Leonardo DiCaprio and  Kate WinslettTitanic (1997)

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Bill Paxton, Gloria Stuart, Frances Fisher, Bernard Hill, David Warner, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde, and Suzy Amis.
Written and directed by James Cameron.

Grade: A+

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

Titanic is the biggest film in history--simultaneously the most expensive and the most successful movie ever made, costing $200 million and grossing over $3.7 billion worldwide as of January 1999. Such a successful movie has spawned vocal critics in addition to its legions of fans. The plot has been criticized for being implausible, and the dialogue has been called preposterous. So why is Titanic the biggest box office success of all time? Is it because people are indiscriminate sheep, who will flock to see whatever Hollywood tells them to see?

I don't think so. Obviously, opinions will always differ on a given film. Even so, the backlash against Titanic is baffling. Heck, the sets and the special effects alone are worth the price of admission. I submit that the belligerence is provoked not by Titanic's deficiencies, but by the desperate need of some people to show that they're more sophisticated than the general public. The more commercially successful a film is, the more strident the criticisms become. Flaws that might be excused in a small-budget independent movie become crimes of monumental proportions.

Much of the criticism of Titanic has focused on the unlikely love story. Unless you've been out to sea or living under an iceberg for the past year, you probably know that Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jack Dawson, a penniless young man who finds his way onto the Titanic. Once aboard, he falls for upper-class society girl Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), who is reluctantly engaged to marry the odious but rich Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane). Jack wins Rose's heart, which drives Cal to seek vengeance. When the Titanic collides with an iceberg and begins to sink, Jack and Rose must struggle to survive while Cal continues to pursue them.

Kate Winslett as RoseFull of vitality, Jack is not bound by any commitments--he is the quintessential free spirit. Cal, on the other hand, is the embodiment of materialism--he identifies himself fully with his possessions, and regards Rose as merely another piece of property. Rose herself represents unrealized potential. She is confined by obligations to her family and society, and it is easy for us to identify with her, for who among us hasn't at one time or another conformed to the expectations of others? Jack yearns to free that dormant potential and show Rose how to embrace life fully.

Whether or not the love story is believable is beside the point. Cameron isn't interested in telling a plausible love story; he is interested in telling a remarkable love story--a story as remarkable as the history of the R.M.S. Titanic itself. After all, Titanic isn't just the tale of Jack and Rose. It's a story of humanity presuming to tame the forces of nature. The largest ocean liner ever built, the Titanic was a highly-publicized symbol of humanity's modernity and progress. In the ultimate act of arrogance, Titanic's owners only put enough lifeboats on the ship to seat half the passengers. The Titanic was the "unsinkable ship"--what need was there of unsightly lifeboats? Titanic seemed almost to be inviting its grim fate. Over 1500 of the 2207 passengers died when the ship sank.

Obviously, stories of humanity pitted against overwhelming forces of nature have been told throughout history, as have accounts of hubris and of ill-fated love. Told well, they are timeless tales. Told badly, they are timeworn clichés. This, then, was James Cameron's challenge, as well as his achievement: to tell his story so that it was fresh and resonant. What Titanic's detractors do not appreciate is that the genius of Titanic does not necessarily lie in the story itself. It lies in how the story is told.

Because he is dealing with such classical themes and conflicts, Cameron presents the story of the Titanic as a grandiose legend. He tells his story through the romanticized memories of a 100-year-old woman. Flashbacks are hardly an innovation, but in this case the format is critical, because it gives Titanic an anchor in the present day, and thus greater immediacy to the audience. Titanic opens with an exploration of the wrecked ship at the bottom of the ocean. We also witness a computer simulation that shows exactly how Titanic struck the iceberg and sunk. Treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) is looking for a priceless diamond necklace called The Heart of the Ocean, but he finds only a sketch of a woman wearing the necklace. After seeing Lovett interviewed on television, the elderly Rose (Gloria Stuart) comes forward to announce that she is the woman in the drawing.

James Cameron has violated the rules of storytelling. He's revealed what will happen. He's announced that Rose survives the disaster, and he has shown the audience exactly how the Titanic founders. This should diminish the suspense. But it doesn't. Instead, Cameron is deftly drawing us into the story and instilling a sense of dread as we watch Jack and Rose fall in love and the masters of the poorly-designed Titanic strut about like peacocks. In addition, he's emphasizing that the Titanic really existed and that every detail of the disaster he will show us is true. When Rose remarks that the experience of being on the Titanic was "somewhat different" than Lovett's computerized re-enactment of the disaster, James Cameron is putting a human face on the tragedy as well as setting up the story of Jack and Rose.

The Titanic slowly sinksCameron enhances his narrative with expert visuals and recurring images. All of the flashbacks begin with the submerged wreck turning into the resplendent ocean liner of eighty years before, creating a visual link between past and present and reminding the audience once again that the Titanic was real. From the moment we first see the Titanic in all its old glory, Cameron repeatedly stresses the ship's gigantic size--until moments before it hits the iceberg. After the impact, we only see the ship from far above as it really is--a small vulnerable speck in the immense ocean. Once the ship begins to sink, Cameron brings into play his considerable talents as an action-movie director (Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens)--few are better at staging complicated and electrifying action sequences.

Titanic is bursting with splendid individual scenes and diverse characters, each of whom represents a thematic point or human dilemma. Even in a three hour movie, Cameron doesn't have enough time for numerous detailed character studies, but by drawing from archetypes and carefully planning his scenes, Cameron creates a distinct persona for each of his characters. Although Cameron focuses on Jack and Rose, he masterfully conveys that the sinking of the Titanic meant the deaths of hundreds of individuals, each a unique tragedy of its own. Characters such as honorable Andrews (Victor Garber), craven Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), dignified Hartley (Jonathan Evans-Jones), and "the unsinkable" Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) do not receive much screen time, but they are indelible. In contrast, Cal Hockley is the least successful of Cameron's characters. He's thematically indispensable, but he is so thoroughly loathsome that he's practically a cartoon.

Although realism is not necessarily what Cameron is after in his mythical telling of the story of the Titanic, his attention to historical detail is remarkable. Most of the story is filmed on a faithfully reconstructed model 90% the size of the original Titanic, with everything just as it was, even the doors and the table settings. The collision is recreated just as it happened--right down to the time lapse (37.5 seconds) between the moment the crew first spots the iceberg and the impact. By ensuring that all the details are correct, Cameron's fabled ship seems all the more real. And, of course, it was real. The combination of myth and historical fact is profoundly moving. Quite simply, Titanic is one of the most extraordinary films ever made.

(With many thanks to spunkee and others, whose thoughts on archetypes and mythical storytelling were invaluable to this review.)

Review © February 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1998 by Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.

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