It’s the 20th anniversary of Titanic shortly – you’ve no doubt seen it, that romantic action film about star crossed lovers and some ship. Released in late 1997 (early 1998 in the UK), James Cameron’s first film since 1994’s True Lies was this big budget, high concept, historical tragedy which he pitched as, essentially, Romeo and Juliet on a doomed boat. In fundamental form, it’s a three hour romantic epic. Handed a budget of $100 million, Cameron’s vision ensured this escalated rapidly to $200 million and, as you can expect, much hand wringing from studio bods at Paramount Pictures.
Upon launch, the film rapidly became a cultural phenomenon and really caught the public’s imagination, with much word of mouth ensuring, even if you didn’t want to see it, all the additional marketing compelled you to do so. The result was a lot of people, particularly younger ladies, went to see the film over and over again to weep through to the conclusion. Result? To date, the film has made over $2.1 billion. 20 years on… is it any good?
First up, let’s not gloss over how this tragedy in 1912 led to 1,500 deaths, with survivor reports of the mortifying collective screams of those in the icy cold water reminding us this was a horrific event which, over 100 years, has been turned into a money-making extravaganza. A letter written on the Titanic in October ’17 fetched £126,000 at an auction, for instance, whilst Cameron’s epic remains a billion dollar earner.
Anyway, we’re doing a reappraisal of his film today. Titanic has developed a reputation as being a bit of a chick-flick which, consequently, has made many men reject it as it threatens their masculinity. Like this film and you must be gay, seems to be the sentiment (which I’ve seen actively pushed around by my peers). Titanic is a, if slightly odd, great film which does exactly what it sets out to do – it’s Romeo and Juliet on a doomed ship and, over three hours, it manages to satisfy a huge range of cinema-goers. That’s something to be applauded, frankly, but there are also faults to discuss alongside the good points.
Using state of the art special effects (for the time), merged CGI with practical effects, to complement this Cameron dumped hot young actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (in their early 20s) into the lead roles and, voila, you have a film about happy go lucky working class maverick Jack Dawson (da Vinci) and upper class rich toff Rose DeWitt Bukater (Winslet).
At the off, Jack cadges a lucky break in Southampton and wins some tickets for the Titanic, which is setting off on its maiden voyage to New York. He’s a precocious little git who likes art and living for the moment. Meanwhile, rich person Rose arrives with a snotty attitude and a pampered existence with her quietly malicious, narcissistic fop of a fiance Cal Hockley (played brilliantly by Billy Zane in an awesome wig).
Jack and Rose soon have a habit of bumping into each other, despite being separated by class boundaries employed by the ship, and over the first 90 minutes a passionate romance blossoms. The ship then strikes an iceberg and, for the second half of the film, we have a grand scale disaster movie as the Titanic begins to founder.
The Good Stuff
Now, we do think Cameron is an action film genius (he’s extremely hands on in all productions, typically writing the script, directing, and producing): the first two Terminator films, Aliens (by itself just a bloody masterpiece of the highest order), True Lies, and Avatar provide awesome popcorn entertainment. It’s as simple as that, whether you think Avatar is Dances with Wolves in space or not, it’s just a good fun film.
There’s a lot of fantastic action in Titanic. Cameron is an absolute genius when it comes to understanding what makes intense action. Some critics have suggested his writing is sub-par at times, but when you have set-pieces like the iceberg scene you really can’t complain. This is two minutes of brilliance as the crew desperately attempt to steer the ship around the colossal iceberg which emerged from the night.
In reality, between sighting the iceberg and trying to avoid it, only 60 seconds past and, it’s suggested from survivor records, there wasn’t the mad panic as displayed in the film. That wouldn’t be professional for a start, but Murdoch did order “hard to starboard” and there was a rush to steer around the object. The scene is magnificent and the best one from the film – watch it! The use of music, the performances – it all hammers home what’s about to happen.
The scene also marks the end of the Romeo and Juliet stuff which somewhat mars the first 90 minutes, unless you were a 16 year old girl in 1997 in love with Leo DiCaprio. Going forward, the action film begins and we’re treated to a really breathtaking disaster movie played out on a grand scale.
There are subtle moments of brilliance, too, such as when the camera pulls right back for a panoramic view of the Titanic essentially stranded in the Atlantic ocean. The sense of solitude, the lack of music, and the impossibility of the disaster is captured in less than 10 seconds of imagery.
Alongside moments like that, there are a lot of excellent performances from pretty much everyone involved, particularly the increasingly distressed top crew members Captain Smith, First Officer Murdoch, and White Star Line manager Bruce Ismay. Belting!
The Bad Stuff
The 90 minute build up to the iceberg incident is superfluous. Plus, the character development of Jack and Rose isn’t overly well done, in the sense it’s not particularly believable. It’s also annoying – Jack is, simply put, a bit annoying. DiCaprio was already a heartthrob back then and this is a decent performance from the then 22 year old and his presence got many young ladies into the cinema multiple times to weep through it all.
Kate Winslet, who hated the whole filming experience and was at loggerheads with Cameron throughout, is on better form, but much of her dialogue is a bit irritating, not helped by the basic nature of the plot: wealthy people are snobs and the working class lot are heroes up against adversity.
There was also a great deal of controversy surrounding the William Murdoch character, who played a major part in saving hundreds of lives. In Titanic, actor Ewan Stewart does a fine job in this role, but the script asks for him to gun down a random innocent and then commit suicide. Up in Scotland, where he’s a hero and there are statues of him, that bit of nonsense caused a lot of issues, although the historical accuracy of the film (other than the ship hitting an iceberg and going down) has been called to question over numerous matters.
Simply put, though, the first 90 minutes are a bit boring. You get to see the ship in all its grandeur, but 30 minutes of that would have worked nicely, we didn’t need this daft love story involving one young woman who was ready to ditch everything to run off with a guy who, you know, might have proven to be a bit of a git. But, then, this love story is part of the reason the film was such a success, along with…
Bet you never thought you’d see that song on Professional Moron, eh?! Surely one of the reasons why a lot of people hate the film is down to My Heart Will Go On. Written by Will Jennings and performed by Celine Dion, had it not been so bloody omnipresent from late ’97 onward then, perhaps, it wouldn’t be so reviled. It’s a very irritating song, no doubts, and one enough to make any sane person cringe or vomit uncontrollably.
Trying to view this impartially, its use in the film isn’t particularly overbearing and, for some sects of the audience, it must surely add dramatic weight. Now, Cameron knows how to reach his audience but is hardly a soppy director – anyone who’s seen the unbelievably intense Aliens can attest to that. Did he really approve of the song, or was it forced through by corporate bigwigs?
Let’s have a look at some of the lyrics. Brace yourself for nausea, try not to wince in anguish, and if you sense a brain hemorrhage is impending rush to your nearest sink and immerse your head in freezing water:
Every night in my dreams I see you, I feel you That is how I know you, go on Far across the distance And spaces between us You have come to show you, go on Near, far, wherever you are I believe that the heart does go on Once more you open the door And you're here in my heart and my heart will go on and on
Dear God, what creature could write such a thing!? Anyway, it’s all irrelevant. It’s there and we can’t do anything about it. However, our esteemed editor, Mr. Wapojif, every time reacts the same way upon hearing My Heart Will Go On: “Jesus, that stupid ****ing song!” Indeed. In-bloody-deed.
Right, so did we really need to write a 1,500+ word review of this film? Yes, for some reason the mood took us and, as it’s been two decades, it seemed appropriate to revisit one of cinema’s most peculiarly enduring classics. Whilst it has its naysayers, this is a damn good film – flawed, if you must, with a massively unnecessary opening hour and a half, but from the moment the iceberg homes into view it turns into a riveting cinema classic.
Essentially, then, Titanic is two films in one. You have all the bombastic Romeo and Juliet stuff for 90 minutes, then a really thunderously intense action film kicks off. It’s a rollercoaster ride, as cheesy as that term is, but it’s popcorn cinema so nearly at its very best. Give it another watch and enjoy!
Also, on a final note, Cameron is hard at work on, like, 30+ Avatar sequels. Actually, we think it’s just two or three of them. Now 63, we’re wondering if he’ll do another film again beyond Avatar, which would be a shame, but those sequels should be big old dumb, imaginative good fun. Bring it on.