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- Worth a look if...

dir. James Cameron at 20th Century-Fox, Lightstorm Entertainment and Paramount
with Leonardo DiCaprio (as Jack Dawson), Kate Winslet (as Rose DeWitt Bukater), Billy Zane (as Caledon 'Cal' Hockley), Kathy Bates (as The Unsinkable Molly Brown), Frances Fisher (as Ruth DeWitt Bukater), Gloria Stuart (Rose Dawson Calvert)

(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 opinions:

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

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