(This review is written for those who have already seen the film.)
Let me first say that I don't regularly go see modern movies. It's
the classics that are my real passion. Too often I find that the modern
ones rely on sex or violence or massive explosions to keep the viewers'
attention, instead of a good story and interesting characters. As a result
they don't often interest me. I have three younger sisters who like them
however, and occasionally we do go modern movie hopping at our local multiplex.
These, in fact, were the circumstances under which I first saw Titanic
(1997), shortly after Christmas of last year. Since then several people
have asked me what I thought of it-- not so much because they value my
opinion as a film critic or anything; more out of curiosity, I think. Anyway,
I've recently had a chance to see it again and thought I'd note down a
few thoughts that came to mind. I'm not hiding anything-- these are my
When it comes to analyzing whether or not Titanic (1997) is
a good film, I think an attempt must be made to understand the film maker's
objectives when he created it, in order to have some kind of criteria by
which to judge it and determine whether or not he succeeded. What were
his motives? What kind of film was he trying to make? Is Titanic
(1997) supposed to be a love story? An action/adventure film? A drama?
Or is it perhaps supposed to be a film like Schindler's List (1993)
whose purpose is to promote better understanding of a historical event
and invoke sympathy for the victims of a tragedy? The fact that I have
to ask myself these questions presents a problem already. Titanic
(1997) lacks focus.
If it's supposed to be a romance, then it's weak for several reasons,
the combination of which result in the ultimate fault of this movie-- the
story aspect is lacking. First, there's too much else happening. If you
don't understand what I mean by that right off, go rent Titanic
(1953) with Barbara Stanwyck
and Clifton Webb and note the difference.
In the 1953 film (in which you'll notice a few similarities, but of which,
the 1997 film is not a remake), the focus of the movie is the breakup of
Stanwyck and Webb's
marriage; the Titanic is only the setting. The 1953 movie could easily
have been transplanted to any other time and place with a tragic end, and
its essence would have remained the same because in the 1953 film, the
plot and characters are the focus. This is far from true with Titanic
(1997). In this movie, the setting of the story overwhelms the story itself--
so much so that at one point after the ship had begun to sink, Kate and
Leo appeared on the screen and I realized I had forgotten they were still
on the boat; so much else was going on.
The second big story weakness is that the characters aren't anything
new or interesting. Winslet is the poor little rich girl. Di Caprio is
her pretty-faced forbidden love. And the abyss between them is money and
social class. Been there. Done that. Happily-ever-afters that can
never be are nothing new in the movies. As a matter of fact, some of classic
Hollywood's best love stories fall into that category-- Casablanca
(1942), How Green Was My Valley
(1941), and Wuthering Heights (1939), to name just a few. The reason
it doesn't really work for me here is that neither the story nor the characters
are developed enough to make this situation unique. What's more, in this
movie the "other man" who further complicates the lovers' plight
(a cinema standard), has absolutely no redeeming qualities. Cal is the
lowest of the low-- cowardly, selfish, cruel, an ultra-snob, and at the
end, his only interest in whether or not Rose survived stems from his desire
to get the diamond necklace that he accidentally left in her pocket. In
short, he's so bad and his character is so one-dimensional that he's not
interesting either. He puts a bullet through his head after the crash of
1929? Well, I guess they were sticking to the rules on that one-- the bad
guy always has to die in the end, right? If he had lived, this movie would
have been too original.
I will acknowledge an attempt to cut Rose from thicker cardboard.
She wants to be her own person and feels constrained not only by her corset,
but by who she is and what she is expected to become. A women's lib voice
crying out in the wilderness of the nineteen-teens, I guess. The problem
is, she's not consistent and there are some gaping holes in her development.
First of all, the whole initial suicide thing doesn't really work because
not only has she failed to convince us that her situation is so dire this
is the only way out, but she has also failed to convince us that she even
believes it herself. She won't jump. We know it. And she seems to know
it too. I don't blame this on Winslet's acting so much as on the writing
and story. First she's just unhappy, and next she's crying, running across
the deck to the stern, ready to end it all. The character development just
isn't there. The second big problem is that if she's so independent and
wants to be her own person, why does she let Jack tell her what to do for
the entire second half of the movie? Never once in all their adventures
after the ship begins to sink, does she take the initiative and make a
decision for herself-- except of course when she decides to jump out of
the nice, safe lifeboat in order to spend a few more minutes with Jack.
Not real intelligent decision making when she finally is allowed
to decide something, and overall, pretty inconsistent with the way the
writers first tried to paint her.
The final major weakness is that there was no suspense to this story.
Having introduced old Rose at 101 (Gloria Stuart) as the Kate Winslet character
quite clearly before the saga began, we knew she was going to survive.
Hitchcock was able to
make films intriguing even when the audience knew the end results beforehand,
but James Cameron is no Hitchcock.
The only element of suspense in this film is how Rose will survive--
will it be in a lifeboat with her mother? No. Too easy. Plus, the movie
isn't long enough yet. We need a shoot out, and Rose hasn't yet spit in
Cal's eye. Very interesting choice of metaphor there, by the way. That
and the middle finger she flashes going down the elevator. Real creativity
and attention to period details.
What about a drama then? Maybe Titanic (1997) is supposed
to be a film about how people react when faced with imminent death. Here
it succeeds a little better than in the love story category, because lightly
defining characters (especially the supporting ones) does seem the way
to go in order to give them that "everyman" feel. There are those
who scream and flail their arms, those who turn to God, those who turn
to each other, those who take it lying down, those who take it seated with
a brandy, and those who are too shocked to decide how they're going to
react-- and still the band played on. Yet, if that was the objective in
making this film, why did we sit through the first two hours?
As far as a film à la Schindler's List goes, this movie
does a decent job of promoting a better historical understanding of the
Titanic's demise-- as best as I can tell, most of the specifics are historically
accurate; but it didn't do its job perpetuating the memory of the tragedy's
victims (except at the Academy Awards when they appeared to have become
the newest ribbon-cause among the members of the film's production team).
We knew going in that people were going to die. It became apparent early
on that there would be a lot of casualties. And we learned quickly (if
we didn't know already) that the third class passengers were the lowest
on the priority list. As a result, there was little shock when things finally
fell into place. I've heard this movie described as a real tear-jerker,
but I must admit that those (young, female) audience members whom I saw
crying, were not motivated by the stark realization that 1500 people died
due to someone's aesthetic decision not to crowd the decks with lifeboats;
they were crying because Leonardo Di Caprio had died and his face wasn't
going to be on the screen anymore-- or so they thought.
We're down to action/adventure film. Nope. I don't think so. If that's
what this movie is supposed to be then there's much too much mushy stuff.
In an action/adventure film, the hero gets the girl in the end when his
hero duties are over-- like in Speed (1994), for example. The bus
has blown up, the speeding subway car has safely come to rest, and then
the kissing starts. For an action/adventure film, Titanic has things
backwards and way out of their proper proportions.
So what is Titanic (1997)? In my opinion, it's a spectacle;
and being a spectacle isn't always bad-- provided it has some dramatic
merit. Titanic is entertaining to watch, the special effects are
incredible, and observing the Ship of Dreams during its final hours is
interesting subject matter. If a historical reenactment of the downing
was the objective of the film however (as was done quite successfully in
the documentary-like A Night to Remember (1958)), then the producers
certainly wasted a lot of money on attempted story writing and big name
actors. The problem is that the ship and its fate (even though we know
it ahead of time) are more interesting than the characters and what will
become of them. (The whole opening and closing sequence about the grave-robber
sea explorer trying to commercialize on the tragedy who eventually comes
to realize the magnitude of it all, is an especially uninteresting plot
facet and utter waste of film.) But to me the biggest indicator that Titanic
is more a spectacle than a story is Leonardo Di Caprio's presence in it.
He couldn't even begin to pretend he was a "survivor" in the
nineteen-teens-- and to be honest, I'm not sure he ever tried, given how
badly his "'90s boy" demeanor stuck out from behind his costumes.
(I won't blame it all on his acting though-- he was fed some pretty
pathetic dialogue: "Hi! I'm Jack Dawson. Nice to meet ya.")
Overall, it's a sight to see-- but so is the Grand Canyon. Titanic
(1997) lacks substance-- in its plot, in its characterization, and in its
acting-- and obviously, given the Academy Awards which it didn't
win, I'm not the only one who thinks so. I demand more from the movies
I watch than postcard photos and special effects-- cinematography and art/set
direction are important, but not everything (as Hollywood should have learned
after Cleopatra (1963)). Titanic is a pretty movie, and very
nice to look at. But in my book, that's the garnish. It's as if they spent
$200 million on very intricate icing decoration, but someone forgot to
cook the cake underneath first.
Reviewed: July 27, 1998