even that of Romeo and Juliet), we identify with them and/or care about them incessantly. And since Winslet and DiCaprio have wonderful chemistry together, and possess such charisma individually, we love them as people. By the time they're in the water, waiting for the lifeboats to come and pick them up, we're already in tears.

Apart from a wondeful tragedy of epic proportions, the film works brilliantly as simple satire. Cameron takes a negative approach to the Titanic, as well as a sweetly positive one. He shows the horror of classes, as they are divided, and that the first class (or "better half," as one character puts it) is saved while the lower classes get gypped. But by the end, both classes are suffering in one way or another: the lower classes suffer by mostly dying, and the upper class suffers by having to watch this and feel emotionally ravaged (well, most of them do).

The film is also about man's arrogance. Why anyone could think they could build a ship that "God himself couldn't sink" is truly moronic, and God (if he's there...) makes them pay for it. Not to mention, some of the more stupid people running the ship decide to not put enough lifeboats on the ship for fear of "cluttering." The Captain and the Designer of the ship (Bernard Hill and Victor Garber, respectively) are thankfully put in a good light, as they were merely pawns in the game, ruled by the arrogant of them all, Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), the administrator, who wants to blow everyone away by arriving in New York a couple days before scheduled.

Thankfully, this film isn't one-sided. The best thing about the Titanic seems to be that it brings two people together, even if it's not historically possible (apparently, the upper class would have no way of even getting near the lower class). Even at the end, Jack is happy that he came on the ship, since he got to meet his true love. At least some good came out of the ship, even if it was one of the few rays of light.

The acting is amazing, especially from the two leads (who won well-deserved Golden Globe nominations). DiCaprio has never been better, and Winslet is amazing (even if she has been better - she's a better actor than DiCaprio after all). Also notable is Gloria Stuart, as the older Rose, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill as the Captain, Victor Garber as the Designer of the ship, Billy Zane (who does a great job, despite the fact that his character is one-dimensional), and Kathy Bates as the noveau riche (not to mention, unsinkable) Molly Brown. A fine job from everyone.

At over three hours, "Titanic" is lenghty but never boring. Cameron has made several long films in his career, most of them director's cuts. Thank god he wasn't afraid to release a long film, because this film needed to be long. No important elements of the story are missing, and he directs with such passion. Sure, his writing in some places is a tad corny, but he never lets the film seem melodramatic or forced. Even the star-crossed lovers plot is not forced (thank god once more).

"Titanic" may actually be the best film Cameron has ever done (maybe). Of all his films, this one has the most undaunted passion, biggest emotions, and grandest themes. It's an all-around powerful film, an epic that never gets corny, never seems like a disaster film, and is never boring at all. It deserves to be ranked along with the best films of the year, a wonderful masterpiece of a film. I loved every minute of it.

MY RATING (out of 4): ****

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