Titanic (1997)

2010 #35
James Cameron | 187 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

Before Avatar came along and ruined everything — um, I mean, dominated both the box office and James Cameron’s career — the director seemed to have become best-known for his previous record-breaking box-office-topper, Titanic. And because he was so well known for it, it’s easy to forget that it stands out like a sore thumb in his filmography: previously he’d only been responsible for action and/or sci-fi films: The Terminator, T2, Aliens, The Abyss and True Lies. And, lest we forget, Piranha 2. And, in the years since his ship-based behemoth, his only fiction film is Avatar, which you may remember — it was a little film about some blue aliens on a moon.

So, despite Titanic’s slightly-ironic runaway success (considering the fate of the titular vessel), one still has every reason to question if Cameron can handle a straight-up drama. After all, dialogue and character are hardly his strong points, and box office success and Oscar victory are hardly reasons to suppose a film is any good.

The first thing one can note about Titanic is that it’s over-reaching itself size-wise. This is true of both vessel and film, one being too big to dodge an iceberg, the other simply too long. I can’t be certain, but it feels like the entire film following the iceberg’s arrival is in real-time, which would make the length an excusable narrative trick — I do like real-time — were it not for Cameron padding it out with endless contrivances to have Jack and Rose running around the ship. All of these sequences are suitably exciting in themselves, but there’s so many of them that they become dully repetitive.

But before the good bit — giant boat sinking! Yay! — there’s the Jack-Rose romance, clearly the main draw for many fans. I can’t help feeling they need to be shown some better films. It’s not quite as weak as George Lucas’ efforts in Attack of the Clones, but it’s not far off. The scene the day after Jack saves Rose — where they have a natter on deck and she looks at his art for the first time; aka the primary scene for their falling for each other — is particularly weakly written. “Oh Jack, the plot requires me to look at your drawings now, so please hand them over.” The dialogue’s not actually that bad, but it’s bloody close.

The film really takes off with the iceberg. While my criticism still stands that it goes on too long from this point (just as it does before it, mind), the post-impact scenes are by far the most exciting and engaging sequences in the film. The predictable romantic plot may keep Leo’s fans flocking back, but the horrendous spectacle of the sinking ship — both visually in an array of epic wide shots, and emotionally in the various and changing ways the passengers and crew react — is the film’s real triumph, a reason for the rest of us to even consider revisiting it.

Even if spectacle is the real star, there are some actors too. Kate Winslet does fine work with a character who could just be (and occasionally is) a cliché. As the same character 85 years later, Gloria Stuart gives an even better, emotionally resonant performance. Billy Zane and David Warner are perfectly dastardly villains, Bernard Hill practices the stoic leader he would later perfect in The Lord of the Rings, and Kathy Bates provides some intermittent comic relief.

And Leo is pretty-boy Leo. I’m not saying he’s not a talented actor — that was something he’d shown before Titanic and has certainly proven since, though everyone seemed to forget it in the late ’90s — but Jack Dawson is hardly a tricky task for him. Clearly he looks beautiful, has the loveable rogue thing down, and that’s job done.

Russell Carpenter’s cinematography is always up to the task with a nice degree of diversity, from Michael Bay-style tech-fetish crispness in the present-day bookends to a warm glow for the past of Rose’s memory, with an icy collision of the two as disaster strikes. On a similar note, the CGI has aged surprisingly well… provided you don’t look too closely, at least. And I do mean “surprisingly” in the most literal sense, because I expected it to look awful. I swear it did last time I saw a clip. Anyway…

None of this can be said for James Horner’s irritating score. While not as bad as the batter-you-round-the-head signposting of his work on Avatar, it has a similar sense of obviousness. His frequent use of motifs from Celine Dion’s irritating My Heart Will Go On is always unwelcome, and (for me) always drags French and Saunders into the equation — “my heart will go ooooooooon” and all that.

Indeed, Titanic’s literally phenomenal success, and the subsequent abundance of spoofs and homages across all media in the decade-and-a-bit since, is an obstacle for any new viewer. One can’t watch Jack declare “I’m the king of the world!” without thinking of Cameron’s much-derided Oscar speech; can’t watch Jack and Rose ‘flying’ without thinking of any number of piss-takes; and French and Saunders spring to mind quite all over the place.

And yet, despite all this criticism, I found myself quite liking Titanic. I didn’t expect to, which is why I’ve avoided it for so long. I could take or leave the romance — could take it better if they’d gotten someone in to polish the script — and while they were at it they could’ve trimmed the second half’s repetition — but, all things considered, there’s enough spectacle to keep one engrossed.

Over-long and based on spectacle over content? Reminds me of this little film about some blue aliens on a moon…

4 out of 5

Titanic is on Channel 4 tonight, Sunday 13th July 2014, at 7pm.

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