Titanic (1997)

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Contains some spoilers, if one can ‘spoil’ a 15-year old film!

With the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic firmly on the horizon (April 15, folks) it’s no surprise that we’re awash with various programmes and books marking the centennial of the disaster that claimed over 1500 lives. And it’s even less of a surprise that the seminal 1997 blockbuster from director James Cameron has resurfaced just in time for the occasion as well. (Don’t worry, the maritime allusions stop now.)

It’s interesting seeing people’s comments in 2012 about the film. At the time the movie was a phenomenon, but it’s one that people now seem to be lining up to denigrate. It’s as if everyone is now as embarrassed by that outbreak of film fanaticism as they are about the similarly overwrought public outpouring of grief over the death of Princess Diana which had occurred just a few months previously. Everyone professes not to have been one of those caught up in the original event, and to disparage those who were and the person or film at the heart of it as unworthy.

Hence, Titanic is now generally dismissed as being pretty dreadful – even to the point of some comparing it unfavourably with the likes of Michael Bay’s execrable Pearl Harbor. You’re not going to get such unwarranted revisionism from me, however. While I’m not going to contend that it’s a work of total genius up there with the likes of Citizen Kane or The Godfather, the fact is that this is an impressive film which is far cleverer than people give it credit for. People assume that because it looks simplistic and is easy to follow, that it automatically follows that it is simple and trite and that anyone can do it. But in fact Cameron’s film juggles multiple requirements and merely makes it look simple when it’s anything but: it’s the cinematic swan serenely floating on the surface while everything’s going frantically under the water to achieve the effect. (Sorry, one last maritime allusion slipped in.)

For example, Cameron sets up a fictional romance between Jack (Leo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), the emotional lynchpin of the film which not only pulled in the teenage girl/date crowd into the cinemas in droves but which also allows Cameron to use them as a distraction while actually showing people around the ship – the luxurious staterooms, the less salubrious ‘economy class’, even the massive engine rooms and cargo holds – without having to stop and require someone to give a guided tour.

But then it also becomes a full-on disaster movie and adds to that a thriller/action strand as Jack and Rose go on the run. That’ll satisfy the male audience, as will the sheer spectacle and staggering special effects employed (and which still look good to this day.) All of this is wrapped into a package that strongly evokes the kind of big starry Hollywood movie of old – the kind of film John Ford or Howard Hawks might have made for Darryl F. Zanuck in the studio system era. Hence you start to stretch the appeal of the film into the older age groups that typically no longer visit the cinema. And then with the modern day framing sequence of the hi-tech deep submersible dives to the real wreck you add the people who – like me – have been fascinated with the real-life story of the Titanic for years and even decades before the film was made. The result is a film that appealed to just about everyone in 1997. A real throwback to Hollywood’s golden years, and as such one that thoroughly deserved the commercial and Oscar success that it received.

In hindsight the film’s construction seems easy and obvious, and rather clichéd. But in that case, why has no one else ever managed it? There had been two big versions of the story before: the 1953 Titanic starring Barbara Stanwyck, in which the sinking is presented as a rather annoying inconvenience in the story of an upper class American family’s soap opera lives; and the superior 1958 British film A Night To Remember which was far more accurate (at least as far as what was known at the time, and the budget available to depict it) but which put facts above emotions and consequently had a distancing stiff upper lip detachment. There was also a 1912 silent newsreel reenactment starring real life survivor Dorothy Gibson; a film ‘inspired by’ the events but relocated to the fictional 1929 Atlantic; and a notorious Nazi propaganda version in 1943 in which the heroic German first officer (who didn’t exist) tried to save the ship from the incompetent, venal British officers determined to wreck it. Hmmm. (I’ll leave aside the potboiler Raise the Titanic, except to use the moment to quote my favourite line about the film from producer Lord Lew Grade about its disastrous box office showing: “Raise the Titanic? It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic!”)

Even the many TV versions have never failed to disappoint: just look at the peculiarly leaden Julian Fellowes-penned serial currently airing on ITV spectacularly fails to nail the drama, tragedy and sheer epic nature of the tragedy to anything like the degree Cameron did 15 years ago. With its Groundhog Day dramatic structure, it somehow manages to make the actual sinking of the ship start to feel – of all things – boring.

The real key to the success of the 1997 film is the one thing that it’s easy to overlook as an irrelevant wrapper: the modern day framing sequence. At a stroke, it stops the film from being mired in the “irrelevant” past to the current audience, because it’s about events that happened to a character we first meet in the here and now (the elderly Rose played by the superb and rightly Oscar-nominated Gloria Stuart, aged 87 at the time and a veteran of 1930s films with Frankenstein director James Whale.) It’s also the first time that a film about the disaster introduced the very notion of the survivors. Most films end with the lifeboats left stranded in the middle of the ocean, but Cameron’s film goes on to show that the survivors of the disaster are as integral a part of the story and the myth as those who were lost.

A huge amount of exposition is cleverly slipped into the framing sequence courtesy of the oversized character of Lewis Bodine and his computer wireframe simulation showing how the ship broke up as it sank. Three hours later, when we get to that sequence “for real”, it means the action can play out without interruption or explanation, and yet still be perfectly clear and without any audience confusion: we knew this would happen and our subconscious brain is going “Ahh, yes, that’s right.” Simple? Yes. Obvious? Perhaps. But a small touch of cinematic genius nonetheless.

Most of all, the modern day framing sequence changes the ending. The running gag of people seeing Titanic was that they knew how it ended (spoiler alert: the ship sinks.) But in fact that’s not true in Cameron’s film. Yes, the film sinks, but that’s not the end of the story. Instead, the end is about how Rose survives and goes on, lives a life full of love and fun and wonder just as she promised she would, even if – like many of the survivors of the real event – her heart never did truly leave that spot in the Atlantic. She finds peace at last with her final return there. It takes a very sad, downbeat end to the real life tragedy and gives it a bitter-sweet but life-affirming twist that honours the dead and the living alike.

I don’t mean to overhype Cameron’s Titanic. It has its faults, and plenty of them. The plotting as a whole has a solid, dated feel to it and stubbornly refuses to surprise. While the film has impressive historical authenticity, the use of a real person – First Officer Murdoch – in a fictitious scene depicting him panicking and shooting a passenger before committing suicide in remorse – is inexcusable and not worthy of Cameron as a filmmaker. Many other fictional characters are painfully clichéd: Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley is a pantomime villain woodenly played, while David Warner’s murderous Spicer Lovejoy is absurdly loyal to his master even as the ship sinks. Character subtlety and nuance are not Cameron’s forté; but at least the characters are clichés driven by the needs of the story and not inserted as mouthpieces for issues of the day that the writer simply wants to cover, as is the case with Fellowes’ writing.

I’m minded to think that all this is actually rather deliberate – that Cameron didn’t want anything too flash in the plotting or character aspects of the film to take away from the parts he deemed more important. He does a similar trick in his next film, Avatar, and while many people dismiss his “Smurfahontas” film as a simplistic rip-off of better SF and fantasy work such as that of Ursula Le Guin (and it is), the fact remains that Cameron once again got people to pile into the theatres to watch his film in their millions by keeping the core simple in order to allow the world-creation to run riot. Many studio execs baldly state that science fiction and fantasy films can’t and don’t work these days, but Avatar proves this to be false assertion. By comparison, look at the highly regarded director Andrew Stanton’s disastrous attempt at epic SF with this year’s John Carter which is set to lose Disney most of its $250m budget. Simplicity and accessibility has much to recommend it, but it’s very difficult to pull off in practice. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Blaise Pascal’s famous quote about writing: “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

Perhaps my decades-long interest in the Titanic story (which I think dates back to the first time I saw the pilot episode of Irwin Allen’s 1960s pulp SF show The Time Tunnel!) predisposes me to seeing the best in this film – although you’d think the same benevolent view would therefore be available to ITV’s current mini series as a result, which it most definitely isn’t. But I’m sticking to my original verdict on Cameron’s Titanic, which is to declare it a must-see modern day classic, easily a four-star film. If you haven’t seen it, and if the spoilers contained herein haven’t put you off, then get the DVD and settle down for a three hour plus film of the old school.

[The re-release of the film is predicated on the 100th anniversary but also on it having being remastered and being shown in 3D for the first time. I can’t tell you how much I dislike 3D: any film invariably appears dull and blurry. Films shot in 2D and upconverted to 3D are especially poor: for most of the time I don’t even notice the 3D, and when I do it usually jolts me out of the film in order to admire the ‘3D-ness’ of the scene in a way that completely ruins the cinematic experience. I have genuinely stopped going to the cinema in order to avoid 3D; I merely hope that this cinema re-release means that there will be a 2D high-definition Blu-ray release of the film later in 2012.]

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