Titanic (1997)

reviewed by
Alex Fung

TITANIC (Paramount - 1997) Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton Screenplay by James Cameron Produced by James Cameron, Jon Landau Directed by James Cameron Running time: 194 minutes

                   *** (out of four stars)
                     Alternate Rating: B

Note: Some may consider portions of the following text to be spoilers. Be forewarned.


Well, it finally made it. After wreaking havoc with summer film release schedules by missing its original release date, after overshooting its target and achieving notoriety as the most expensive film shoot in history, after bizarre mishaps and calamities during production (how often is it that the catering's laced with PCP, anyways?), James Cameron's mega-epic TITANIC has finally sailed into dock. While in the months leading up to its release many curmudgeons decried its four-plus minute trailer, replete with soapy sentimentality and gun battle, I couldn't have disagreed more -- I found that the promotional footage splendidly whetted my appetite for the film with the promise of grand old-fashioned melodrama of the first order amidst a faithful re-creation of one of the most spectacular disasters in modern history.

The first impression the film leaves is a striking one: as is typically the case in Mr. Cameron's productions, TITANIC is visual eye-candy. The film's re-creation of the mighty R.M.S. Titanic is a stupendous achievement, convincingly colossal and breathtakingly majestic. The sheer magnitude of the ship is immediately conveyed, and from the vessel's grimy, hellish, coal-ladened bowels to the lavish sets and extravagantly grandiose interiors of the stately ballrooms, the net effect is never less than stunning. From the dazzling period costumes right down to minisculars like the woodwork and even ashtrays, the film's faithfulness to authenticity is impressively persuasive; it's if we're truly back in 1912 on board the ship's maiden voyage -- fine praise indeed. The verisimilitude and grandeur of the finely-observed vessel is a marvel of modern-day filmmaking.

No doubt about it -- the ship looks terrific, and the awesome duplication is emphasised by repeated matching dissolve shots between the sunken rusted carcass of the real-life boat and that of Mr. Cameron's cinematic creation, tiny people scurrying about on its deck. Employing this technique, the splendour of his vision is dazzling, contrasting the submerged, dead vessel with the shining lustre of his Titanic, but soon wears thin after multiple match dissolves.

Of course, as spectacular as his ship may be, it's not enough to cinematically resurrect the Titanic simply in order to sink it, and Mr. Cameron has consequently grafted a simplistic tale of romantic fiction onto the film, focusing upon two young characters: devil-may-care drifting artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), who won his steerage-class ticket back to America in a last-minute poker game (a silly but fairly effective plot device), and upper-class Rose DeWitt Butaker (Kate Winslet), onboard along with her domineering, class-conscious mother (Frances Fisher) and haughty, prosperous fiance Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). As one can expect, the lovely Rose feels stifled by her mother's officiousness and is miserable about her engagement with the insufferable Cal -- so much so that only Jack's unexpected intervention prevents her from diving overboard one fateful evening. The two begin an affair.

While Mr. Cameron did weave a set of fictional characters for the ride on the Titanic, he didn't give them much depth; there's a lot of one-note characterization in the film, which is surprising coming from him given his impressive track record of creating involving, thoughtful characters in genres where it's usually considered an afterthought. In TITANIC, villainous Cal Hockley is a snooty aristocrat who's, well, a snooty aristocrat, while our dashing hero Jack is hopelessly lovable. Meanwhile, the film depicts all of the third-class passengers as the salt of the earth, while the first-class people are impossibly pompous and arrogantly class-conscious, except for the irrepressible "unsinkable" Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), whom, it is pointed out, is a third-classer at heart and in spirit. Aspects of the Edwardian class struggle inundate themselves so fully into the film that by the time star-cross'd lovers Jack and Rose reject a dull first-class dinner party for a third-class romp in steerage (complete with fiddler), the point has already been clearly driven home.

The characters in the film are essentially tired, cliched archetypes, but that's not necessarily detrimental, particularly in this case; indeed, such uncomplex characters lend themselves most handily to melodrama, where the more sharply-defined the division between good and evil, the better. Let's see: we have the winning, scruffy, poor-but-good-hearted young hero with the spirited, beautiful heroine at his side; the hissable, sneering rich villain (with the haughty accent to boot) -- perfect, right?

By all rights it should be, and yet the film is lacking that little extra push to drive it into full-fledged, unabashed melodrama; it's timidly toeing the water rather than plunging right in. There's an intimate scene shared by Jack and Rose on the apex of the bow railing where she excitedly gasps, "I'm flying!"; it should be a spellbinding, dizzying moment, yet it somehow lacks a sense of rapturously wondrous magic that symbolises their passion. Throughout the film, the score by James Horner fails to lend the emotional punch it so sorely requires; consider the effectiveness of his score in the last big-budget melodrama brought to the screen, LEGENDS OF THE FALL, and contrast with his nautical New Age hodgepodge here.

One can certainly make an arguable case that Mr. DiCaprio and Ms. Winslet are the two best actors of their generation -- I can't imagine too many filmmakers frowning at the prospect of them in a cast list -- and landing them both for the film was a bonafide coup. Still, their performances in the film are at times somewhat tentative and reserved amidst all of the unblushing romanticism that Mr. Cameron's screenplay churns up; the melodrama of the piece is best served during the moments where they throw all caution to the wind and simply embrace the brazen sentimentality pervasive in the dialogue; I couldn't help from mentally coaxing "More ... more ... play it bigger!" during scenes where a more naturalistic acting stance was adopted. Obviously, their respective performances remain more than serviceable, but I can't help from wondering how much more grand the net effect would be had the characters been portrayed as larger-than-life. At one point, Rose gasps "This is where we first met!"; there should be an overflowing of emotion, pathos, and poignancy at her utterance, but the actual associative sentiment is rather hollow.

The entire 1912 saga is framed by present-day intrigue involving Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton, a veteran on Mr. Cameron's films) and what appears to be the insufferable team from TWISTER transported underwater (when one yahoo quipped, "Oops, somebody left the water running," I hoped someone would toss him overboard) in search of an invaluable diamond. The pursuit of Le Coeur de la Mer is a decidedly hokey plot device, but at least it brings the refined grace of Gloria Stuart, who plays Rose at age 101, and who narrates the flashbacks which comprise the bulk of the film.

Although the film is primarily set over eighty years ago, Mr. Cameron takes great pains to ensure that it's not a stodgy period piece. There are dubious anachronisms incorporated in the story which blatantly serve to cater to present-day audiences: Jack and Rose engaged in spitting lessons, and lady Rose issuing The Finger, as well as crowdpleasing moments such as throwaway references to Picasso and Monet, Jack strutting faux-haughtily in a new tuxedo, and the utterance of various seriocomic one-liners.

It takes a while for the iceberg to finally down the mighty ocean liner, but when it does, it's a one-of-a-kind spectacle and a triumph of visual effects. Breathtakingly played out in approximate real-time, the cataclysmic death throes of the Titanic are astonishingly realistic. To his credit, Mr. Cameron ensures that the logistics of the vessel's demise are clearly handled via the presentation of a computer simulation at the beginning of the film, removing any uncertainty about the technical manner of the sinking, and, if anything, adding a layer of dread to the entire affair.

While the Titanic's swan song is undoubtedly the showstopping centerpiece of the film, the romance of the first half isn't left neglected; indeed, despite the fact that the troubles of our heroes are dwarfed by the magnitude of the ongoing catastrophe, the film resolutely continues to cut back to them. More than any of the previous films which have dealt with the tragedy of the ship, this film specifically focuses on a small core of characters, and questionably shares equal amounts of screentime with the craft's apocalyptic destruction as it does with the fictionalized below-decks escape plot, involving handcuffs, blazing pistols, and countless shots of corridors flooding with water. I felt that the balance should have been somewhat swayed; the interesting goings-on outside involving the boarding of the lifeboats, the barricading of the steerage-class, and the rapidly emerging realisation of the situation's gravity was far more fascinating. (Mr. Cameron also continues to play out the class card well into the sinking, depicting many of the snooty rich people as being mildly irked by the inconvenience of being put on alert and even sending their assistants for tea. Those dumb rich people.)

The most earthshattering moment in the film is when the ship cracks apart and plunges perpendicularly into the icy depths of the Atlantic. ("This is it!" shouts one character in a tone which rather distractingly belies excited anticipation more than fear.) As the camera cranes up, revealing passengers vainly struggling to hold onto something -- anything -- and others sliding down the now-vertical deck of the ship, plummeting into the darkness of the churning water below, the vision is truly nightmarish. There are a lot of terrific shots during the film's latter half -- a quick glimpse of a group of people floundering in the water like thrashing fish is particularly memorable -- but there's plentiful usage of easy sympathy devices -- women clutching crying little children and the like. In some respect, Mr. Cameron's helming of the human effect of the calamity is literally Spielberg-esque in its calculating nature.

The film reaches emotional resonance in the wake of the disaster, which finds the two leads hitting their stride and acting their hearts out in a stirring scene of remarkable tenderness and poignancy. It's a heartbreaking moment, and a fantastic payoff to the romantic angle in the film.

TITANIC hinges upon the performances of its two leads, who are front-and-centre throughout the flick. Ms. Winslet, sporting an excellent American accent here, has had a remarkable film career to date; save for her first Hollywood production, she's turned in one award-calibre performance after another. She's good here, although she sadly lacks the vivacity which have marked her previous turns. (One is left wondering if her alleged unhappiness during the shoot drained her zeal.) Mr. DiCaprio is saddled with a difficult role in the film -- a flawless, dreamy caricature; the man of every girl's dreams, and the man that every guy would like to be: dashing, handsome, adventurous, spirited. He pulls it off well, but he's at his best in the film's dying moments as his character struggles to guide Rose to safety, displaying a remarkably steady and calming presence that belies his youthful vigour.

When the concept for the project was being developed, it was pitched to the studios as "Romeo & Juliet onboard the Titanic" (and, to that ends, how incredibly apt it was that the most recent film incarnation of the Montague spawn was eventually cast as the dashing hero, wasn't it?). TITANIC has the latter part down pat; if the former section were nearly as assured, we'd really have something.

          - Alex Fung
          email: aw220@freenet.carleton.ca
          web  : http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~aw220/

-- Alex Fung (aw220@freenet.carleton.ca) | http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~aw220/ "There was a six-year-old girl sitting near me, and she piped up 'That's Harvey Keitel' within seconds of the film's start. I want to know what that kid's been seeing." - Charles Odell

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