It’s the Valentine’s Day season, thus it’s mandatory to review some kind of romantic picture, and there just happens to be this late 90’s classic that I’ve been itching to talk about for a while. To call the 1998 picture “Titanic” a hit film is an understatement, it was arguably more of a cultural phenomenon than any other movie released that decade. However, it’s also one of those films that I think gets just a little too much praise. In general, I like “Titanic”, I find it a mostly good film, but I also think it’s far from perfect. Actually, I love reviewing films like this, both to highlight what absolutely works, and address some problems that certainly don’t ruin the film, but for me keep it just beneath that perfect status which it’s so often branded as.
The film begins with a treasure hunter looking for a diamond in the wreck of the Titanic, and instead discovers a safe with pictures of a mysterious nude woman wearing the vary diamond neckless he was searching for. News of this discovery gets the attention of an old woman named Rose, who’s on the verge of celebrating her One-Hundred and First birthday. She contacts the treasure hunter claiming to be the very woman from the picture, thus being one of the last surviving people to escape the sinking of the Titanic. An interview of sorts is soon set up in which she relays her experience on the ship, that she was a first-class girl that fell in love with a third-class man, and spent every possible moment with him up until that fatal collision with the iceberg. On the one hand, this film is a very ambitious, and faithful recreation of the Titanic, but the historical drama is also a backdrop to a mostly fictionalized Hollywood romance, and that’s where I find myself kind of divided about the film.
Let me start by addressing the positives, as I absolutely love that this film is told through flashback from the point of view of a survivor. This helps add to the drama by seeing her reaction of remembering the event, and it also leads to some of the best foreshadowing I’ve ever seen on film. I love when the guys give an emotionless presentation with a computer-generated simulation of the ships sinking, to which she responds by stating that experiencing the event was far different. This prepares us for the context of the event, and it allows the drama of the situation to sneak up on us as things play out. Once things go down, it dose make the description of that simulation seem so lifeless and empty by comparison. I also love the quick flashes of her past that get us excited to hear her story. Once the voyage begins, we’re effectively introduced to our main couple as opposite class people that are about to embark on a journey together. Through their relation, we get to explore almost every inch of the ship including the state rooms, the dining rooms, the cabins and the engine rooms, which make the ship feel very alive and real to us the viewers.
Now weather the romantic aspects of the film work or not is largely up to the viewer, but one thing this film absolutely got right was the presentation on display. Everything about the Titanic feels real, right down to the smallest detail. Truthfully, I think this is the best-looking recreation of a period piece I’ve ever seen. The detailed set designs also add to the frightening realization of the disaster when we see all these lavish interiors undone by water. Director James Cameron aimed to put the viewers in an event that felt real, lived in and unimaginable to anyone not actually present on the ship. In this regard, “Titanic” absolutely shines as the production design, the atmosphere, and the overall filmmaking on display is perfect. Also, despite its lengthy run-time, this film moves at a terrific pace and every scene is built on the other very firmly. One of my favorite scenes is when the ship has its fatal collision with the iceberg. This is filmmaking at its finest, as the buildup, and tension feel as real as they get. I love how this scene is edited and scored, as the music starts with pulse pounding adrenalin, and then gradually it gets quieter and subdued as we get closer to the collision. I also love the details of the workers trying desperately to turn the ship as everyone is noticeably scared but they continue to act professionally, like real people from a real time period.
The cast all around is solid, but I just can’t bring myself to say that I like the characters as much. It’s the one thing that always nags at me, while the presentation of the environment is top notch, the real-life people represented on film are constantly sidelined in favor of an obvious, yet admittedly likable Hollywood couple. Our heroes are Jack and Rose, and I’ll admit that they do have good chemistry, and even share some really good scenes. I love seeing them bond over something as simple as art, as it makes the relation feel genuine as opposed to a lot of forced romantic banter. Also, I have nothing but credit to give to both Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet. Despite being a very basic Hollywood romance, I felt that both actors made the roles feel as genuine as possible, and they both look great together. Winslet even got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Rose, although the actress herself has never been satisfied with her performance and finds it hard to watch. Unfortunately, the romance can’t just be a romance, it has to include other elements that feel like the product of a Hollywood picture. The famous “Jack I’m flying” scene, while a terrific on its own, just feels like something from a movie. Most historical drama’s like “Apollo 13”, “Flight 93” and “Tora, Tora, Tora” are 100% in the real world, focusing on the real human people, events, neither had cliched Hollywood moments, and personally, I would have liked “Titanic” to take a similar approach. Now having said that, I really wouldn’t have minded the center piece of the film being an undocumented relationship that took place during the event, but only if it was just the couple and how they interacted with the real-life passengers on the ship. I like the scene at the peasant party, and occasional interactions with people like Molly Blown are very welcome, but we just don’t have enough of that.
See, my biggest issue with this film is that the story revolving around this couple just can’t leave well enough alone. I hated the addition of a cliched evil fiancé with his gun wielding servant, although both actors again are very good. I hate that whole subplot with our hero being framed for stealing the jewel, as it just feels like filler that takes time away from the more emotional aspects of this historical event. I hated that amidst the horrifying tragedy of a sinking ship, we have to watch our two heroes running away from the cartoony gun wielding bad guy who comedically trips over a piece of wood. I really hated that scene with the evil henchmen rolling the built on the table and wickedly gesturing that “I think the ship is going to sink”. That scene especially pissed me off, as it’s a cliched Hollywood bad guy using a real-life tragedy to do-away with our main hero. Imagine if in the movie “World Trade Centers”, there was a sub-plot revolving around two irrelevant characters, one of them gets hand cuffed in a bathroom stale, and the other maniacally jesters that “I think these towers are going to collapse”. Wouldn’t that just feel off-putting? If I had it my way, the villains should have been completely removed, the whole frame-up sub-plot dropped, and instead during the sinking of the ship, we could see our two heroes descend into the depths in an effort to rescue people still trapped down below decks. That way we’d still have the excitement of seeing them running though flooded corridors, but the context as to why they were down there would have been a lot more meaningful. Then maybe while down there, the two could get separated, and we could have had some excitement with them trying to find one another amidst the cause.
Now while on the topic of the climactic sinking of the ship, most of what we see is very effective. One of my favorite moments is that whole montage that begins when the violin players decide to stay behind, and play their music in hopes to calm the crowds. Seeing the old couple in bed with the running water under neither them is a dramatic image that’s been burned into my skull. I also found it very effective to see that mother trying to keep her kids calmly in bed, all while knowing that they’ll never be able to make it off the ship. The tension of the sinking ship also feels genuine, and it always puts me in a mindset that I’m write there with them. My only other issue aside from all the pointless detours with the cliched villains is that, while this event was a tragedy, it was also a tail of heroism, and there just isn’t enough valor on display. There are certainly noble moments, but too often the film focuses on the ugly side of things, like the stuck-up rich people oblivious to how serious things are, or the deck officer gunning himself after shooting a passenger. Now I’m no historian, but there’s just something about that moment with the deck officer that just feels very distasteful and out of place to me.
Before I forget, I do quickly want to highlight some of the supporting players. While Molly Brown is mostly played for laughs, I still liked Kathy Bates in the role. I also liked Bernard Hill as Captain Smith, and wish he could have had a bigger part in the film. The late Bill Paxton is also very credible as the treasure seeker listening to the story unfold. Even though it’s a small part, it’s always stood out to me as one of his more memorable performances. Finally, the star who in my opinion completely steals the show is the late Gloria Stuart in the role of Rose as an old woman.
She too got an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, and personally, I feel that she absolutely deserved that Oscar. Every single inflection from her was as natural and believable as they get. She doesn’t have an easy job either, as many of the old Rose lines are really corny, yet she can still make this goofy dialog like “It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint” feel sincere, now that’s talent. Also, I should note that along with both actresses losing their respected Oscars that year, as well as only getting a nomination for best makeup, “Titanic” was one of those films that just swept the Oscars off their feet and won 11 awards total. This includes best art direction, best cinematography, best costume design, best effects, best sound design, best editing, best sound effects, James Cameron won best director, and of course the film won best picture. Oh and of course I need to mention James Horner’s Oscar winning music score. In general, the late James Horner was one of cinemas greatest music composers, and his breathtaking score for “Titanic” is his magnum opus. That’s not to say it’s my absolute favorite of his music, as both “The Land Before Time” and “The Mask of Zorro” hold that title for me, but this is the score that he’s been remembered for the most, and it’s a great one to represent the artists rich legacy. Oh, and there’s also that Oscar winning song by Celine Dion called “My Heart will Go On”. Yeah, we all know it, and weather your sick of it or never even liked it to begin with, I’ll always reflect on it as a classic song from the late 90’s.
So, to close this rather lengthy review, lets finally talk about the ending, which is simultaneously both my least favorite and absolute favorite scene of the film. Let’s break it down and start with the bad, which is old rose dropping the jewel in the ocean as kind of a poetic memento. First of all, that was really selfish, especially considering that she could have done something useful with it, like donating money to starving children. Second, if she was going to risk her health flying out to that boat on a helicopter, she might as well have given the jewel to the guy to confirm her story. If the movie had ended right there, it would have been awful, but thankfully there’s one last scene to close the movie on a high note. Old Rose apparently dies in her sleep, finds herself in a room full of all the lost souls that perished when the ship sunk, and finally reunites with her first love. I wasn’t even that fond of this couple, and that moment alone is probably one of my favorite romantic scenes in motion picture history. No joke, even though I didn’t really care about these two characters, this ending still got me all choked up inside. Just the concept of two lost souls being reunited in death, and the souls of everyone applauding around them helps close this movie on a triumphant high note. It’s a beautiful scene, and still stands to this day as one of my all-time favorite movie endings.
Despite the films popularity, there have actually been several films prior that revolved around the sinking of the Titanic, and some of which were arguably more accurate to the event. In fact, the 1958 version titled “A Night to Remember” is often regarded by both historians and even survivors as the most faithful retelling of the ships sinking. Now having said all that, the 1998 version of “Titanic” is undeniably a more memorable movie experience, and the historical depictions on display are still very effective. When all is said and done, there’s still so much to admire about “Titanic” as a technical achievement, and it still leaves an emotional impact even after multiple viewings. I can’t bring myself to say that I love it as much as everyone else, but I still acknowledge that it’s a mostly good movie. It looks great, the music is great, the performances are solid and even if it’s not the most accurate retelling of the event, it is still the more memorable movie experience.
I give the 1998 movie “Titanic” 4 stars out of 5.