Titanic Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998


It's been 84 years, and I can still smell the fresh paint. The china had never been used. The sheets had never been slept in. Titanic was called the Ship of Dreams, and it was. It really was.
Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio

Writer/director James Cameron got his start in the famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) Roger Corman low-budget exploitation production company, a breeding ground where many Hollywood personalities got their foot in the door, including director Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs"), producer Gale Ann Hurd ("Dante's Peak", "The Ghost and the Darkness"), and indie-director John Sayles ("Lone Star", "City of Hope"). His first gig out of engineering school was handling special effects on the Corman "Star Wars" rip-off "Battle Beyond the Stars", and despite the conditions he had to work in, the special effects in that movie are still impressive today, two decades later. Cameron then maneuvered himself into directing the Italian-American production of "Piranha 2: The Spawning", which Cameron decided to edit himself, which saved an otherwise unwatchable film.

Music to drown by... now I know I'm in first class.

With director credits to his name, Cameron began shopping Hollywood for a project of his own, a low budget sci-fi adventure. After several encounters with producer ennui, he managed to convince Orion Pictures to pick up the tab of $8 million dollars for his pet project. "The Terminator" made a big splash, making names for both Cameron and his favorite star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. From here, Cameron has continued to push the envelope of high-tech film-making, with an excess of a half-a-billion dollars of domestic box office and a slew of memorable sci-fi/action films to his name, including "Aliens", "The Abyss", "Terminator 2: Judgment Day", "True Lies", and now, "Titanic".

So this is the ship they say is unsinkable.
It is unsinkable. God himself couldn't sink this ship.

Everyone knows that the Titanic struck an iceberg in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. It sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic, killing 1500 of the 2200 passengers on board. The tragedy of the Titanic has fascinated every generation in the past eighty-six years, with several films and documentaries on the disaster, including 1929's "Atlantic", the 1940 German propaganda film "Titanic", the first Hollywood production "Titanic" in 1953, "A Night to Remember" from 1958, the made-for-TV "S.O.S Titanic" from 1979, and the forgettable "Raise the Titanic!" from 1980. 1997 had French audiences exposed to yet another film about the Titanic ("The Chambermaid and the Titanic"), and Broadway abuzz about the Tony Award-winning "Titanic: The Musical" (I know, it sounds like something you would expect to see on "The Simpsons"). Now James Cameron brings the fatal voyage of the 'unsinkable ship' to a new generation, a grand epic that is meticulous in detail, yet breathtaking in scope.

The pumps will buy you time... but minutes only. From this moment, no matter what we do, Titanic will founder.
But this ship can't sink!
She is made of iron, sir. I assure you, she can. And she will. It is a mathematical certainty.

The story of James Cameron's "Titanic" begins in the present day, with an investigation of the wreck by a salvage team lead by Brock Lovett ("Game over man, game over" Bill Paxton). Lovett is in search of the "Heart of the Ocean", a 56 carat diamond that reputedly went down with the Titanic, and is worth more than the Hope Diamond if found. The search through the watery mausoleum (utilizing actual documentary footage that Cameron shot in the wreck), Lovett finds a sketch of a woman wearing the diamond the day before the ship sank.

Nana, are you sure that's you?
Yes... wasn't I a dish?

Three thousand miles away, the 101-year old Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Gloria Stuart, an actress from the early days of 'talkies') sees the sketch on a television newscast and recognizes the woman wearing the diamond-- it is her, at the age of 17. Lovett flies Rose out to the salvage operation, and begins the captivating tale of how she came to be in the sketch.

I saw my life as if I had already lived it. An endless parade of parties and polo matches. Always the same narrow people, the same mindless chatter. I felt like I was standing at a great precipice, with no one to pull me back, no one who cared... or even noticed.

The story then jumps back to the 10th of April 1912, with the boarding of the 'largest work of man in all of history'. The young Rose (Kate Winslet of "Sense and Sensibility") is to be married to the rich, cold and cruel snob of a fiancé (are there any other kinds?), Cal Hockley (Billy Zane of "The Phantom"), in order to save her stern yet debt-ridden mother (Frances Fisher) from the poorhouse. Also boarding the ship is the happy-go-lucky American (are there any other kinds?), Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio of "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet"), who wins his third-class ticket from a poker game five minutes before the ship sets sail.

So Jack, how are the accommodations in third class?
They're pretty good. Hardly any rats at all.

Jack first notices the beautiful Rose from afar, standing by a railing on the first class deck. But soon he comes to know her better when she attempts to jump overboard in a drastic bid to escape the impending doom of a loveless marriage and a life surrounded by the avarice and arrogance of high society. Cal thanks Jack for saving the life of his fiancée by inviting the scruffy young man to dinner in first-class. After enduring a round of pointed remarks from his stuffy hosts, Jack steals Rose away to the lower decks for a night of spirited dancing and drinking. And so the brief but intense star-crossed love affair begins, which must endure not only the snooping of Cal and his loyal manservant Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner), but the Titanic's inevitable collision with destiny.

Rose, you're the most amazing, wonderful girl, woman that I've ever met.
Jack, I'm engaged.
Wait, just let me try and get this out. Rose you're wonderful... I'm not an idiot. I know how the world works. I have ten bucks in my pocket and nothing to offer you, and I know that. They've got you trapped Rose and if you don't break free you're going to die. Then that fire that I love so about you, that fire's going to burn out.
It's not up to you to save me Jack.
I know, only you can do that.

The story of the Titanic is rife of irony and juxtaposition, and Cameron artfully peppers his script with these two aspects. The ultimate irony of the story is that a young man's lucky hand of poker brings him in contact with a young woman who feels that she has nothing to live for, while on a doomed voyage. Cameron fixates on these two characters, and it is their story, not the sinking of the ship, that is at the forefront of "Titanic"-- he has always put the relationships of his characters in the foreground, such as the Ripley-Newt relationship in "Aliens", or the Bud-Lindsey reconciliation in "The Abyss". This strong emotional anchor also overshadows the technology and special effects of the film, and it is the rapturous relationship that brings the audience into the opulence and mayhem of being aboard the Titanic in its final hours. Cameron also uses juxtaposition to great effect in this film, contrasting the past and the present, life in the upper and lower decks, the stifling constraints of Victorian propriety and the more liberal values of the Twentieth century, and the triumph of the human spirit and the base instincts of self-preservation that emerge in the face of adversity.

Don't you understand? The water is freezing and there aren't enough boats... not enough by half. Half of the people on this ship are going to die.
Not the better half.

The narrative is also of sufficient depth that it can be viewed on many levels. The most obvious interpretation is as an allegory to man's over-reliance on the marvels of technology (a theme previously explored in the "Terminator" series). But perhaps what is most enlightening is that this film speaks to the need to grasp the moment, to find fulfillment in a laconic life, metaphorically conveyed in the dilemma that Rose faces: a lifetime of lonely self-deceit, or a brief respite of happiness, no matter how fleeting?

You're going to die an old woman, warm in your bed, not here, not tonight.

In addition to a strong script, the other characteristics of the typical Cameron film are found here. The writer/director has always been fascinated by strong female characters, and Rose is the perfect embodiment of this. When she first boards the vessel, she is a spirited young woman, though resigned to endure the fate that awaits her. However, as the film progresses, she becomes increasingly resolved in following her own heart, and challenges the decisions that have been made for her. The trademark fast-pacing of his films is also apparent in "Titanic", keeping you spellbound for the entire three-hour running time. Finally, Cameron has once again pushed the envelope of special effects to portray the experience of being on the Titanic as realistically as possible. Using several scale models of the ship (including a 900-ft model, which was 90% of the size of the actual Titanic) and extensive CGI work, it is very difficult to tell where reality ends and the special effects begin. Whether it is the spectacular visualization of the Titanic's final death throes or something as minor as the icy breath of the shivering survivors, this film is a testament to how technology can contribute to dramatic storytelling.

I don't know about you, but I intend to write a strongly worded letter to the White Star Line about all this.

"Titanic" is a very well-balanced film, with something to offer everyone, from the hopeless romantic to the adrenaline junkie: strong performances, romance, levity, special effects, and pathos. The story of the ill-fated love affair is not new, but in Cameron's capable hands, it has been brilliantly executed, with a narrative and images that will linger in your mind long after having seen the film. If you only could see one film this year, this would be the one.

So you've not lit the last four boilers then?
No, but we're making excellent time.
Captain, the press knows the size of Titanic, let them marvel at her speed, too. We must give them something new to print. And the maiden voyage of Titanic must make headlines!

The Titanic may sink, but love will go on...


Go Back to Movie Review Archive Index