“Nothing on earth could come between them!”…except a really big hunk of ice. A little over a decade ago I reviewed James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) as one of the most self-indulgent and unapologetically bloated excuses for grafting a threadbare romance onto an historical event. I stand behind that critique, even more so today, having just re-screened the film on Blu-ray. Going into the theater back in 1997, Titanic was a movie I desperately wanted to like. Bewitched, as many have been, by the great ship and its’ even more cataclysmic demise; the fallout realigning man’s faith in the industrial age and his own supremacy on this tiny planet, I was hoping that at long last Hollywood would get history right and do it justice.
But no, it didn’t happen. Even worse, Cameron’s excursion became something of a colossal letdown, its interminable and grossly misrepresented star-crossed love affair, ineffectually relayed by the film’s stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. If anything, the experience of seeing Titanic left my glowing admiration for Britain’s A Night to Remember (1958) intact.
Fuelled by a frenzy of media buzz, hype and two studio’s concerted marketing campaign that would make even the most diehard cynic blush, Titanic easily walked away with the Best Picture Oscar honours, though tellingly not a statuette for Best Screenplay, for which Cameron unabashedly and openly admitted to feeling more than a tad perplexed, having penned this monstrosity himself.
People love to quote stats when assessing a film’s success; trumpeting record-breaking box office tallies and awards (Titanic tied Ben-Hur’s 11 Oscars). But success and artistic longevity are two different things and Titanic, I will hasten to say, is a movie with limited staying power. Its’ primary appeal is, of course, the sinking of the great ship, and to be sure, this moment is not spared its epic and thought-numbing resplendence. So too should James Cameron get very high marks for recreating the era in totem with superb period sets and costumes, sumptuously photographed by Russell Carpenter.
But the crux of the story is hopelessly flawed; its’ tragic romance between two people divided by class and forever parted by fate, painfully overwrought and very juvenilely executed. DiCaprio and Winslet have zero romantic chemistry, she looking every bit the portrait of austere and oddly ‘matronly’ maturity, while he barely looks as though he has begun to shave. Cameron’s screenplay cannot resist the urge for an obligatory and wholly unnecessary nudie scene; something not even a free spirited, well brought up American girl like Rose DeWitt Bukater would have acquiesced to in ye olden times. Ditto for the woeful education Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) gives Rose on the finer points of spitting off the port bow.
There are two glaring inaccuracies that threaten to submarine Titanic even before the ill-fated berg comes into view. Utmost, is that Cameron has grafted two very contemporary characters (Jack and Rose) into a period story where everyone except them act and behave according to the social convention of the times. This disconnect is supposed to illustrate not only the open-mindedness of the two leads but also strike a kindred chord between them. Regrettably, it provides more for a lack of cohesion than anything else.
The second bungle is Cameron’s sacrifice of genuinely historical characters aboard the great ship; each whose story was far more compelling than either Jack or Rose. As example, Cameron casts imminent actress Kathy Bates as the formidable and unrepentantly frank Denver socialite Molly Brown, then proceeds to give her ten lines and three scenes in his three hour film. He sacrifices Victor Garber’s magnanimous ship builder, Thomas Andrews to a similar fate, while the life and career of Captain E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill) is all but glossed over with a cardboard cut-out.
In their absence we get Francis Fisher’s bug-eyed matron willing to sell her only daughter into a marriage of convenience – hers; Billy Zane’s maniacally destructive fiancée and David Warner’s steely-eyed ex-Pinkerton bodyguard with a pleasurable penchant for brutality. These ineffectual alternatives service a woeful and meandering narrative, bookended by the even more fictional jewel caper subplot involving fortune hunter, Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and wily centenarian Rose Dawson Calvert (Gloria Stuart).
Our story begins in the present with Brock and his crew diving to the wreck of the Titanic in search of ‘The Heart of the Ocean’ an extravagant jewel worth many times more than the Hope Diamond. Unable to unearth this hidden gem from the ocean floor, Lovett instead broadcasts his finding of a pencil sketch of a nude woman wearing the fabulous diamond about her neck the night the ship sank. Resting in her granddaughter’s cottage, Rose Calvert (Stuart) is drawn to the television screen and further compelled to telephone Brock. She informs him that she is the woman in the sketch, prompting Brock to bring her aboard his vessel to learn the truth.
From here, we regress into a series of flashbacks. We see Rose (Winslet) meeting the great ship for the first time at the port of South Hampton with more than a hint of trepidation. Her apprehensions are predicated on a personal saga rather than any great premonition of the tragedy that is to follow. Rose is engaged to Caledon Nathan Hockley (Billy Zane); heir to a Pittsburgh steel empire. Rose’s mother, Ruth (Francis Fisher) is most pleased by their union, meant to preserve their good name while elevating their penniless existence. Rose, however, is a free spirit, one who outwardly conveys her disdain at having to bend to the will of stringent times by remaining emotionally brittle and outwardly haughty and condescending.
Meanwhile, in a bar near the docks Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) and his best friend, Fabrizio DiRossi (Danny Nucci) are involved in a tense game of poker against a pair of Swedish immigrants to win their third class passage aboard Titanic. Jack bluffs and wins the game and the two go aboard the leviathan with a frenetic optimism shared by the departing passengers. The next day Jack is captivated by the sight of Rose casually strolling along the first class promenade.
Later that evening, an impulsive Rose races to the stern, determined to throw herself overboard rather than accept her life in marriage to Cal. Her suicide is averted by some clever talk from Jack who later informs her that she had neither the guts nor the determination to jump. Jack’s frankness infuriates Rose who begins to find him more and more fascinating as their journey progresses. To show his gratitude for saving Rose’s life, Cal invites Jack to dinner the following evening, with Molly Brown offering her son’s formal attire for the occasion.
At the dinner Ruth and Cal do their best to backhandedly discourage, humiliate and expose Jack to the other guests. But Jack is hardly intimidated by their ignorance, arrogance or by his modest presence in the midst of their glittering company. Instead, he explains his philosophies on life – a gift not to be wasted – and further champions his cause by proposing a toast seconded by all except Ruth and Cal. Later, Jack isolates Rose near the stairs and offers to take her below deck for a ‘real party’. Rose goes slumming in third class, dancing barefoot and drinking herself to mild intoxication.
The next day, Cal is enraged and threatening. He orders Rose to never see Jack again. But Jack finds a way to re-enter Rose’s life. The two quickly become inseparable. After Rose discovers that Jack is an artist of considerable talents, she asks him to sketch her like one of his ‘French girls’ wearing nothing but The Heart of the Ocean. Jack and Rose retire to her private suite where she disrobes and Jack immortalizes her in pencil. Afterward, the two narrowly escape the watchful eye of Cal’s man servant, Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner) and descend into the bowels of the ship, improbably racing past the furnaces and then slipping into the cargo hold where they make passionate love in the backseat of a vintage automobile.
Cal discovers the nude portrait of Rose hidden in his safe, but devises a more insidious plan to rid himself of Jack once and for all. The iceberg strikes and Rose and Jack return to her suite to share the news with Cal and Ruth, whereupon Cal slips The Heart of the Ocean into Jack’s pocket before accusing him of theft. Lovejoy searches Jack’s person and finds the jewel. Cal orders the Master at Arms to arrest Jack and take him below until they reach port.
From here on in, the narrative gradually begins to shift to the more immediate predicament of escaping the frigid Atlantic that is quickly filling up Titanic’s not-so-watertight front compartments. Rose informs her mother that the tally of lifeboats, something she previously questioned Thomas Andrews about, is remiss by at least half, thus ensuring that many will die before the night is over. Ruth and Molly Brown manage to take refuge in one of the first lifeboats launched from Titanic, but at the last possible moment Rose refuses to go with them. Instead she rushes to Jack’s side, telling Cal that she would rather be Jack’s whore than his wife.
Cal becomes incensed, steals a gun from Lovejoy and begins recklessly – and rather aimlessly – shooting at Jack and Rose, who race deeper into the flooded bowels of the ship as it continues to fill with icy water. Eventually, Jack and Fabrizio are reunited and, together with the aid of other third class passengers, they manage to break free from their steerage accommodations and surface to the upper decks where they quickly discover abject chaos has broken out. The ship is sinking faster than anticipated. Cal escapes into a lifeboat, leaving Rose and Jack to rush the stern with hundreds of others. The ship breaks apart, with the stern momentarily delayed in its’ descent into the Atlantic.
After the stern slips beneath the waves, Jack and Rose find a small chunk of wooden debris. Jack chivalrously pushes Rose on top of the plank, thereby sparing her the extreme hypothermia that will ultimately claim his life. As his lifeless body slips beneath the waves, Rose makes a solemn vow to live life to its fullest; blowing the rescue whistle Jack gave her to draw one of the lifeboats to her rescue.
We return to the present with Brock and his crew utterly mesmerized by the aged Rose’s story of heroism and survival. That evening after everyone has gone to bed Rose sneaks to the edge of Brock’s salvage ship and tosses The Heart of the Ocean, which she has kept with her all these many years, back into the sea. She returns to her cabin and falls asleep – or perhaps, even dies – her spirit returning to the sunken wreck below as it is miraculously restored to its vintage condition with Jack, dressed in Molly Brown’s finery, patiently awaiting her return.
Titanic isn’t a terrible movie, but it isn’t a particularly good one either. Peter Lamont’s Production Design and Martin Laing and Charles Lee’s Art Director are the real stars of the film; superior down to the last detail, visually resurrecting the great ship in all its stately grandeur as has never been seen before on film. If only this perfection had been matched in the screenplay, or by the central performances then Titanic, the movie, might have been one for the ages. As it stands, we are granted a rather superficial experience, full of artifice yet completely deprived of its dramatic content. The sinking is spectacular, but the two hours plus that it takes to reach this sequence are nothing short of cartoony melodrama. I will say this for Cameron; the film’s lengthy run time doesn’t seem to drag and that’s a definite plus.
But DiCaprio lacks that rugged roughhewn quality of a worldly scrapper we are told he is and it remains a lethal misfire to find his baby-face and boyishly naked body pressed against Winslet’s more robustly adult and feminine frame during their steamy sexual pas deux in the cargo hold. Truly, it doesn’t work but instead adopts a very ‘Mrs. Robinson’ flavour that seems more robbing the cradle than a mutual melding of mature young adults.
We are given stereotypes rather than archetypes. Billy Zane is a freakishly unstable villain; pert rather than pulverizing as he simpers after the fleeing lovers, “I hope you enjoy your time together!” Francis Fisher’s wickedly shallow matron is despicably one dimensional, as are David Warner and Jonathan Hyde, the latter cast as White Star Line’s perennial whipping boy, J. Bruce Ismay; the man who may or may not have ordered the Captain to sail full steam ahead into a looming ice field.
With the exception of DiCaprio it should be stated that the cast is chocked full of stellar and brilliant talent and that’s a genuine shame because there is no room in Cameron’s screenplay for any of them to even get their feet wet. The show is all DiCaprio and mostly Winslet, leaving the others to fumble with a few fleeting glimpses to illustrate their immeasurable prowess. As such, Titanic lacks the ensemble feel that any movie based on the ill-fated maiden voyage ought to have and so desperately needs to be compelling. In the final analysis I have to say that I liked Titanic even less the second time around and that’s a genuine shame because, if anything, I was hoping that my initial assessment might have mellowed with time.
The same cannot be said of Paramount’s Blu-ray release. The 1080p image is by far the best this film has ever looked on home video and it’s about time! Titanic has been one of the most widely sought after movies to receive a Blu-ray release. Fans will absolutely adore this hi-def transfer, full of intensely rich and vibrant hues that capture the vintage effect of the cinematography. Contrast is superior to anything we’ve ever seen and film grain has been lovingly reproduced for a very film-like quality. Really good stuff here with no disappointments along the way; no small feat given that Paramount has compressed the entire film onto a single Blu-ray, thereby averting the jarring split the DVDs contained midway through, just after the berg hits.
Also have to give it to Paramount for a flawless DTS 5.1 audio that will astound, delivering the WOW factor to match its visuals. Hold on to your life preservers, because during the sinking this sonic presentation rattled floor boards, walls and ceilings at my house. The James Horner score is given its epic due. Extras: where to begin? For once Paramount has opened its penny-pinching purse strings. We get two new featurettes: Reflections on Titanic and Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron. We also get virtually all of the direct imports from the deluxe DVD edition from a few years ago, then included as numerous picture-in-picture options integrated into the film, but herein represented as brief featurettes on a separate Blu-ray disc.
There’s also a detailed audio commentary from Cameron, cast and crew, Celine Dion’s music video, trailers and TV spots, an extensive stills gallery and three Titanic spoofs. Paramount has also padded this set with a DVD copy of the film (split across 2 discs) and a digital copy.
*It should be pointed out that Titanic is also being released in another package with a 3D copy of the film that has received rave reviews. Since I have never been a supporter of 3D as a storytelling tool or a fan of retro-fitting older movies to conform to 3D’s standards I did not review the 3D edition for this review.
In a nutshell, fans will have absolutely nothing to grouse about with this release. Highly recommended to those who love this film.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)