Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It took six years but Paramount is back with a superior replacement for its 1999 or 2000 flat letterboxed DVD of Titanic. Considering the impact this film made on both the boxoffice and the culture, it could have been more properly titled "Tectonic." Savant's favorite Titanic movie is still 1958's thought-provoking A Night to Remember but there's no denying that James Cameron's huge, huge gamble of a production is genuinely spectacular.
Eight years ago Savant was among the furious detractors of the film for a number of reasons. I've grown out of a few of my original objections but others still gripe me. Titanic is an undeniably impressive technical achievement. Dramatically, it's almost inert, a safe-bet picture peopled by anachronistic cardboard characters. That mattered not a nit to untold millions of viewers -- back in 1997, I remember people telling me their wives had returned to see it four, five, six times...
Socialite Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet) gets fed up with being the trophy fiancée of arrogant millionaire Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) and takes up with penniless steerage passenger Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic. When the ship keeps its historic appointment with an iceberg, Rose and Jack defy the insanely jealous Cal, not to mention Rose's demanding mother Ruth (France Fisher). As the ship founders and chaos grips the terrified passengers, Cal has his bodyguard Spicer (David Warner) handcuff Jack to a large pipe, way down in the bowels of the ship.
The good news: compared to a Michael Bay film, Titanic is a masterpiece. But that's only a relative assessment. Titanic is a keenly designed commercial vessel, carefully tweaked to remove anything that might irritate or disturb the lowest common denominator in the 1997 audience. The stock characters are performed as if there were no difference bewteen 1912 and the present. Class barriers are easily circumvented; all rich people are frauds and scoundrels desperately in need of the missing 'common touch.' By contrast, the steerage passengers are without exception noble, good natured and fair-minded optimists. The film's most depressing insult occurs when naughty fornicating runaway princess Rose flips the bird to David Warner's nasty bodyguard. James Cameron probably has documentation establishing that the gesture did indeed exist in 1912 (the English did it with two fingers, I believe) but the point is how did the demure Rose suddenly learn to do it so naturally? We're given to understand that just a couple of days before she was as sheltered as the little girl at the next table over learning to fold a napkin.
The movie caters to the romantic fantasy needs of its audience. Dreamboat actor DiCaprio is given a sterling set of qualities. He's a roving free spirit just back from the continent (terribly) sketching Parisian prostitutes as all great artists must. He has an absolute trust in his own instincts and suave manners that erase all social lines and restrictions. He's dashing and dances a great jig. Everything he says drips with wisdom and noble common sense.
Beautiful Winslet looks properly stifled by her 1912 wardrobe but she's a fantasy character as well. We're told she's just realized she's a caged bird living an artifcial life of luxury, but now that she's simultaneously discovered true love and rebellion against convention, she's transformed into an emancipated, liberated 70s woman in a matter of hours. She ditches her impossibly arrogant jerk of a fiancée to seduce and enrapture her new Prince Charming.
Since this is a late-90s picture, the sexual part of the fantasy is female-dominated. Jack is a gentleman charmer but Rose calls all the shots, deciding when to get naked and where to do the deed. Rose's boyfriend Cal, by contrast, already considers her his property and becomes violent that she might have a thought in her head that he has not pre-approved. He browbeats her, and then asks why she hasn't come to his bed after lights-out.
Of course, the answer for Rose and Jack's romantic problems is that everybody else is a constipated square and our lovers need to break free of the restraints of oppressive affluence. No matter that Rose has never as much as cooked for herself, the vagabond life is for her. We learn that Rose later becomes a movie star and a pioneering female pilot. She's quite a gal ... even at age 100 she's the sharpest cookie in the room.
Feeding this lazy fantasy to us might have been acceptable if Titanic had a good script. Dialogue that works for outerspace fantasy and underwater techno-fantasy is inadequate to float a period romantic drama, and practically every line in the film either comes from the prefigured exposition playbook, is baldly unbelievable, or trite with a capital T. Accomplished actors DiCaprio and Winslet come off as shallow as teenagers acting like adults. They look good but that's it.
The supporting cast ranges from good to truly terrible. Kathy Bates and Frances Fisher are reasonable within the narrow confines allowed them; Billy Zane's villain is a badly written and abominably acted. Victor Garber plays the ship's designer in almost a shot-for-shot and line-for-line copy of the role as conceived for the 1958 version. Most characters exist only to feed us needed information; excellent actress Bates is put into service holding the football for Jack and Rose. What should be a fleshed-out script is like the mechanical skeleton of one of James Cameron's killer robots.
Enough! Enough. That's enough of looking at the dark side of Titanic, which is too fat a target for even Savant's easily satisfied dramatic demands. There's a lot more to the film than Savant saw in the theater eight years ago, mainly because my distaste for all the above kept me from watching the rest of movie with an open mind -- disengaging from the lame story and enjoying the epic spectacle. I've found favor with many a stilted epic in the past as long as there was sufficient star-power to stave off boredom while waiting for a battle or a giant set-piece with a thousand extras. Titanic's grandiose scale and technical wizardry can easily compensate for mediocre dramaturgy. In other words, expecting Titanic to be A Night to Remember, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Citizen Kane put together is too much to ask from the 1990s filmmaking climate. If we take the director's main goal as being to create a gripping you-are-there account of a great ship sinking, this is a success. The only way Titanic could be improved would be if audiences were required to watch the conclusion with their feet in buckets of ice water.
All the factual particulars are better in A Night to Remember but this picture does not have the same semidocumentary aim. Politically Titanic falls somewhere between Night and the 1943 Nazi version of the story that was envisioned as bitter anti-British propaganda. By omitting most of their sincere effort to save lives, Cameron's script is somewhat contemptuous of the English Captain and crew. Second Officer Lightoller is the compassionate hero of the 1958 film but here is characterized as an hysteric, threatening to shoot passengers when not yelling at them. Cameron also purloins a key invention from the Nazi version - one likeable character is locked up in the brig far below decks just as the ship begins to founder. I guess Paramount's legal department figured Joseph Goebbel's agent was in no position to object.(That's no joke; ship model shots from the Nazi Titanic found their way into earlier B&W versions!)
Titanic was extremely expensive, even though the giant boat sets were done in Mexico to save money. The couple of hours of finely detailed special effects and production extras on this disc set show that director Cameron missed his calling -- his complex production rivals D-Day in planning, logistics and execution and that he could easily have been a great military General. Cameron must have the stamina of an ox. While organizing the whole shebang he had to find the energy to step behind the camera for twelve hours a day to film the darn thing. We see every filming trick in the book used in conjunction with what were then a lot of experimental digital techniques. Yes, the boat looks a little flat every once in a while and the tiny animated figures on the ship's deck are pretty fake, but the ambition of the project far outweighs those kinds of flaws.
The ship cruising in the daytime isn't the tops -- too many impossible digital helicopter swoops down its entire length have a "what else did you get for Christmas" show-off quality. But the ship sinking at night is a dazzling wonder. The shots showing water filling corridors (some of which were surprisingly tiny miniatures) and whooshing through breaking windows are terrifying. Even with more unnecessary bad melodrama (a running gun battle? ... aw, enough already) we feel the horrible entrapment as the ship begins to slide downward into the ice water like a runaway escalator. Probably because the ability to do the effects convincingly just didn't exist in 1958, this is the first Titanic film to get the sinking correct. The ship splits in two as its stern cantilevers hundreds of feet into the air.
Reflecting the director's own interest and skill in underwater exploration, the film offers a wraparound bookend structure with Bill Paxton as a hi-tech salvage expert and Rose as a spry 100 year-old with a sentimental secret concerning a particular jewel. Gloria Stuart (The Invisible Man) makes this section attractive but its appeal for this reviewer was curbed by his not really buying the central romance. It's certainly a darn sight better than the discarded ending that appears on the disc with many other deleted scenes. Cameron's final editorial decisions tend to be sound ones.
Savant thought Cameron was representative of the worst of new Hollywood when he hoisted his Oscars aloft at the awards ceremony and shouted "I'm King of the World." Cooler heads have since convinced me that he was just parroting a line from his movie and not making a personal claim for his new status. He certainly came out the winner in one of the biggest movieland gambles of all time. He got to do whatever he wanted -- produce, explore, live; had things turned out differently he could easily have become an exile, taking his place next to Michael "Gee I only flushed 40 million" Cimino. Titanic is the commercial antithesis of the elitist, politically dunning Heaven's Gate.
Cameron wrote a rebuttal personally attacking The L.A Times' Kenneth Turan for his negative review, arrogantly correcting the critic for being an old dinosaur who didn't factor the film's popularity into his assessment of its worth. Turan had simply been underwhelmed by the picture and felt it represented a lot of mediocre filmmaking within a technically advanced production. Not content with having a smash hit, all the money in the world and a newly-consolidated Hollywood power base, Cameron decided he could squash a film critic the way he might a disobedient assistant director.
No matter how idiotically obnoxious critics get, you rarely see a director going in print to directly chastize one. Steven Spielberg has received public drubbings and surely didn't deserve any/all/some (pick one) of them, but like any great director he reckoned that lowering himself to parlay with a critic would be a demeaning experience. Cameron's power was such that a wave of angry mail almost undid poor Turan, a fine critic who had the temerity to think that he was free to print his opinion without a public lynching. I don't remember Turan's fellow reviewers coming to his defense either ... or perhaps the newspaper just felt intimidated: "The Times hates Titanic? Cancel my subscription!"
Paramount's Special Collector's Edition of Titanic is a polished presentation on all counts. The three-hour film is spread across two discs and given a hearty encoding, ensuring a high-quality image on large video screens. The THX approved audio flatters the film's smart mix, which doesn't go in for show-off audio tricks.
The extras are legion and Savant sampled most of them while becoming entirely engrossed in the dozens of little production and effects video sidebars. They're a branching feature but can also be seen in a convenient 'play all' mode. The endless list of credited effects experts and technicians becomes a little more manageable when we see their work in detail. For example, the effects house of the Skotak brothers is seen filming the collapse of one of the ship's giant smokestacks ... which turns out to be made of cardboard! James Cameron's gracious commentary shows him happy to divulge every tiny secret in the making of the picture.
A third disc has a longer TV special and the expected galleries, visual effects and stunt analyses, and also Celine Dion's music video, which in 1997 was the Song That Wouldn't Go Away. The disc is packaged in a folding card and plastic disc holder in a sturdy shelf box.
Savant's tried to be fair to this one. Titanic isn't the shameful insult picture that Pearl Harbor is, nor is it a 'bad' epic. Entertainment doesn't all have to be on an artistic par with Shakespeare or Preston Sturges or Joe Mankiewicz. The picture is an ambitious, stunning spectacle ... with a clunky drama at its center.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Titanic Special Collector's Edition rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent +
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English, Spanish
Supplements: Commentary by: filmmaker James Cameron, cast and crew, on-set historians, 29 never-before-seen deleted scenes with optional commentary, Alternate ending: Brock's Epiphany, Branching viewing option to see background materials, Production and special effects featurettes, "Breaking New Ground" TV special, Visual effects breakdown of the stunts, Music video of "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion
Packaging: folding card and plastic disc holder in box sleeve
Reviewed: October 20, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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