Titanic Reviewby Stephen Rowley (cinephobia AT yahoo DOT com)
September 13th, 1998
Titanic (James Cameron), 1997
Review from Cinephobia
It is with some surprise that I come to write this review. For, eight months after it opened, it's a little disorientating to remind myself that I actually did very much enjoy James Cameron's epic "Titanic." That's because, somewhere in that time period, the unrelenting crudfest that has surrounded this film has made me hate the film and everything about it. I hate Leonardo DiCaprio. I hate James Horner. And surely I can't be alone in wishing that Celine Dione's heart would just *stop*?
But I want to be objective. So, having acknowledged my qualms, I'll try to set them aside. And let's get at the question that the hype has all too often obscured: is the film any good? If so, why? And if not, why not?
The key to this question is to situate the film within the correct genre. James Cameron, let's remember, is an action director; he is probably America's most talented (Spielberg at his best is better, but Spielberg's problems of late are a whole different issue). He made "Aliens" (my vote as the best sci-fi actioner of the eighties), both "Terminator" films, "The Abyss," and "True Lies." He is not known as director of romances. True, one thing that was notable in his best films ("Aliens" and the first "Terminator") was an attention to character. But this was never a feature that could stand on its own, and until "Titanic" I don't think Cameron ever harboured illusions that it could. The beauty of Cameron's work was that he could create serviceable, yet affecting, emotional subplots and integrate them fully into the thrust of an action narrative (think how well Ripley's maternal instincts are played upon in "Aliens"). We must see the plot of Titanic in these terms. Do we really believe that Cameron conceived the love story between these two characters and then decided the perfect backdrop was the sinking of the Titanic? I don't. I'm pretty sure Cameron started with the thought of how exciting the sinking scenes would be and then grafted Jack and Rose into the events afterwards.
The film bears this out. As a good old fashioned disaster movie, "Titanic" is superb. The special effects, while not as flawless as some would have you believe, are extremely impressive. This is even truer when you consider how many involve water effects, which are notoriously difficult: they become expensive when done full scale (think "Waterworld") and tend to look very fake when miniaturised (think of the breaking dam in "Superman"). Cameron has the advantage of making his film after the rediscovery of the ship's wreckage. This has opened up a great deal of new information, which happily points to a sequence of events considerably more visually exciting than the old image of the ship sinking intact under the waves. And Cameron is ingenious at working his characters into the right places to witness all the best action. The imagery here is stunning, from the creepy bits as icy water chases rats through the hull to the showstopping final scenes as the stern sinks underwater. Cameron delivers all the highpoints like the skilled craftsman he is; the flawless framing, editing, and choreography of action should be taken up as an example within the industry (take note Michael Bay). These scenes get about an hour devoted to them, which is about the time the ship took to sink, but Cameron isn't after some "High Noon"-style exercise in real time editing. He's showing off his mastery of the medium, his gorgeous production design, and his astonishing visual effects. On this level the film is an enormous achievement, and I came out of the cinema more excited than I have for quite a while. ("Face/Off" was probably the last film that gave me such a buzz).
Yet I quickly came to begrudge the film its success. Why? Because people seem to enjoy the film at a level on which it isn't any good. It was the love story that seemed to be drawing the repeat business, and the film's success at the Oscars was based, presumably, on the belief that the film was (or could be passed off as) a work of important, substantial, serious drama. After all, you don't give Oscars to action films (though they sometimes get nominations, as several of Spielberg's have). And this aspect of the film is a bare minimum effort: as I have suggested, it is subservient to the action. As drama in its own right it has considerably less integrity than Sarah Conner's plight in "The Terminator" or even Ripley's affecting angst in "Aliens." Essentially we have a familiar, hackneyed class conflict romance such as we have seen hundreds of times elsewhere, told with less flair than usual. Cameron doesn't add any surprising notes to the cliched story, and his representation of class oppression is very schematic (I'm inclined to think a British or Australian director might have brought out the logic of class with more subtlety and appreciation). Many of Cameron's character moments are oafishly clumsy and obvious (think of the business with the loogy, or the sequence with the Picassos, or the way Rose immediately spots the lifeboat shortage).
The performances are nothing to write home about. Kate Winslett is strong and well cast, but the flat material gives her no character nuances to try and draw out. Leonardo DiCaprio is all wrong: I've liked him in several previous roles (I thought he was excellent in Baz Luhrmann's superb "Romeo and Juliet"), but Jack is not his finest moment. DiCaprio looks all out of place in this time period, and there are none of the rough edges to his character that a life of poverty would likely produce (this is the kind of thing I mean when I say Cameron doesn't get the true workings of class). He's too unrelentingly perfect: it's like watching Winslett get seduced by a cherub. Billy Zane is a lot more entertaining, mainly because he seems to have realised how preposterous his part is and decided to ham it up. He has a blatant caddishness that is actually extremely funny: if Cameron was a little more appreciative of this we could have had an interesting film that explored Winslett's sly appreciation of his antisocial behaviour. But Cameron seems to take him seriously, and indeed seems to accept David Warner's henchman as a real character too. (Warner actually played the romantic lead in an earlier, less carefully marketed version of the story). Ultimately the stuntmen and CGI virtual people come off as more convincing: they at least know how to die.
So I can't go along with those who gave this film a Best Picture Oscar (against an unusually strong field, too) or think that it's the modern "Gone with the Wind." Let's just all get ourselves large screen TVs with hi-fi stereo sound and watch the final hour over and over again. Only then will sanity prevail.
Review (C) 1998 Stephen Rowley. All rights reserved.
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