May 2024

Titanic (1997)

DIRECTOR: James Cameron

CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Gloria Stuart, David Warner, Bill Paxton, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Victor Garber, Bernard Hill, Danny Nucci, Jonathan Hyde, Suzy Amis, Eric Braeden, Jenette Goldstein, Ioan Gruffudd


With sci-fi thrillers like The Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, and The Abyss, and the action-comedy True Lies under his belt, James Cameron turned his sights in a totally different direction for his next project….a romance set onboard the notorious ill-fated luxury ship the RMS Titanic. Nearly anyone knows the basics of the story of the 1912 disaster, with more than 1,500 of the 2,200-plus passengers, including many rich and famous of the day, perishing at sea when the “unsinkable” ship struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City, but none among the many, many films to deal with Titanic had the means to bring the massive ship and its end to the screen with such visual splendor.  To draw crowds, Cameron centered his script around a star struck love story, cast with primed-to-explode heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio and soon-to-be Oscar nominee Kate Winslet.  Titanic clearly struck a chord with audiences, standing for twelve years as the highest-grossing film of all time, surpassed only by Cameron’s next film, 2009’s Avatar.  Unfortunately, it’s also overrated, and the story doesn’t equal the spectacular visuals surrounding it.

We start out in the present, with treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) thinking he’s found the safe containing a priceless diamond but finding only a nude drawing of a young woman wearing the diamond around her neck.  His discovery attracts the attention of 101-year-old Rose Dawson Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who nonchalantly announces that the woman in the drawing is herself.  Hoping to learn where to find the diamond, Brock agrees to listen to her account of her time onboard the Titanic.  Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), the well-brought-up daughter of Ruth DeWitt Bukater (Frances Fisher), boards the new luxury liner RMS Titanic with her mother and snooty fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane).  Despite her wealth and cultivation, Rose is miserable, trapped in a loveless arranged engagement with the controlling Cal, and is contemplating throwing herself off the back of the ship when she is stopped by steerage passenger Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a poor artist who won his ticket in a card game.  Despite the attempts of her mother and Cal’s manservant Lovejoy (David Warner) to thwart their relationship, Jack and Rose fall into a star-crossed love affair, but they’re headed for a collision course with fate that will cast everything into peril.

 The positives first: from a technical and visual standpoint, Titanic is nearly flawless.  At $200 million, it was one of the most expensive movies ever made (one of the few to surpass it was Cameron’s next project, Avatar, twelve years later), and James Cameron and his crew spent a prodigious amount of time, research, effort, and money meticulously and painstakingly recreating Titanic and its catastrophic end.  The ship was represented through a combination of state-of-the-art CGI and a 775-foot, 90% scale model which was sunk in a 17 million gallon tank specially constructed for the movie, and once the ship has had its inevitable collision with the iceberg, around the two hour mark (out of a three hour runtime), Cameron’s virtuoso adeptness at helming large-scale action-adventure visual effects extravaganza kicks in, providing plenty of eye-popping sights. Technically, Titanic is an impressive accomplishment.

It’s too bad Cameron didn’t put as much effort into his script. While I’m not accusing Cameron of intentionally trivializing the epic disaster, his script has that effect by narrowing everything down into a cookie cutter love story.  Everything about Jack and Rose’s story is clichéd, from the love struck couple divided by social class to the one-dimensional sneering upper crust fiancé.  Cameron’s script also attempts to be too clever for its own good, simultaneously making self-consciously heavy-handed references to the time period, with Rose mentioning Freud and buying paintings by a “Picasso something or other” despite Cal’s insistence that they’ll never amount to anything, and trying to be “hip” for modern teenage viewers by throwing in Jack teaching Rose to spit like a man and Rose giving Lovejoy the middle finger.  We’re supposed to fall for the epic love story so that we’re on the edge of our seat when it’s put in harm’s way, but we’re insufficiently captivated to the point that we find ourselves waiting for the iceberg to show up to kick things into gear, with the result that even when the disaster does come, it doesn’t have as much impact as it should.

Kate Winslet received her first of six Academy Award nominations for Titanic, and her performance is capable, bringing about as much conviction to the role as could be expected and managing a believable American accent.  Rose may be temporarily resigned to a loveless arranged marriage and expectations of society, but it only takes a little push to awaken the independent woman waiting to burst out underneath (and this is a James Cameron movie, which means his initially prim and proper heroine eventually gets into the act of spitting in her loathsome fiancé’s face, breaking Jack’s handcuffs with a fire axe, and punching uncooperative crewmen).  Despite his popularity being launched into the stratosphere by his role here, Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t as successful.  He’s in fact a year older than Winslet, but his baby faced boyishness here makes him look significantly younger, and the sense of a wet-behind-the-ears lightweight extends to his acting.  Both are saddled with clichéd dialogue, but unlike Winslet, DiCaprio can’t muster the conviction to pull them off, leaving them an unequal pair in screen presence and therefore throwing off their entire chemistry, which never truly catches on fire despite scenes depicting him sketching her nude and later a steamy but tastefully discreet love scene ending with a hand sliding down a fogged-up car window that’s more unintentionally amusing than erotic.  Jack and Rose’s love story never truly compels us; in fact, there was arguably more chemistry between Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in the original Terminator.  Of the others, Billy Zane is saddled with the one-note Hockley, and plays him in such an over-the-top, affected, perpetually sneering fashion that he’s more fatuous than detestable.  The supporting cast fares better; Gloria Stuart maintains her dignity, while David Warner is suitably ominous.  Kathy Bates is delightful as the uncouth but spunky and sympathetic Molly Brown, who lends Jack a helping hand, and Victor Garber brings a nice dignity to Titanic’s kindly, ill-fated designer Thomas Andrews.  Bill Paxton’s character is rather superfluous and functions as a plot device to give the elderly Rose someone to narrate to.  Various more-or-less recognizable faces fill out the ensemble of real-life historical figures, including Bernard Hill as Captain Smith, Jonathan Hyde as the less-than-sympathetic company representative J. Bruce Ismay who pushes Smith to speed despite iceberg warnings to make it to New York ahead of schedule, then later escapes the disaster he contributed to causing by sneaking onto a lifeboat reserved for women and children when no one is looking, and The Young and the Restless‘ Eric Braeden as world’s richest man John Jacob Astor, but these are all pretty thankless bit parts that provide a little background color.  Cameron regular Jenette Goldstein, who previously played hard-ass Marine Vasquez in 1986’s Aliens, and John Connor’s foster mother in 1991’s Terminator 2, has a small role here (switching ethnicities again) as an Irish mother.

It’s easy to make an argument that, even if Titanic’s love story is less-than-enthralling, the movie merits at least one viewing for its visual spectacle and meticulous recreation of the final hours of the doomed ship.  Titanic’s sinking has been portrayed many times, but never with anywhere remotely close to this budget, technical accomplishment, or historical accuracy. In the last hour of the movie, we are reminded that, however lacking his script may be, Cameron is a masterful filmmaker who knows how to helm large-scale action sequences and spectacular visual effects scenes like few other directors.  The lengthy climax has any number of memorable and haunting images: the ship’s bow reaching for the stars, standing briefly perfectly on end before beginning its descent into the sea, water rushing through ornate hallways, a body suspended weightlessly in the water, dress billowing around it, and most hauntingly, the famous violin players launching their performance of “Nearer My God To Thee” and the aftermath of the ocean filled with frozen corpses.  There are instances of both heroic bravery and self-sacrifice, and abject cowardice, and many of the most famous moments from countless depictions of the sinking are faithfully included.  There are other nice touches here and there. Rose’s mother, who looks at Jack like something she would wipe off her shoe, seems as stereotypical and one-dimensional as Cal, but one scene fleshes out her motives, and we see they’re a little more complicated than we thought.  If he’d bothered that much with every character, and the plot in general, we may have had a stronger film. Despite the flatness of the central Jack-Rose love affair, the film is not entirely unaffecting: there are moments scattered throughout the climax guaranteed to generate wet eyes, and the epilogue affirms Cameron as a romantic at heart.

But while much of what surrounds it is impressive, the fact that Cameron has chosen to focus so exclusively on the Jack-Rose romance, with everyone and everything else as background filler, means the movie’s success is tied inextricably to the strength or weakness of the central love story, and its flatness leaves much of Titanic feeling like a showcase for impressive visual effects, and in its climax like a docudrama of Titanic’s demise.  I am tempted to recommend it for at least one viewing for the sake of the last two aspects, but the parts of the story we do care about usually have nothing directly to do with Rose and particularly Jack, and they receive only perfunctory attention.  Titanic‘s visuals may be epic, but its story is disappointingly generic.