Review: Titanic


It seems that Titanic has won more Oscars than any other film in history with the exception of Ben Hur


Say what you like about Ben Hur, but it has class. Charlatan Heston's teeth can act. When it comes over all awe-struck and serious, it's because something genuinely awe-inspiring has happened—the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, for example. There is too much hack religiosity, but the pious message at least feels weighty enough to justify three and half hours in the cinema. When Ben-Hur gives up being a Jewish Prince to become an Early Christian, one feels something significant has occurred. And an awful lot happens on the way. I don't only mean that you get a chariot race and a sea battle and a lot of sword fights and a Roman triumph with a cast of thousands and the Crucifixion and the Sermon on the mount. You also get several years of the guy's life—prince, prisoner, slave, escaped slave, adopted Roman bigwig... If you are going to make an epic this is the way to do it.

Titanic has only one awe-inspiring event, to wit, the sinking of the Titanic. It's 'message' is superficial and insipid. Very little happens along the way. It is soap opera dressed up as epic, and after three and half hours in the cinema, I was left with an overwhelming sense of 'was that it?'

Since Star Wars the smart thing to say about any film you didn't like has been 'It has great special effects.' I am not sure if this is true of Titanic. The effects which are most obviously 'special' are on the whole, the ones which don't work. The long shots of the up-ended ship; the pans along its side; the first sighting of the iceberg—seem oddly artificial. But this doesn't matter, because much of film is firmly in the Cecil B De-MIlle tradition. If you want to show an army of ten thousand Egyptian slaves, hire ten thousand extras. If you want to show the sinking of the Titanic, re-build the Titanic. So, I will not insult James Cameron by saying that the film had good special effects; I will say that it was a very impressive piece of historical reconstruction, and a very dramatic spectacle.

Here is an excerpt from a review of Titanic posted to the web by someone who prides himself on not being susceptible to hype:

'A movie of extraordinary vision, an experience so completely engulfing and all consuming that hardened critics will leave the auditorium openly weeping at the compassion, the humanity, the weakness and the majesty that is presented in those fleeting hours.'

Here is one from a girl who saw it four times:

' Never before has a movie reached inside of me and hammered at my heart the way this did...I hope that my floods of tears are justified in that everybody who suffered on that dreadful day in 1912, can look down on us from where ever they are and know that they will never be forgotten ...There is no ship that can't be sunk, and there is no dream that can't be crushed. There is only hope. Hope that something like this will never happen again. I could watch this film over and over again and learn a new lesson from each viewing. It's really the best film I have ever seen.'

I would have no problem with anyone who said 'The plot is tosh, of course: but it's worth seeing for the spectacle.' But the people who admire—who revere—Titanic seem actually to be responding to the storyline, not the 'special effects.'

I find this utterly inexplicable.

The plot of Titanic might, with a little padding, have been enough to sustain a one-page weepy vignette in Woman's Realm. A feisty young lady, Rose is pushed by her mother into marrying a rich cad, Cal. She meets a poor boy, Jack, who truly loves her. At first, she follows her head and stays with the cad; but then she chooses to follow her heart and go with the poor boy. He dies saving her life. Eventually, and off stage, she falls in love again, marries, lives a fulfilling life and dies at an advanced age. After she dies, she is taken down one of those tunnels of light that all the fashionable near-death experiences are wearing this year. In 'heaven' she is reunited with the poor boy who saved her in life all those years ago (which must be rather galling for her husband of forty or fifty years. )

Not one of the characters steps beyond their stereotype for one second of the film. Cal would have been one-dimensional in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Billy Zane plays him like the Sheriff of Nottingham in Prince of Theives, the baddie you love to hate. He sneers; he's a snob; he thinks that wads of pound notes will make everyone do his bidding, he slaps Rose in the face and says 'I forbid it!' a lot. When the boat is going down, he grabs a random child in order to get onto a lifeboat. He does everything but twiddle his moustache. There is not the remotest hint about why such a total bastard is marrying a girl with no money; there is not the slightest suggestion that being on sinking ship, a few seconds away from death might peel away the veneer or change his outlook in any way.

Leonardo DiCaprio is that relatively unusual phenomenon, the film-icon who can act. But he is not given much opportunity here. Jack is an orphaned Yank who came to Europe so he can be a failed artist in Paris, which is dead romantic. Very much the Post Fully Monty Hero: tough on the outside, teaching Rose to spit like a man, but soft and sensitive on the inside, with a portfolio of really good paintings. Cal is English and follows social conventions. Jack is American and free and classless. He likes having no roots being the sort of guy who just goes where life takes him I was born under a wandering star just make every day count. Has anyone stopped to consider for one second the cynical crowd-pleasing hypocrisy of spending a hundred million dollars on a movie which takes it as read that the best way to be happy and fulfilled is to be poor? Once the actual disaster starts, Jack turns into the last action hero, instantly knowing which end of ship you have to be on during a disaster, taking control of situations, and saying 'Rose do this, Rose do that, Rose do the other' every five minutes.

Jack wins his ticket on the Titanic in a game of poker. He nearly misses the trip, getting on board with only one minute to spare. As Jack clings to the wreckage at the end of the film he says 'Winning that ticket was the best thing which ever happened to me.' You see, it was three hours ago: we have to reminded, so we can see that it was a significant moment. He goes on to promise Rose that even if he dies, she will live a long life, have lots of babies, die as an old lady. This is terribly clever, since we have already, in the framing sequence, seen her as an old lady. Everything has to be explained, slowly: Jack tries to find Rose in the First Class Chapel on Sunday Morning. Sure enough, the congregation are belting out 'Hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.' You just couldn't bloody resist it, could you. Everything is obvious, every thing explained, telegraphed and spoon-fed. God forbid that a movie should ask us to think for ourselves.

There is no doubt that the second half of the film—after Titanic hits the iceberg—is an improvement on the first. We no longer have to worry about painfully stereotyped characters having painfully implausible conversations in painfully contrived situations. We simply sit back and enjoy the fireworks. There was one chunk, where Rose has to return to a waterlogged deck to rescue Jack, who is handcuffed to a pipe (Cal having planted stolen goods on him) which was genuinely claustrophobic and gripping. Let's face it, no-one does chases along dark, water-filled corridors like James Cameron.

But we rapidly stop caring. Rosie and Jim are at the very front of the ship when it goes tits up, so we get one of those vertiginous falling sequences as the ship sinks. The visual vocabulary was the same as every other Hollywood action movie: you might as well have been watching Jurassic Park. The real world tragedy is simply a pretext to build the most expensive fairground ride in history, across which the man of action and his bimbo can have chases and falls, get trapped and escape, and get into and out of lifeboats so many times that I totally lost track and didn't care.

The 'historical' side of things dissolves into a series of vignettes—Rose and Jack's thrilling adventures are intercut with little bitty scenes about the rest of the passengers and crew. Some of these I take to have been historical—the Captain locking himself on the bridge; the crew not having the faintest idea what the capacity of the lifeboats were; the 3rd class passengers locked in until the first class ones are away. Some of the scenes were reasonably affecting: the painfully Irish mother telling her children painfully Irish folktales to comfort them; the drunken twits trying to die like gentlemen.

The take on the Band was particularly nice. I had always pictured them down in the ballroom, Playing On as if nothing was wrong. The film showed them up on deck, playing popular tunes to keep morale up, and improvising 'Nearer My God To Thee' as they split up to make for the life boats. Of course the hymn has to be taken up by the score and turned into the incidental music.

And the ultimate message of the film? The humane, compassionate message that leaves hardened critics weeping openly and has made one lady in America see it 150 times? If Jack had not won his game of poker, Rose would have married the cad. He would have stopped her from being feisty, the fire would have gone out, and Rose would have ceased to exist. Jack gives his life so Rose can carry on being Rose, so she can live to be an old lady and have lots of children, a career and a horse. To allow someone to do this is to save them 'in every way possible'; to lose your independence is worse than dying. Being on the Titanic was, in the long run, a good thing because of the opportunities it afforded for growth and personal development. It was, in short, another bleeding therapy movie: self-actualisation being the only religion of which Hollywood can conceive, and settled domesticity the only happiness to which you, (as opposed to us, the moguls) can aspire.

How can anyone possibly describe this piece of sub-standard melodrama as the best film they have ever seen, a completely engulfing experience?

I have a theory

In the last decade, the Multiplex Movie has become completely divorced from all normal cannons of story-telling. Movies do not contain characters; their protagonists are large dumb objects: mental patients like Sigourney Weaver or Batman; circus clowns like Jim Carey or Robin Williams. Or else they are ironic, post-modern avatars for the audience who, by definition, do not take the film seriously. Look at Will Smith in Men in Black or the entire cast of Independence Day; they perpetually joke and undercut the action because they, like you recognise that it is cobblers. The mere fact that Titanic contains characters—actual, human characters, not a cartoon robot with a large gun—strikes Multiplex Man as an unutterable novelty.

Multiplex Movies have also largely abandoned plot in favour of big kinetic sensory films which you can't possibly do on television. This is why people often wait for the video to come out. They are often full of jokes at their own expense. Mars Attacks was a parody of Independence Day, itself a parody of 1950s UFO movies, which weren't very sensible to start with. About the only interesting thing Jurassic Park II was the way it sent up other dinosaur movies—Godzilla, Valley of Gwangi and, of course, Jurassic Park I. At worst (as in the embarrassingly bad Batman series) there is simply no attempt to provide links between scenes: the characters simply lumber from one implausible set-piece to the next. Provided a lot is happening on the screen; the audience will never be bored; provided the audience is never bored, they will buy the tee-shirt—-which is the main object of the exercise, after all. Again, the mere fact that Titanic has a plot, with a beginning, a middle and an end, with the final scene resolving the opening scene, and no loopholes left for a sequel or a cartoon series—may seem magnificently engrossing if the last thing you saw was Alien III. If you have never experienced anything but Saturday morning cartoons, then Neighbours may well seem to be the height of drama.

That's my theory. Conspiratorial, sure; slightly snobbish and with a whiff of fogeyism, that I freely admit. But the only other one which springs to mind is just too depressing.

Once you have spent $100,000,000 on something, everyone will praise it, and no-one will tell you that it doesn't have enough lifeboats.