Titanic (1997) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo Di Caprio, Kathy Bates, Billy Zane, David Warner, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton
It’s been 10 years since the “Titanic” phenomenon. It shattered the domestic and worldwide box office records by such a margin, it’s still miles ahead of #2 “LOTR: The Return of the King”. Like most successes the bigger it got the more people wanted to tear it down. It’s been trounced on like a dirty old carpet ever since. Sure the dialogue is ham-fisted and the romance is a little syrupy, but with a fresh set of eyes, “Titanic” is still great entertainment and worthy of its records.
James Cameron wanted “Titanic” to be his “Doctor Zhivago” and so, like David Lean, the film begins in present day and flashes back to retrace the memories of a tragic love story against the background of a large scale historical event. The opening introduces Rose (Gloria Stuart) who is brought aboard a ship of a treasure hunter looking for a lost diamond necklace from the wreckage of the “Titanic”. Rose recounts the story to the high tech treasure hunters of her fateful trip in 1912.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jack, a poor American looking for a ride back to his homeland. He wins his ticket on a game of poker, hops the boat in the nick of time and sails off. When he rescues the lovely erudite Rose from a suicide attempt he becomes the local hero and finds himself hobnobbing with the upper class elite, namely Rose’s impudent fiancé, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Longing glances from across tables turn into gleeful flirting around the boat then passionate sweaty sex in the back of a car. Then, of course, the boat hits an iceberg and the crew and passengers have one hour to get off the boat before it sinks. Despite numerous attempts by Cal to separate them, Rose and Jack stay together all the way into the freezing cold water where their fleeting romance will eventually go down with the ship.
Let’s address those nasty knocks against the film as poorly written sappy romance with bad dialogue and two-dimensional characters. Indeed Jack, Rose, Cal and the rest are uncomplex caricatures which easily separate good from bad for the audience. But James Cameron has a knack for good casting and his lead actors are so likeable the dialogue is more than tolerable. In 1997 Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet were young, and though not household names, both were already Oscar-nominated actors. Di Caprio is just about the perfect everyman and Kate Winslet, who was practically born in a corset, falls into her character like an old shoe.
The one common element that would cover everyone’s beef with the film is Billy Zane as Cal Hockley. Without Billy the film would be become more than tolerable even to the most extreme anti-Titanite. Indeed, almost every word out of his mouth is like bile. And I don’t think it’s the writing, it’s just a case of bad casting. Sorry Billy. I liked you in “the Phantom” and “Dead Calm”, but you’re dead wrong for “Titanic”.
Though I’m a guy, I was never bored with the romantic 90mins before the ship starts to sink. Once it starts going down, the tech-master Cameron takes over and he gives us an awesome 90mins disaster sequence. It’s an Irwin Allen extravaganza with every penny of its $200 million budget on the screen. Cameron had a gimbaled full scale replica of “Titanic” docked in a man made tank in Mexico. Some of the CG effects during the first half look cartoony now, but everything blends in well during the nighttime scenes. My favourite moment is that poor digital person who falls and gets hit by the propeller on his way into the water. The three editors, one of whom is Cameron himself, deserves much of the reward for cutting together the moments of disaster-related suspense with the emotional anguish of joining Rose and Jack together.
For intrepid cinephiles I highly actually recommend finding Roy Ward Baker’s take on “Titanic”, 1958’s “A Night to Remember”. Imagine “Titanic” without the love story. You will find many similarities between the two films, including several blatantly stolen shots from the 1958 version. The production value is surprisingly high. Check it out. There’s an out of print Criterion Collection DVD out there.
Ok, so take out Leo’s “I’m king of the world” line, Billy Zane, and maybe Danny Nucci, and you have a perfectly enjoyable film. Leave them both in there and chew some potato chips over those moments and you still have a fine film. Enjoy. Now get out of the water and make another film.
Buy Titanic (10th Anniversary Edition)
Buy A Night to Remember - Criterion Collection
For kicks, compare these two near identical scenes:
From “A Night to Remember”: