“Look out! Spoilers ahead!”
James Cameron's leviathan movie certainly lives up to its titular namesake - over-hyped, boastful, larger than life and fundamentally flawed. In an era when it has become trendy to pour scorn over this supposedly unsinkable film, I'd just like to make it clear that I am not leaping on the lambasting bandwagon, for I have never liked Titanic. I've always found it hamstrung by its two crucially unappealing leads, full-to-overflowing with over-wrought melodrama (inevitably necessary, given the events - but still stifling and annoying, nonetheless) grotesquely grandiose, yet shallow, and brimming with the self-importance that personifies its writer/director. But, perhaps most damning of all, two thirds of it (unlike the business part of that iceberg) is dull, dull, dull. To its fans, I apologise - but, seriously, I could no more get worked up about the fate of Jack and Rose than I could the “feelings” of a T-800 when it learns why humans cry. Titanic is a chick-flick sob story embedded within a historical tale that needed far more depth to gain speed in these troubled waters.
Sitting through it back in 1997 was a bore, sitting through it now is a chore.
James Cameron, in my opinion, is a tedious filmmaker. From his back-catalogue, I've enjoyed The Terminator, and liked Aliens (I wanted so much to love that film, but I cannot take to Ripley's Rambo-mode at all.) His initial scrimp-and-make-do talents put him on his innovative toes, helping him to create seat-of-your-pants narratives that built on their premises, gaining heart and character along the way. But this knack has been squandered since the big bucks rolled in, and his ego inflated to the size of that pesky iceberg. He strives for perfection but, especially with this movie, his vision is blinded by his self-imposed desire to fashion SPECTACLE. Sure I admire his immaculate attention to detail, his sheer commitment to the quest of rebuilding the Titanic - and the results seen on-screen are visually ravishing - but how can my heart go on if it is not there in the first place? The senses may be captured and entranced by this voyage back in time, but when sailing on the doomed vessel our emotions need genuine characters to cling to, and not just clichéd set-dressing like DiCaprio's pug-face and Winslet's pink-cheeked puppy-fat dragging us down into the icy depths. What makes it worse is the feeling that there is, at the deepest core of the movie, a damn good story just clawing its way to the surface, but so senselessly over-dressed and bogged down with formula-trappings, that it can do nothing but founder. The Terminator was a work of low-budget genius, the plot totally streamlined and accessible. Aliens worked so well in build-up and set-piece excitement that I can almost forgive the genre-switch from horror to action, if not the assertive, gun-toting Ripley. But the luck ran out with The Abyss, which was initially a terrific underwater adventure until he squeezed in the aliens and extended the running time to allow for far too many dramas to unfold. For Cameron, getting bigger, longer and costlier quite emphatically denies him the chance of getting better. With Titanic though, he basically had the template for a staggeringly good, and authentic, story with what history had already supplied him, without any need to add or subtract his own whimsical fancies. But he still opted to downgrade the epic disaster by infusing it with a completely irksome love affair and to bookend the saga with a lame MacGuffin-fuelled treasure hunt that never feels anything less than intrusive.
“But this ship can't sink.”
“She's made of iron, sir. I assure you she can. And she will.”
I'm not going to waste time with the Jack/Rose plotline except to say that it is the worst case of period, class-divide romance I've ever cringed through - its lightning-quick blossoming one of the most contrived relationships this side of Catherine Cookson or Helen Forrester. But, if you buy into it, then that's fine with me. Personally, I don't know anyone that did - male or female. Jack's underdog status and lofty, heartfelt and idealistic ambitions are just pre-requisite ingredients to contrast with upper-class Rose's society-apathy and her crushingly fated wedlock to a man whose heart flutters only for material wealth. That the pair end up complementing one another perfectly is hardly an equation that required Carol Vorderman to work out. Cameron seems to relish such scenes of period contrast throughout, as though he feels he is breaking new ground. The petty squabbles and rivalry between Jack Dawson's talented artist and despicable cad Billy Zane's less-then-noble suitor, Cal Hockley, are simply of the join-the-dots variety and, that their fates are all inexorably intertwined renders much of this set-up null and void. Right from the word go, we know who is, and who isn't, going to survive when the ship goes down.
Many elements are so woefully contrived that I had that sinking feeling myself. The excruciating moment of the flares going off behind Jack as Rose's lifeboat is lowered, and the below-decks dance-off which sees the rich girl embracing the wildness of the poor lifestyle, are simply appalling. The film is full of over-ripe and fruity dialogue and I hate the way in which Rose's relationship to the Titanic's designer, Mr. Andrews, keeps getting shoe-horned in as a means of letting the leads know what is happening. The dippy suicide-rescue and subsequent fall is just annoying, as is the admittedly showy “flying sequence” which is nothing more than a throwback to the epic romances of Hollywood's Golden Age, but exhibiting only about a tenth of the emotion. David Warner (one of favourite actors) is good value as the film's villain, Lovejoy, but again, was any of this plot actually needed? The whole class-love-rivalry thing and the missing diamond malarkey just smacks of padding. The effects work, whilst tremendous for a lot of the time, looks pretty ropey in places, too. The iceberg looming in looks plain awful and many of the matte shots of people set against the starry night sky appeared dated even when the film premiered.
“Half the people on this ship are going to die.”
“Not the better half.”
But, miraculously, Cameron manages to salvage his wreck with the eventual disaster. Although I may not be his biggest fan, I certainly acknowledge his skills for creating action and chaos - and here, finally, is where Titanic gets interesting. The frantic scrambling of the masses is impeccably directed and truly exciting to behold. People getting sucked through windows, crushed against railings and log-fluming down flooded corridors are sensational set-pieces. Best among them has to be the little CG guy who smacks the propeller on the long way down, though. OUCH! And a few moments do pinch the heart - a resigned father telling his little girls that there will be a boat along for the daddies soon, Jeannette Goldstein whispering a final bedtime story to her children and the old couple lying in a last embrace as the waters invade their room. Imagery that cannot fail to tug the emotions and haunt for long afterwards, such as the sea of frozen corpses. But it is with the nameless roster of other passengers that we feel the most concern and not with the leads, suggesting, once again, that Cameron's simpering love-story is way off the mark and unneeded to tell the tragedy of Titanic. Of the principles, it is remarkable how untouched by their fates I am. The frozen blue DiCaprio elicits little sympathy as he is jettisoned to Davy Jones's locker, as does Rose's eventual plucking to safety. It is nice to hear Ioan Grufford speaking in his proper Welsh accent, though, as the heroic Fifth Officer Lowe. However, for all this dirt-shovelling that I've been doing, I feel the film does contain one effective moment of pure movie-magic. As corny as it is, the moment when old Rose slips away and the mists of time peel back and the ghosts of Titanic welcome her once again, is an instance of unashamedly heartfelt sentiment. But it is as romantically fitting for a bygone time and a lost ship as is it for an unfulfilled love. Ironically, this is the moment that stays in my mind most of all.
A mention must also go to James Horner, for his simply breathtaking score. His love theme and the many memorable action cues he provides for the sinking go a long way to soothing over the irritations of the screenplay. Despite his incredible track record (we'll not mention the flagrant self-plagiarism, eh?) I don't think he's ever supplied a more emotional, or exhilarating piece of work.
Titanic is a bloated exercise born out of a very worthy endeavour. But, who knows, maybe Cameron will yet be able to convince me of his intentions with the extras. Let's see...
Our Review Ethos