#31 Titanic

(1997, James Cameron)

“Not even God himself could sink this ship”

Until James Cameron’s own Avatar knocked it from its position, Titanic was the biggest film in history. It was the best-selling movie of all time, and also one of the most expensive. It made stars out of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and set the standards for many blockbusters to come. But is it any good?

For those who don’t already know, Titanic is a historical re-telling of the sinking of the titular “unsinkable” ship back in April 1912. A deep sea expedition has been launched in the present day to try and recover artifacts buried along with the ship. After finding an old drawing of a woman wearing a much sought-after necklace, the woman in question, Rose (played in 1912 by Kate Winslet), comes forward and relates a tale of her experience on the ill-fated vessel. In amongst a straight account of the actual sinking, there is a tale of doomed romance as Rose tries to shake off the shackles of upper class society and escape from her unwanted fiancé (Billy Zane) when she meets a rogue traveller named Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Titanic surprised me in a way. Truth be told, I had never seen it before setting myself this challenge, largely because of hype backlash. I didn’t like how hyped up the film was. It felt like no film deserved that kind of praise and popularity, and I felt the movie couldn’t live up to it. So did it match up to hype? Of course it didn’t, but does that mean the film is bad? No, it’s a good film, but hardly the major event in cinema it was made out to be.

The main issue with Titanic is that it’s not quite sure where it wants to sit in regards to its plot. It tries to be social commentary, a period drama romance, and a major disaster movie all at once. As a result, none of these elements are really all that polished. The movie looks impressive, but the actual story is so muddled about what it wants to say about the sinking that it ultimately feels a bit hollow.

The romance story at the core of all this is, quite frankly, a little clichéd. It’s made especially bad by the fact the characters all generally lack depth. Jack is a perfect man whose entire role seems to be to make Rose swoon over him. He’s a scoundrel, but he’s caring, strong, resourceful, and has travelled the whole world. By contrast, Rose’s fiancé is the exact flip of this, an uncaring villain of a man who probably drowns puppies in his spare time.

The problem is, no added dimension is added to these characters. It would have been nice for Jack to exhibit some flaws in his character. At one point in the movie, he’s suspected of being a thief. If it turned out he really did have kleptomaniac tendencies, this would make him more interesting, but no, of course, the “stolen” items have been planted on him by the evil puppy-drowner and he’s innocent because he’s perfect. There’s also a scene where the fiancé almost shows some compassion, some realisation that he’s been hurting Rose and that he will lose her to Jack if he stays the way he is, but no, it’s all a ruse to make Jack back off before he goes and steals a small child so he can get on a lifeboat, probably before dumping the child in the Atlantic before the lifeboat’s barely been untied. Probably tied rocks to the child’s feet too, the dastardly fiend.

It’s this lack of depth that makes us not particularly care for the characters. It’s not all bad. Rose’s mother is a cold, heartless woman who does show some heart during the crisis, but it’s too little, too late. And Rose herself is generally bland, existing solely for the affections the two generic men. Winslet does a good job expressing herself within this bland shell, but it only just papers over the cracks.

However, in depicting the real events, in other words, the actual sinking of the ship, the movie does a fine job. The Titanic itself is meticulously detailed, from the grandest chandelier to the look of the funnels on deck. And when the ship sinks, the attention to detail regarding the real way the ship sank is spectacular. Even little details such as the ship’s band playing on and the couple huddled in their bed as water flows in come from actual details found in investigations into the disaster. If Cameron had chosen to stick to a historical retelling of the sinking, it may have been a more impressive movie for this reason.

As it is, the film is muddled and trying to do too many things at once. What’s more, at three hours long it feels dragged out. The modern day scenes feel largely unnecessary, and the same story could have easily been told without them. Certain scenes go on longer than needed, and even some minor conflicts are drawn out or pointless – for example, Jack and Rose rescue a small child trapped below deck, only for his father to emerge mere minutes later and take the child away again. It just feels like padding in a movie that’s already longer than it needs to be.

Overall, Titanic is very much like the ship it’s based on. An impressive feat, and a great technical achievement, but ultimately sinks under the weight of its own grandeur. Only in this case the iceberg is poor pacing and one-dimensional characterisation. A more focused dramatization of the ill-fated ship would have been much more effective.

Also, less Celine Dion would have been nice.

Starring Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher & Bill Paxton
Written by James Cameron
Produced by James Cameron & Jon Landau
Music score by James Horner
Cinematography by Russell Carpenter
Edited by Conrad Buff, James Cameron & Richard A. Harris

Favourite Scene: A frustrated Rose fights back against her domineering mother at long last, pointing out the selfishness of her mother’s desire for her to marry Cal.
Scene That Bugged Me: How does Jack know so much about how to survive a sinking ship? He’s constantly telling Rose how to survive as the ship starts going down, and it’s a little grating. He should be panicking like everybody else.

Watch it if: You’re interested in long-lost ships
Avoid it if: The mere hint of a Celine Dion song causes convulsions in you

Originally posted on Blogspot Friday 30 December 2011

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Posted on April 11, 2012, in 1990s, Drama, Romance and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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