First off, I have been waiting for Titanic to be released into theaters ever since I first heard they were making it. Hearing James Cameron would direct, I was a little worried that he would turn it into an action film. I felt that the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic had more going for it than action, and it deserved more respect (not that I'm saying the action genre isn't respectful... or maybe I am). Upon seeing the first previews of the film (over a year ago), I realized that Cameron had created something that has to be seen. It wasn't going to be an action film, but a romantic love story revolving around the Titanic's disastrous voyage. And then, come July, and I heard the worst news of the year--Titanic was being pushed to December. I was incredibly disappointed, but the film's trailers still loomed in my mind. December 19 was approaching fast, but it seemed to take forever.
And then it hit theaters. I bought tickets the night before, just to make sure I had them. The film's title appeared in big, bold letters against an oceanic background. I let out a small cheer for myself and the film. For over three hours, I sat in my seat, spellbound. There really are no words to describe it. This is an experience one must see to believe. The trailers make it look like an action-packed, visual-effects filled story that had a romance story as a subplot. Instead, the sinking of the Titanic is the subplot, while the romance becomes the film's center. On exiting the theater (and wiping away the tears), I overheard comments from an audience member who thought it was going to be a disaster film filled with peril and death. This was a rather tasteless remark, and I wanted to turn to him and ask him if he had ever seen any of the previews. However, he was partially right... it is filled with death and peril. But only for the final hour or so.
Titanic begins deep under the ocean (over two and half miles below the surface). The dark blue surrounds the camera's view, and then a light in the background appears. Several small submarines move in the darkness (reminiscent of Cameron's The Abyss) and the light shines upon a "ghost ship coming out of the darkness." What's so remarkable about this scene is that these shots are actual footage of the real Titanic. Cameron shot this footage, taking shots from inside the ship with small vessels attached to cables. The head of these excursions into the Titanic is led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), an explorer hoping to find a valuable diamond which was believed to be aboard the ship. Instead of finding the diamond, they find a safe full of drawings and other rotted paper. One of these drawings is of a nude woman, who happens to be wearing the diamond, appropriately called The Heart of the Ocean.
Showing the picture on the TV, Lovett receives a phone call from Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who claims to be the woman in the picture. She is flown in, where she begins to tell a story about a woman, Rose DeWitt Butaker (Kate Winslet). Rose is a 17 year old girl being forced to marry a man she does not love. This man is Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), a rich eccentric with more love for his money than Rose. Calvert's story begins with these two arriving at the farewell of the R.M.S. Titanic, nicknamed "The Unsinkable." The first class members board with pets and luggage, while third class members need to be checked for lice and other diseases before boarding. A poor artist, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), wins a ticket for third class during a poker game. His friend, Fabrizio De Rossi (Danny Nucci), also boards in order to escape to America. Shortly after the ship leaves the dock, Jack spots Rose standing on the first class level. Rose is so miserable with her engagement that she runs to the edge of the boat to commit suicide. Jack stops her, and the two begin a friendship which later turns into a passionate affair.
As all this is going on, the ship itself is being pushed to its limits. Considered to be the fastest and largest moveable manmade object, one passenger, Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), wants Captain E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill) to break the speed record. Against fair warnings, the Captain complies and pushes the ship to full power. This, of course, leads to the demise of the Titanic. The sinking of the Titanic is by far the most exhilarating moments I have ever seen on screen. The awesome grandeur of this sequence is perfect film making. Sure, there may be a couple moments where the special effects waver, but that is not important to the story or to Cameron. The incredible suspense that amounts is more than any other film this year, surpassing the terrific Contact's transportation moment. I thought I had seen everything, from the White House exploding, to the destruction of an entire city. But I had never seen anything like this. The energy this scene creates alone would power any other film. But Titanic has much more to offer than any other film. It combines humor, romance, action, suspense, and sex into one incredible motion picture that defies explanation.
Of course, Titanic's central aspect is the love story between Jack and Rose, and the crush it has on Cal. The romantic story isn't original, but this is not a bad thing. Cameron re-invents the story to fit the time period and its characters. Everything fits perfectly, with nothing ever seeming contrived or awkward. Jack's immediate interest in Rose, and Rose likewise, is completely understandable. She is suffering emotionally, and Jack is there to support her. Themes from Romeo and Juliet are included, such as Rose being an upper-classman, and Jack being lower class. But the emotional connection between Rose and Jack is almost palpable, and this fuels the film's first two hours. We watch the trials of Jack and Rose, and as they overcome them, the ship comes closer to destiny. With a ship as large as the Titanic was, it was destined to crash. And of course, the ship isn't stocked with enough lifeboats to accommodate the 2,200 passengers. In the end, over 700 people survive, while the rest drown, freeze, or commit suicide.
The resolution of the film, after the ship's gone under, is just as powerful as anything else in the movie. It ends rather surprisingly, with a touching symbolic conclusion. Most films end predictably, or inappropriately, but Titanic ends just on the right note. In fact, the symbolism of the final scene is so perfect, that many people will contemplate over the meaning for months. The film does end rather depressingly, and unexpectedly, but when you think about it, it couldn't have ended any other way. All the questions are answered, and we are left with a weak smile due to the intense situation we were just put through. The Titanic sinking is an emotional roller coaster, with many more realistic deaths than any Independence Day. The death scenes are so realistic, that you find yourself caring for every single passenger. Cameron never compromises the integrity of his film, and the deaths of the passengers is never overemphasized. He doesn't linger on each death, but takes it as it comes to show us the realism without trying to force emotions out of the audience. But emotions do show, and almost anyone will find themselves wiping away a few tears.
Titanic's technical effects are the most impressive of any film this year. The production design, by Peter Lamont, is so meticulous in the small details, that we never realize the impact it has on the overall production. Everything, from the silverware to the enormous furnaces and engines, is perfectly in place. The cinematography, by Russell Carpenter, is incredibly rich. The detail in each shot is quite exquisite, and the visuals are very impressive without seeming too much like artificial visuals to make us gawk. What we gawk at is the realism. The pistons that spin the propellers are huge, but the visual impact is even stronger. Since Titanic is a period piece, the costumes, by Deborah Lynn Scott, had to be perfect. And they are. Nothing seems like it doesn't belong in the early 20th century. And then, there are the special effects. Combining the power of Industrial Light & Magic with Cameron's Digital Domain (as well as a couple other companies), Titanic contains the most impressive special effects this year, and ever. Most special effects come across as effects, and nothing more. Titanic uses special effects to enhance the realism of the story, not the other way around. The ship is brought to the screen via visual effects, models, and a near full-scale model. Watching people fall from the ship is incredible, and the death scenes were too realistic for some people in the audience. When the ship splits in half and lands back on the water, a gasp is heard from almost everyone in the audience. The music, by Cameron-regular James Horner, is extremely appropriate, giving the film a more epic-type feel to it. The music is terrific, and deserves the Oscar for Best Original Score.
Cameron, as a storyteller, is among the best ever. His technique is perfect for these kinds of expensive motion pictures. But Cameron always makes good movies, no matter what kind of a budget he may have. Perhaps the biggest downfall of Titanic is its enormous budget. Somewhere around $200 million, Titanic easily surpasses Waterworld as the most expensive film to date. But while watching Titanic, you can see where the money went. And you also don't care what it cost. You want to thank Cameron for giving us a film like this one. Cameron had major control over the production of this film, taking the directing and screenwriting into his own hands. He also co-edited and co-produced. Cameron's screenplays are typically well written, with smart dialogue, funny humor, and great action. But Titanic contains an emotional element last seen in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and elevates it even more. This is a beautifully written screenplay, with terrific humor and very dramatic situations. Thankfully, Cameron opted to focus the story on the adventures of two fictional characters, instead of many different ones. We get to know them, and care for them. By the time the ship begins to sink, we actually care that the people on the ship live, instead of watching the mayhem swallow faceless victims up.
Titanic's cast is among the best this year. Leonardo DiCaprio is not one of my favorite actors (he was in last year's horrible William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet), but here, he sheds the cocky image (more than likely a result of Cameron's control over his actors). DiCaprio gives his best performance to date, never seeming like an actor portraying a character. However, it is Kate Winslet's performance that steals the show. Her impressive resume of work has made her one of my favorite actresses, and this just adds to it. Winslet portrays all the confusion and love and hate that any other actress couldn't do as effectively. The scenes with her and DiCaprio are emotionally charged, and the connection between the two reminds us of what good chemistry can do for a film. Billy Zane has proven to be a reliable actor, but again, he tops himself as the villain of the film. Zane adds just enough love and warmth to the role in the beginning, but as Winslet begins falling in love with DiCaprio, he sheds that image until the final moments of the film. He shows an evil and jealous side to his personality, but it's never artificial. Gloria Stuart gives a remarkable performance in a role that marks her return during a long dry spell (her last film was in 1986). Stuart's Rose is old, but she still has the spirit of when she was 17. Her face glows with love. Bill Paxton also does a very good job, though his character is mainly there in order to begin the story. Kathy Bates gives yet another terrific turn as the real-life Mrs. Molly Brown. This ensemble cast is quite good, but it is DiCaprio and Winslet who shine on screen.
Titanic is rated PG-13 for disaster related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality, and brief language. The nudity is not inappropriate, as it is done tastefully. Winslet appears topless, but Cameron never exploits the nudity. If we do manage to see her topless, it is not because Cameron wanted to, but because the camera happened to be there. Titanic is a grand epic motion picture which is sure to sweep the Oscars. This is the first film since Schindler's List that I have wanted to win Best Picture, and has a good chance at doing it. Let's face it, James Cameron deserves some recognition for all his hard work. In fact, this is the first film since the 1993 epic that I have wanted to sweep the Oscars (which is unfortunate because I want Contact to win a few too). Titanic is by far the best film of the year. Titanic will be remembered as an instant classic, going down in history as the most expensive film ever made, but also as one of the best films ever made.
**** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie