That Sinking Feeling
When the Titanic, the grandest ocean liner of her day, struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, and sank to the bottom of the dead-calm, starlit North Atlantic, she launched a rich tangle of legends and lessons that endure to this day.
You'll find very few of them in Titanic, James Cameron's overblown but undernourished fictionalization of the tragedy that set the tone for the twentieth century. The most interesting thing about this three-hour-plus extravaganza, a collection of gruesome special effects piled atop a ludicrous shipboard romance, is that it is rumored to have cost co-financiers Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century-Fox somewhere between $175 and $285 million, which gives it the dubious distinction of being the most expensive movie ever made. In comparison, that other great folly of the sea, Waterworld, begins to look like a little art movie banged out on a shoestring.
Cameron is an able mechanic of the whiz-bang, bells-and-whistles school of filmmaking, and he has attracted a huge cult of followers who get their jollies from slavering space aliens and the muscle-bound gymnastics of Messrs. Stallone and Schwarzenegger, propped up with a lot of big guns and slick morphing techniques. Good for him and good for them. But that makes Cameron exactly the wrong man to grapple with the real drama of the Titanic, which has far more to do with the collapse of an entire social order and an entrenched system of beliefs than it does with the mere spectacle of disaster. On the night the great ship ignored all warnings and steamed full speed into the ice field, she carried with her a full complement of overfed plutocrats, an unwashed mass of poor immigrants and an arrogant faith in wealth, power and technology. We all know about the scandal of the inadequate lifeboats and the White Star Line president's boast that "God Himself could not sink her," but that was only the beginning.
After the Titanic went down, with the loss of 1,500 of the 2,200 souls aboard--on her maiden voyage, no less--the divine rights of privilege were suddenly called into question, along with the most preciously held assumptions of the age. If John Jacob Astor's corpse could be found frozen stiff among the floes next to, say, a penniless son of Naples, what did that say about Edwardian notions of progress, money and God?
Cameron's response to such issues is absurd. Along with a 775-foot-long ship set, a 45-foot Titanic miniature (both of which look a little puny at times) and a pair of water tanks in which to submerge them, he's also dreamed up a stupefying romantic fantasy involving one Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a rich Philadelphia girl sailing first-class, and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a colorfully impoverished young artist from down in steerage. Without much effort, he first saves her life, then liberates her from her imperious snob of a mother (Frances Fisher) and her insufferable robber baron of a fiance (Billy Zane)--Cameron's cartoon-strip representatives of the upper crust.
Inside of two days, this bejeweled daughter of the Gilded Age has grown so fond of democracy that she's giving the finger to her betrothed's nasty valet, posing nude in her cabin and copulating with her new Bohemian adventurer in the backseat of a car stowed down in the hold. Our boy Jack, meanwhile, borrows a dinner jacket from--who else?--our own beloved Unsinkable Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), charms the swells at dinner with his rough native wit (fat chance!) and shows that he's magically in touch with the freedom-loving sentiments of certain folksingers who won't be born for another thirty or forty years.
"When you got nothin', you got nothin' to lose," Jack warbles, then announces to the stuffed shirts at dinner: "I'm just a tumbleweed blowin' in the wind."
I'm just a moviegoer wonderin' why they didn't spend two bucks out of the $200 million on some decent dialogue.
Bad enough that DiCaprio and Winslet moon and howl at each other for three soggy hours ("Jack!" "Rose!" "Jack!" "Rose!"). Worse still that Cameron imagines these soap-opera lightweights as the salvation of some new age when ossified aristocrat and earthy peasant join hands, or that they can carry the burden of the Titanic tragedy's many meanings. They can't.
Modern thing that she is, our Rose already has a working knowledge of Freud and a stateroom stuffed with Monets and Picassos she's picked up for a song in Paris. When a sweaty Irish band strikes up a jig below decks, she doesn't mind going slumming. In other words, she's 1912 recast as 1997. So is he. Despite their expensive costumes, these young lovers look and sound like they just came out of a Phish concert.
"That's horseshit!" young Jack yells at one point, so as to impress us all over again how contemporary he is.
There's also the unhappy matter of Titanic's cumbersome dramatic "wraparound." In order to squeeze in some fashionable new footage of the ship's murky wreckage, shot with camera-equipped mini-subs, the director frames his film with the reveries of the present-day Rose (Gloria Stuart), who's now a salty 101-year-old who shouts oaths like "I'll be goddamned!" and doesn't mind one bit talking about her shipboard couplings with Jack 84 years earlier.
There's also some plot-clogging nonsense about a priceless diamond necklace, the Holy Grail of a cynical fortune hunter (Bill Paxton) who's combing through the wreck.
In the end, of course, Cameron has a ship to sink. This he does, in his enormous fish tank, with a cacophony of exploding boilers and crashing funnels, agonized screaming humanity and rushing seas--special effects in excelsis!--captured by swoopy crane shots and helicopter overviews. The piece de resistance comes with a sickening crunch as the Titanic's swamped hull breaks apart amidships and the two pieces slide horrifically into the deep. Our hero and heroine, artificial constructs unequal to this task, too, cling to a freezing rail, their fate left to chance. It's all very impressive in terms of visual thrill. But it's less emotionally chilling, somehow, than Roy Baker's admirable, albeit less glitzy, 1958 treatment of the disaster, A Night to Remember.
All of which goes to show, I suppose, that Stupendous, Gigantic and Colossal--James Cameron's stock-in-trade--do not necessarily add up to...Titanic. What they do make up, perhaps, is an ironic new expression of the old arrogance that lay at the heart of the great vessel's doom. To wit: Hollywood is willing to pour upwards of $200 million into a bad movie that itself deserves to promptly sink.
In that light, students of the original disaster may recall the sermon delivered a week after the Titanic's loss by the Bishop of Winchester in St. Mary's Church, Southampton, the port from which she sailed. "The Titanic, name and thing," the bishop said, "will stand for a monument and a warning to human presumption."
Written and directed by James Cameron. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane and Kathy Bates.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.