– Summary –
Director : James Cameron
Year Of Release : 1997
Principal Cast : Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Suzy Amis, Danny Nucci, David Warner, Jason Barry, Kathy Bates, Victor Gerber, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Eric Braeden, Bernard Fox, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Ensign, Jonathan Evans-Jones.
Approx Running Time : 194 Minutes
Synopsis: A seventeen-year-old aristocrat falls in love with a kind, but poor artist aboard the luxurious, ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic.
What we think : Astounding romantic epic swept all before it at the ’97 Academy Awards, when it equaled Ben Hur’s record of 11 Oscar wins (and would be matched only 6 years later by Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings film, The Return Of The King); Titanic is precisely that in both name and accomplishment. While the romantic angles of the film don’t quite hold up under rigorous examination, the technical feats Cameron mastered here, with a full size half-replica of the stricken boat and the human tragedy of the sinking itself, remains a palpable example of how powerful cinema can be. Capped off by Celine Dion’s warbling ode to her heart, Titanic is a powerhouse Best Picture winner and a mighty film in and of itself.
The success of Titanic has become the stuff of cinematic legend. James Cameron’s dramatic epic history lesson, mixed with a teenage romance that captured the minds of similarly aged girls the world over, became the first film in history to blast through the $1 billion mark at the box-office (it still sits at #2, some 18 years later!) and made superstars of Leonardo DiCaprio (who was an up-and-coming actor in Hollywood) and Kate Winslet (this was only her third film). The film snagged eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Best Director for James Cameron, who famously screamed “I’m the king of the world” during the win and managed to make what was a fantastic celebration of his work into a cringe-worthy footnote in Oscar history. The cultural impact of Titanic’s success remains present today, at least in terms of blockbuster films and their fanaticism to deliver larger and larger extravagance – these days, mainly achieved through the overuse of CG – and we all know what happened with DiCaprio and Winslet following the film’s debut.
It’s 1912, the docks of Southampton, England, and local aristocrat Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) and his fiancee, Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), together with her mother (Frances Fisher) and his manservant Lovejoy (David Warner), board the new ocean liner Titanic, on its debut voyage across the Atlantic to New York City. Billed as unsinkable, the Titanic boasts state-of-the-art opulence, an impregnable hull and the assertions of its builder that it is “unsinkable”. Meanwhile, destitute Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friend Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) win tickets onto Titanic during a card game, and rush aboard to their lower decks accommodations. As they set out across the Atlantic, the captain, Edward Smith (Bernard Hill) and the managing director of White Star Lines, the ship’s builder, Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) discuss the potential of activating all the ships engines and breaking the record for crossing between continents. Although reluctant, Smith agrees. While Jack and Fabrizio spend time above decks, they encounter Rose and Jack becomes smitten. When Rose, whose relationship with Cal is purely financial – although he would prefer otherwise – attempts to kill herself by jumping from the stern of the ship, Jack saves her, and is rewarded by the aristocracy aboard the vessel. However, Jack and Rose’s illicit love affair is jeopardized when the ship strikes an iceberg, an event which penetrates the impregnable hull and causes the ship to start sinking. As the vessel begins to flood, list and eventually disappear beneath the freezing calm of the Atlantic ocean, and the number of souls aboard vastly outnumber the available rescue boats, it becomes apparent that the Titanic’s fate will become one of the greatest maritime disasters of all time.
Against the odds, Titanic became one of Hollywood’s most successful films, both commercially and critically. James Cameron’s budget crept up, up and up, blowing out at the expense of constructing a life-size replica of the entire starboard side of the Titanic off the coast of Baja, California, and making extensive use of actually going to the real wreck of the Titanic to get some footage for the film. Commitment and attention to detail mattered to James Cameron, and the end result is a haunting, evocative essay of one of history’s great romantic disasters. Hubris and arrogance of humanity aside, the story of Titanic captured the attention of people in 2012, and nearly a century later, it would do so again through the lens of Cameron’s Super 35 camera. However, instead of simply trying to recreate the Titanic sinking purely as a historic narrative, Cameron, who wrote the film, decided to fabricate people into the tapestry of the situation, in Jack and Rose, neither of whom were ever aboard the actual ship, and to sell the film through the eyes of a romance (aimed right at the teenage girl market, who fell for it hook-line-and-sinker) was a canny move indeed.
Cameron’s script isn’t particularly good. Leastways, his dialogue often stinks. Tin-eared lamentations and exhortations of love, as well as a constant badgering of our concepts of the lower, middle and upper classes, ring hollow no matter how great the actor in a role might be – Bernard Hill, as the Titanic’s captain, is the least hamstrung by Cameron’s writing, and Kathy Bates is fun and energetic as well – but the film’s balance of drama and action are sublime. While Jack and Rose proclaim their love at every opportunity, DiCaprio most erstwhile indeed, and the cast admirably convince us of immediate peril once the boat starts its voyage down, most times the laughable dialogue robs a lot of the story’s inherent frisson. Mind you, sometimes Cameron outdoes himself: Winslet’s famous retort to Billy Zane’s odious Cal Hockley, in which she describes him as an “unimaginable bastard”, is one of the most delicious lines in cinematic history (and hugely underrated, IMO).
However, and this is a big stretch for me as a critic, Titanic’s dialogue remains enduringly endearing. The trite exposition from Bill Paxton’s dive team leader, in present-day sequences that bookend the “historical” aspects of the film, explaining much of the set-up of the movie, is a potted-history version of the story, a trimmed down non-sciencey version that satisfies casual audiences whose only knowledge of the sinking is through Trivial Pursuit questions. These sequences work well in themselves, and the inclusion of Gloria Stuart’s ancient Rose, who claims to be the Rose portrayed by Kate Winslet who was there at the sinking, keep the film’s emotional thread intact as it weaves across the century. Okay, most of the actors work overtime making much of the dialogue sing as well as it does, but even through it all, there’s a kitschy sense of blockbusterism that mitigates much of the eye-rolling.
The cast, almost without exception, are terrific in their varieties of roles. Titanic is a massive film to juggle, in terms of central character arcs and the ancillary minutiae of the Titanic’s multitudes. DiCaprio, who shoulders a large portion of the film’s “hotness”, acquits himself well as Jack, a happy-g-lucky vagabond itinerant who’s liberal views on life contrast starkly with the uppity upper class he associates with at times in the film. I’m guessing Cameron’s desire to humanize Jack, to make him an Everyman caught in the most horrible of situations, made it reasonable for the character to be “of lower social climes” than a romance could bear; paradoxically, Winslet’s Rose, caught amongst twin thorns in Cal and her own mother, is the least approachable character of the bunch, although this isn’t thanks to Winslet’s fine acting and luminous visage. I just don’t think Cameron “got” the character he was trying to create – in making Rose the unattainable woman for Jack to aim for, in spite of class, sex and societal pressure, he inadvertently created a woman who’s sole purpose in life is to be “got”. And arguments that she’s a strong, independent woman don’t quite work considering the weakness her character has throughout much of the movie; she’s often helpless, often guided by men (Jack), and when she does make a decision for herself, it’s usually a bad call.
DiCaprio and Winslet are ably backed up by one of the best ensemble casts in modern cinematic history, with the possible exception of the Harry Potter franchise. Everywhere you turn, quality is to be seen. Billy Zane can do arrogant douchebaggery in his sleep, and his Cal Hockley is a terrific foil for Jack’s bright appeal. David Warner makes a creepy manservant, Frances Fisher is splendid as Rose’s mother, while Kathy Bates’ brash, loud-mouth yankee Molly Brown is a hoot. Victor Gerber’s star rose with this film (he’s now amidst filming the upcoming DC Comics television series, Legends Of Tomorrow) as the empathetic designer, Thomas Andrews, while Jonathan Hyde’s face when told the ship will sink is a high point of the film. Lord Of The Rings‘ Theoden, Bernard Hill, has a smallish role as the ill-fated Captain, but he does it well and the horror and knowledge of the ship’s fate is etched in his face once he hears they’ve struck a ‘berg. Cameron’s future real-life wife, Suzy Amis, has a minor role as elderly Rose’s daughter, while Gloria Stuart is just awesome as the matriarch of the Titanic’s rapidly diminishing living legacy.
The film’s bravado in simply existing is mind-blowing. What Cameron managed to achieve in the camera – without the use of effects – is stunning, and what CG there is, is used with delicacy and vibrancy. Although shot in Super 35, allowing for a “full frame” aspect on home video, the film’s widescreen aspect is one of the finest examples of framing, lighting, editing and focus you’re likely to see. The vistas of the stricken vessel, lights glimmering off the horizon of the dead calm Atlantic Ocean, are haunting, and as the water gushes in and bodies start to fly through the cabins and corridors of the now-classless calamity, it’s heartbreaking to witness. Because of hubris, these lives were wasted. The full-scale replication of the Titanic allows for a sense of depth and scope most modern blockbusters annihilate with green screen and CG. This shit was done for real, tipping gantries upright so stunt performers could fall through them, as it might have happened back in 1912. Cameron’s ability to weave human emotion between rock-solid action beats (the moment the Titanic tears in half is alluded to early, but delivered with blistering realism by Cameron’s set and model work) is assured, and he handles his epic scenes with what appears to be a relaxed, skillful reliance on the in-camera actors and set design to just do its job.
For all the grief it gets about being a shallow, flawed film about teen love and a “Romeo and Juliet clone”, Titanic remains entertaining. In spite of recognizable flaws, in the light of countless problems with either character development, dialogue or wobbly performance, Titanic succeeds through sheer force of fantasy engagement. The moment that sepia-toned film at the open turns to brilliant technicolor and the little girl says “No daddy, it’s a ship”, the illusion is completely sold. No amount of cynical snark will put paid to Cameron’s mastery of his visual medium. Many of the same weaknesses here crept into his next feature, Avatar, but people still lapped it up as just entertainment. This wasn’t a history lesson (although it could certainly be used as such), it was a fictionalized account of what might have happened aboard the worlds most famous doomed boat.
I’m sill in awe of this film, even now the gap between this and the bloat of CG blockbusters has dimmed its impact. What Cameron was able to achieve, both at a technical level and as a narrative film, is astounding; with its pop-culture moments embedded in our consciousness (I’m the king of the world, the sunset kiss, “She’s made of iron, sir, I can assure you, she can sink”, backseat sex sweat, and James Horner’s magnificent score), it’s an undeniable fact that Titanic remains one of the giants of cinematic legend. Rightfully so, in my opinion. As an all-round entertainment package, Titanic sails well off into the sunset.