The sinking of the Titanic on April 15 1912 ranks as one of the key historical points of the 20thcentury. Not only was there the shock at the loss of life, but also the fact that something so large and powerful – the zenith of Edwardian engineering, could be destroyed in a few short hours. A number of movies ranging from the fantastic “A Night to Remember” to the truly awful “Raise the Titanic” have been made over the years, along with numerous books and documentaries. The main legacy however was the overnight improvement in safety at sea, with new rules about the numbers of lifeboats and keeping a radio watch at all times. As the last of the survivors passed away, the interest waned and the wreck settled back to relative obscurity in the popular press.
Had the wreck not been discovered by Robert Ballard in the mid 1980s that might have been the end of the story. However, the amazing pictures of this wrecked and broken leviathan sitting squarely on the sea bed, surrounded by the remains of countless people’s lives reignited significant interest in the event. Producer & Director James Cameron had visited Bob Ballard at Woods Hole during the making of “The Abyss” and had seen the mini subs used to explore the Titanic. This planted a seed that grew into what would become the most expensive film made up to that date.
To commemorate the sinking of the Titanic, the film has been re-released in 3D. Following the premiere at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the film enjoyed a worldwide cinema release and is now available on Blu-ray as a 4 disc 3D collector’s set and a 2 Disc 2D only SKU.
Originally released in 1997, production started in 1994 and included 160 days of principle photography and one of the most complex edit and CGI processes ever attempted. The film required the creation of a brand new ocean side studio complex in Rosarito, Mexico. To reduce the amount of CGI, a full size mock up of one side of the ship – with a few compressions here and there, was constructed and mounted on motion hydraulics to allow it to actually tilt and sink. It was reported that it would have cost less than the $200million dollar budget to have built a replica ship, but of course the construction of the set was a just one contributor to the overall cost. Numerous models of both the exterior and interiors, including the engine room and first class saloon were also created, as the CGI to create from scratch would have actually cost more than the set build!
The story of Titanic is of course well known but often erroneously reported in the detail. Contrary to popular belief, The White Star Line did not refer to the ship as unsinkable. This reference came from an engineering periodical that claimed the ship to be “Practically unsinkable”. Of course, following the sinking, this statement was picked up by the newspapers and became part of the legend. It should also be remembered that Titanic was the second of three ships in the “Olympic” class, so was not perceptively larger than her older sister. A few inches was added to her length and some additional plating on the promenade deck increased her weight so that Titanic could be referred to as the “Largest ship afloat” but this was simply a marketing ploy. The class was blighted though, with Olympic suffering severe damage in a collision early in her life but was repaired and then served with distinction through the rest of her career until retired in 1935, while Britannic was launched in 1914 after the outbreak of the Great War and served as a hospital ship until she was sunk in 1916. The reason why the Titanic collided with an iceberg and subsequently sunk is still not fully understood to this day. All that is known is that she spotted the ‘berg too late to steer around it and sustained too much damage below the waterline to stay afloat. Various theories about where the damage was sustained have been put forward, but the damage remains hidden from view, so no conclusions can be brought. More about this can be found in the extras.
Cameron recognised early in the production process that the story about the ship sinking needed a personal perspective and needed to follow a small group within a much larger ensemble. By creating a set of fictional characters to complement the real passengers he gained the freedom to tell an imaginary story set within the accepted historical facts. He was fortuitous in that one of the largest first class suites was unoccupied during the maiden crossing and so he had a credible gap to insert Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet). The story is they are returning to their native America following a European tour and are soon to be married. Surrounded by the cream of American society, their life is one of ease and grace and this does not change on board ship, with great rooms in which to hold court, covered promenades to allow them to stroll without being buffeted by the North Atlantic weather and an array of amenities to keep them entertained. These included their own small orchestra, grand saloons and a Gymnasium, all of which feature in the movie. Way down in Steerage, we find happy go lucky American artist and itinerant traveller Jack Dawson (Leonardo Di-Caprio) who has won his passage home in a game of cards. In usual conditions, the chances of Rose and Jack to meet would be minimal. The ship was designed to segregate the different classes of passengers, with gates and other physical barriers to prevent their interaction. Had it not been for Rose’s clumsy suicide attempt, their paths were highly unlikely to have crossed, but having persuaded her not to jump and then rescued her from certain death, they form an intense friendship as each covets the life the other is living.
Cameron makes no attempt to hide the fact that the ship sinks. In fact, the opening scenes of the film are set upon a vessel exploring the wreck in the present day as treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) seeks a fabled jewel – The Heart of the Ocean that just happens to have been owned by Cal and worn by Rose on the night the ship sunk. We also get to know that Rose survived as she is introduced into the story as an elderly woman, who has seen the story of the wreck dives and contacts Lovett to innocently ask if he has “Found the Heart of the Ocean”, something she should only be able to know if she was part of the story. She is brought out to the dive mother ship and starts to recount the story of the fateful day. By shooting on a genuine deep dive boat and using his own submersibles to dive into the wreck – further than anyone else at that time, Cameron created an almost documentary feel to the underwater shots, something that helps to add credibility to historical details. We now know of course, that much of the underwater photography was shot in a tank at a depth of a few metres and the ocean floor was replicated in a smoke filled room with special filters over the lens.
The true scale and sheer expense of the production really becomes clear when we go “back” to Titanic prior to the sinking. The recreation of the outside of the ship is matched only by the meticulous detail and opulence of the first class rooms. Using historical sources including the original blueprints and photographs of both Titanic and Olympic, the designers went for realism above everything else. Tens of thousands of items of crockery, furniture, and ship’s fittings were created – many by the original manufacturers from the same patterns that were used over 100 years ago. Fudging was simply not an option. Although many of the spaces were created at least in whole or in part, CGI and green screen (then in its infancy) was used to fill out certain backgrounds and to add space around physical elements. This might have been state of the art at the time, but some of these effects do look very dated now and more like a computer game than a feature film. The use of models with additional details either added by computer or through compositing life size motion shots has added a digital bottleneck that simply re-mastering the film cannot remove. Without going back to the original footage and re-compositing and digitising, the resolution cannot be improved.
The space on board allocated to the third class steerage passengers was much smaller and very much less opulent than that for first and even second class, but was still considered to be some of the best afloat, with separate cabins with four to six berths instead of the more common dormitory accommodation containing fifty or so bunks in a room. The mix of passengers portrayed by the movie is an accurate representation of those on board, as less than half of the steerage contingent were British. Irish, Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans were the other major groups, plus a small contingent of Chinese while first class was dominated by the Americans. It does at least add some colour to the plain painted white walls, solid teak furniture and exposed pipework that made up the third class public spaces. Passengers had fewer amenities so no doubt made their own entertainment and this adds credibility to the rowdy dancing scene. The lengths the films’ designers went to when creating the sets has yet to be matched by any other movie and the re-mastering has really wrung out the maximum detail. What is equally apparent is the extremely high technical quality of the film. All disciplines are equally well delivered making this a true reference film in its day and still well up there today, some fifteen years after its initial release.
Having established the rest of the characters including the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), Captain EJ Smith (Bernard Hill) and Ship’s owner Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), we now settle down to wait for the ship to sink. Winslet takes the opportunity to take her clothes off for a risqué sketch session and lose her virginity to Jack in the back of a Renault (Art emulating life?). This really marks the end of the first act of the film, as from now on we are moving into proper action section of the movie. The collision and subsequent realisation is a high tension sequence, with the panicked actions of the officers who actually know the seriousness of their situation set against the lack of real angst amongst the first class passengers at this time who have little idea about the peril they are in. On the other hand, the steerage passengers berthed much closer to the collision are left in no doubt and some panic ensues as they do their best to escape, thwarted by the stewards who have orders to keep them below decks until the “better half” has embarked upon the lifeboats.
For me the weakest part of the film revolves around the on-going battle between Cal and Jack, with Rose in the middle. Although all of them are well aware that their lives are at serious risk, they seem more focussed at times on their personal problems than of getting to safety. Of course, I am watching this with bloke’s eyes and for many, the love story is just as important, if not more, than the fact the boat is going to sink. In my opinion, the tense atmosphere around the ship sinking is enough without the armed chase through the doomed vessel. The moments where the vessel splits in two are a gargantuan melee that assaults the senses. The sound effects are huge and the visuals befit the scale of the ship. This is one of those scenes that does show the limitation of the original CGI though. The clarity we have come to expect is just not there and the foam capstans and other deck furniture are seen to bend all too easily. With later CGI, this would have been avoided and corrected to a much greater extent. The sight of so many bodies screaming and shouting in the pitch black water as the great propellers rise two hundred feet into the sky is still awe inspiring, even if it looks a little plastic.
With the death of the ship assured, the only question is who will live and who will die? We get a fair idea from relatively early in the film, so there is no need to get too upset as Jack slips beneath the waves. To me, the tenderness around Rose being reunited with Jack and the rest of those that met their end on Titanic is more emotional than his death. It brings closure to the film in a manner more genteel than most of Cameron’s movies.
There is no doubt that even without the 3D conversion, this re-release is a fitting tribute to the centenary of the sinking and is also a useful reference as to how far CGI film making has come in 15 years. A truly superb spectacle, both visibly and audibly, but the limitations of the original movie do start to poke through just occasionally.