Titanic (1997)

reviewed by
Shane Burridge

Titanic  (1997) 194 min. 

It's a safe bet that you have by now seen TITANIC. Going by the size of attendances it would seem that everyone is seeing it. Of course, the size of those attendances is probably one reason why many people have been purposefully avoiding it. Understandable, but that is not to say the immediate cinema experience is not without its own quirky merits. Try going when the tickets are half price, for example. I did. In the school holidays. If the mob of passengers that was trying to get to the lifeboats was half as big as the throng trying to get into the cinema then my appreciation of what the survivors of the Titanic went through was well assured. We sat in the queue for an hour and a half, which would have been enough time to see another movie, and the doors opened to admit the rush. It didn't end there, because once inside the cinema our vicarious suffering was augmented further by the incessant sub-polar breeze of the air conditioning system, thus ensuring that by the third hour our empathy for the passengers floating in the Atlantic was at a state approaching Nirvana. By the time the credits rolled I had barely enough circulation left to get out before Celine Dion started singing.

So, how good is TITANIC? Firstly, it comes as no surprise that director James Cameron came to choose it as a project. A glance at his earlier work will tell you why. This man makes the bluest looking movies around. THE ABYSS, ALIENS, THE TERMINATOR. If his next film isn't set in the North Pole I'll eat my hat. Secondly, if you're going to see this movie, then it has to be in a cinema. If you'd rather wait for the video release, then you might as well stick a toy boat in the bath and watch that instead. In the spirit of the old Hollywood epics, TITANIC - no tautology intended - is big.

Cameron is to be applauded for resuscitating the Hollywood epic, but what does he have to offer that's new? I'd like to think it was more than a budget blowout on huge-scale models and state-of-the-art special effects. This story, after all, has been told many times before. His film is definitely more engaging than the turgid 1953 TITANIC with Clifton Webb (after 45 minutes I was rooting for the iceberg) but doesn't have the emotional edge of the classic A NIGHT TO REMEMBER. In fact, it's due to the latter that Cameron's TITANIC failed to hit me at gut level. I'd already seen the class divisions, the injustice, the incompetence, the unlucky coincidences. I was more interested, this time around, to see how Cameron would transport me to the scene of the disaster; how he would make me empathise with that tremendous sense of loss and fear.

But instead, he backs off. All the manipulative moments you would expect never arrive: the panic for the lifeboats, the noble self-sacrifices, the sudden topsy-turvy devaluation and re-evaluation of human lives. When I saw two silky Afghan hounds boarding the ship early on I filed the scene away for later reference: Future Camera Shot - Dogs Struggling Helpless and Bewildered in the Water. A sympathy-grabbing moment for sure. He doesn't let it happen. Cameron is more interested in recreating the disaster, not reliving it, so distils the humanity of the story into two characters. You've seen the promos so you know the rest - TITANIC is a love story between third-class Leonardo DiCaprio and upper-class Kate Winslet. And it would not be a proper love story if it were not a triangle, which is where Billy Zane comes in. We know straight away that Zane is completely wrong for Winslet (let's face it, after DEAD CALM who's ever going to trust this guy on a boat again?) but it takes two hours of screen time before he gets the message, by which time the ship is sinking already, and the real reason we all went to see the movie finally gets underway. But even here the tragedy of the event is absent - the story merely shifts from a romance on a floating ship to an adventure on a sinking ship, and Cameron's throwaway moments of comic relief prevent the terror from properly crystallising.

The sinking itself is certainly a spectacle, and you can see where all the money went, but it seems that the whole thing is just too big for Cameron to really enjoy himself with. He isn't directing so much as orchestrating, and even though he's tipped to win an Oscar for TITANIC it's annoying that it doesn't have the same flair of his other films. A lot of TITANIC isn't original, and the ending, which has been a staple of sentimental finales since the silent days of THE THREE MUSKETEERS, is terribly cliched. But TITANIC is still well worth your time. For three hours running time it has a terrific sense of pace, and there is at least one moment that captures the essence of the disaster perfectly: the camera switches its viewpoint to that of the survivors in the lifeboats, watching the now nearly-vertical Titanic from afar with incredulous horror. By itself, this moment would be nothing. But placed as it is, amid an ocean of 194 minutes of film, those few seconds become the only connection Cameron needs to make. It works because it taps into the one level on which we moviegoers can truly empathise: not as participants in a tragedy, but rather as observers of that tragedy.

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