"No, really, I've got a bad feeling about this voyage. Look, the coast is just two miles over there, we've only just left port, and I've swum in the Channel plenty of times. Hell, I'll jump overboard, you don't even have to lower me down. Cheerio, old chap!" ~ Charlie O'Dowd, the first survivor of the Titanic, 1912
"I'm not sure if I should go with the star crossed lovers angle for the film, or with plan B, where I retcon the whole tragedy by revealing that a Terminator from the future has been sent back in time to kill Sarah Conner's grandmother, who just happens to be on the Titanic on its maiden voyage. What to do, what to do..." ~ James Cameron, in personal journals, 1994
How does one review a film that was released fifteen years ago? Well, if the film gets re-released to theatres in glossy 3D fashion, that's all the excuse one needs. And this is actually the second of two reviews. Check out our joint blog Basking In The Afterglow, where our alter egos are getting a bit frisky whilst reviewing the film.
Titanic is back in theatres, of course. In 1997, the film was released, thought to be James Cameron's folly after the director spent two hundred million dollars on making it. Instead, the film took in nearly two billion dollars in repeat business, winning a whole mess of Oscars, and becoming a classic. I first saw it a few days after its release, on the last day of the year, with my dad, who's a Titanic nut. He stayed awake through the whole film (he does tend to have a problem with falling asleep through a film, but not this one). And obviously it was a bit awkward sitting through a certain scene or two with him right there. I'll let you guess which one.
Well, just in time for the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the ship itself, the film is back in theatres, and in 3D. As mentioned before, I hate 3D, but there was no alternative venue, so I went in fully expecting to get a headache out of the experience. Fortunately I had tylenol close at hand.
The film retells the story of the sinking, which we all know how it ends (spoiler alert if you're one of the six people on the planet who have never heard about the incident: the ship sank. Lots of people met a bad end. Edwardian-era hubris took a big hit). It superimposes a love story against the sinking, a meeting of two people across class lines, both heading home to America. And the film makes use of CGI, elaborate sets, fine details, and spares no expense in bringing us back in time to a tragedy that still draws our attention.
The film begins in the present day, with Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), a somewhat disreputable deep sea salvage expert who's busy searching the legendary wreck for a safe that is thought to contain a priceless necklace that once belonged to a passenger. He finds it, but not the necklace, and his work draws in a survivor (Gloria Stuart), who comes out to the site and begins to tell him, his team, and her granddaughter a story she's kept to herself all these years.
The young Rose (Kate Winslet) is on her way home to America with her mother (Frances Fisher) and her fiancee Cal (Billy Zane). Cal seems to be charming and ideal, but we the audience quickly get to see things about him that start setting off alarm bells. He's condescending, possessive, and arrogant. Rose herself comes across as trapped by circumstance into an impending marriage. She seems, at first, to be detached, almost as if she's withdrawn into herself, dreading the fate that awaits her.
The other lead character, of course, is Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), an American who's been wandering Europe for awhile, drawing pictures of naked Frenchwomen in his spare time (yes, it's a tough job, but someone has to do it). He and a friend win a game of cards that includes third class tickets on the Titanic, and off they go, boarding the ship. One of the things that I often think about with this film is that you could have easily told a story about the people who, by chance of fate, didn't get onto the ship. Lucky sods, though they might not have thought it...
Jack and Rose are from two worlds, and the social class rigidity of the time means that they're not meant to associate. Cameron works that side of things early on, clearly sympathizing with the third class passengers over the snooty wealthy first class passengers (despite the fact that he's filthy rich himself). Still, fate intervenes when Jack saves Rose's life as she tries to end it. The two get to know each other. Things get more complicated as they start to fall for each other. Rose's mother disapproves of the disreputable boy. Cal sneers at Jack, continues to affirm the audience's general opinion of him, and twirls his invisible mustache (Zane is channeling his inner Snidely Whiplash in this role), and plotting with his valet and personal muscle Lovejoy (the always interesting David Warner). Oh, and then there's a pesky iceberg that decides to go out of its way to hit the ship. Or is it the other way around?
The entire sequence from the iceberg to the final sinking is very well done; you can certainly see that the entire budget of the film was well used. It's dramatic, frightening, and conveys the differences and similarities in reactions to the sinking. There are tidbits of historic fact that are followed through on; we know that society barons like John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim stayed on board and went down as gentlemen. We know that ship's owner Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) got onto a lifeboat, sealing his fate as a coward. We know that the ship designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) quickly understood the magnitude of the situation, explaining it to Ismay and Captain Smith (Bernard Hill) and accepted his own fate, going down with the ship. The distinctions between classes is stark in its treatment; steerage class passengers are locked below decks waiting while first class passengers are boarding under-capacity lifeboats. Panic builds on itself as the situation worsens. And through all of this, there's Jack and Rose, who, after a bout of backseat sex in a car in the cargo hold, find themselves promising to get off the ship together. At least until that evil iceberg changes everything. They spend the sinking dashing about through the ship, occasionally in freezing cold water (hypothermia, anyone?), and in regular outbursts of danger, before the ship itself plunges into the Atlantic.
Yes, the ship sinks. If I've ruined the ending of the film you've been avoiding seeing for the last fifteen years, well, I'm sorry. You can take out your frustration on my idiot ex-brother-in-law.
Obviously Rose survives. Jack doesn't. She goes on to live a very full life, free of the expectations and demands she would have been living under. She marries a decent guy, has children and grandchildren, and gets to be a centenarian who dies quietly in her sleep after getting rid of a certain priceless artifact (Lovett would be shocked, shocked I say!). The film is very much her story. Jack saves her life, and saves her capacity for living.
Now then, to my opinions. First, the two leads. Kate Winslet is fine as Rose, and shows real spark as the film goes on and the character breaks out of the mold she's been cast into. She takes fate into her hands, becomes bold, decisive, and courageous. The direction she ultimately goes in makes entire sense for the person she becomes as the film progresses.
I can't say quite the same for DiCaprio, and allow me to explain. I've got a rather longstanding dislike of him as an actor, and it goes back to Romeo and Juliet, which I find an abominable adaptation of the Bard's work (strangely, the same dislike does not apply to his Juliet, Claire Danes). It was all too fresh when Titanic came out, and so I went in with a general hostility to the actor. That impression has never really improved, and in fact, the only film I've seen him in that didn't leave me feeling the same was Inception, which would have been improved somewhat with a different lead actor (not that I'm saying that's a bad movie). His Jack Dawson seems to be a modern character thrown back in time. I still find the character distracting.
The supporting cast tends to be more hit then miss. The dastardly Cal seems too one-note, too much of a caricature. His right hand man Lovejoy is much more interesting, I think. David Warner plays him as contemptuous and suspicious, but at the same time, as someone who holds much of what he thinks in reserve. He's an enigma, and as such, I found him much more compelling then Cal.
Frances Fisher serves the role well as a mother who has little regard for what her daughter is going through, only for her place in society and securing her status. She conveys an arrogance in her performance. This is a contrast to Kathy Bates, playing Molly Brown, a wealthy woman who's nonetheless salt of the earth, the sort of no nonsense, likeable person who the real Molly Brown might well have been like. It's easy to like her, and Bates does a fine job with the role. Paxton, always a good Everyman, plays the cocky, fortune and glory seeking Lovett well as he gradually becomes humbled by Rose's story, making a connection with the human scale of the disaster for the first time in his life. Gloria Stuart, playing the elderly Rose, has a quiet strength and spirit, weaving the story and reflecting on the past as she does so. It's a fine late-career role for her.
Jonathan Hyde has been playing character roles for years, and he plays Ismay to perfection, giving the audience a sneering, arrogant man who defies the heavens and ultimately turns out to be a very small, cowardly man. Bernard Hill, one of my favourite actors, plays the doomed captain with grace- and ultimately in the end, indecision. True to history, he still goes down with the ship (Captain Schettino, you could have learned a thing or two about seamanship from Captain Smith). And Victor Garber, another favourite actor of mine, plays Andrews very sympathetically. I found his performance to be one of the true gems of the film; Andrews has none of the arrogance of Ismay, is direct and matter of fact when the disaster begins, and as his fate is certain, there's a sad resignation about him. I would have liked to see the film from his point of view.
The production values, filming, and so on are top notch, of course. Cameron got the right people together in the crew, and the end result is a film that conveys the painstaking fine details of the time, the class struggles, and the sheer panic that must have grown that night a century ago (no masses of doomed men singing Nearer My God To Thee in this version). I don't really think the 3D makeover was needed; personally, it gives me a headache, and I find the format to be little more then a gimmick. The film remains as fresh and crisp as it was when it was first released, even if we have to put up with Celine Dion breaking wine glasses over the end credits. I swear, the woman has never heard of singing in an understated way.
On a closing note, three complete asides. First, if Stephanie Meyer wrote the screenplay, Jack Dawson would have lived. This despite the fact that any logical person seeing the film for the first time knows he's doomed. No, in the world of She Who Created The Twilight Menace, we can't have a little thing like death come between two star crossed lovers, can we? Second, there's that scene that always intrigued me, with the elderly Rose telling the group about the final fate of Cal. He puts a gun to his head when his business interests went south after the stock market crash... "Or so I heard." That look in her eyes at that moment suggests to me that we could have had a Rose kills Cal and makes it look like a suicide for revenge thing going on.
You'll never look at that scene quite the same again, will you?
Finally, coming in 2014, from director Michael Bay, the true story of what happened that fateful night...
Godzilla Versus The Titanic!!!