Dr. Gene Seagram (David Selby) has designed a revolutionary defense system for the United States. Codenamed "Sicilian," the program would use special sound waves to prevent nuclear missiles from landing on U.S. soil. There's only one problem: Seagram needs a rare mineral, byzanium, in order for the technology to work, and his man investigating the Russian cave system where research indicates enough could be found has come up empty. With the help of Dirk Pitt (Richard Jordan), a retired military man who rescues Seagram's associate in Russia, and Admiral James Sandecker (Jason Robards), they trace the byzanium to an unlikely location...cargo bay 9 of the R.M.S. Titanic! With sub technology unable to reach the depth required to enter the ship, the three men pitch a wild plan to lift the boat out of its final resting place in order to get the mineral, preferably before the Russians intervene.
Armed with a strong cast (which also includes Anne Archer, M. Emmet Walsh, and Sir Alec Guinness) and some spectacular model effects, Raise the Titanic is engaging almost in spite of what seems like a pointed disinterest in its own silliness. This isn't to say that the film's tone is entirely wrongheaded, or that the project is naturally B-movie material, but it does feel like the movie's intended audience member is simultaneously age 10 and age 35, and it would probably be better if the filmmakers had picked one. (Personally, I'd have edged toward the former; a little more emphasis on fun could've bumped the production up from "enjoyable diversion" to "minor adventure classic.")
Adapted from the novel by Clive Cussler (the only movie based on his work until Sahara in 2005, both of which he was unhappy with) the real star of Raise the Titanic is its premise, but the talented actors assembled here help make it all seem plausible. When one considers the dialogue separate from the delivery, all three of them do a good job of building up an overall portrait of their man from little conflicts and disagreements. The script pitches a battle between Pitt and Seagram based on Dana (Archer), who lived with Pitt years ago, and is now married to Seagram, but Jordan and Selby make it into more of a philosophical disagreement about idealism versus cynicism. Guinness plays a co-captain who survived the Titanic disaster, and brings such wit and warmth to what is mostly exposition that it's a shame he only appears in one scene.
The story leaves the most to be desired. Author Larry McMurtry stated that he was among at least 17 different screenwriters who took a crack at Cussler's book, which he described as "less a novel than a manual." However, the challenges of lifting the ship might've provided more visual excitement. Instead, not only does it take an hour before the characters hit the water, but most of the film is taken up by exploration and explanation. The pacing of the film as it stands is fine, but it's not likely that anyone goes to Raise the Titanic for an hour of talk and another half hour of looking. An attempt to break up the tension with a scene of a sub springing a leak is abrupt and somewhat unnecessary.
What buoys (wink) the film during the second half is the extensive, impressive special effects work used to bring the undersea exploration sequences and the Titanic herself to life. When the ship is finally discovered, the crew must plant explosives around the hull in order to blast the ship loose from the sea floor, after which a ring of flotation tanks will simply lift the ship to the surface. It'd be nice if the events leading up to the big finish were a little more propulsive (another attempt at tension during the home stretch feels strangely subdued, lacking the obvious payoff moments), but there's no denying the satisfaction of the film's climax, which looks fantastic even now. Raise the Titanic was a massive financial disaster, earning less than half of its 40 million budget back, but the money is visible on the screen, used to great effect on the kind of hand-crafted visuals that are all but a distant memory in the 21st century.
Raise the Titanic arrives with a piece of original painted poster artwork serving as the cover, a wonderful image of the ship being blasted loose, with subs shining spotlights onto it. On the reverse, showing inside the case, that poster can be seen in full, as well as another less inspiring photographic poster, along with the film's billing block. The two-disc Viva Elite Blu-Ray case houses both the Blu-Ray and the DVD copy, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.35:1 1080p AVC, this is a handsome home video presentation that avoids tweaking or finessing the image unnecessarily. The level of grain varies drastically based on the setting, appearing heaviest during dark scenes set indoors, and in the underwater footage of the Titanic. The image is slightly soft, but not unnaturally so, and plenty of fine details are visible. Colors are maybe a touch drab, but not pushed in accordance with more modern trends. Raise the Titanic may not be filled with high-definition "pop", but this is a commendable effort by Shout! Factory.
Much like the film itself, a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track provides a somewhat reserved but still spectacular audio experience. The sound effects and music are presented here with great precision and vibrancy, especially when it comes to the film's big finale, from the muffled underwater explosions of the charges detonating to the creak and moan of the metal hull and the sound of rushing water. A 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also included. The film was presented in stereo in theaters, so I believe the 5.1 must be a modern-day remix, but, like the picture, it sounded faithful to my ears, without any modern-day tweaking. Sadly, no subtitles or captions are included on this Blu-Ray.
One new extra is included: "A Look at the Making of Raise the Titanic" (23:17, HD), which sits down with Ricou Browning (Model Unit Director), Michael Ferris (Underwater Camera Operator), John Richardson (Special Effects) and Matthew Leonetti (Director of Photography), who speak primarily on the technical challenges of making the film, specifically in terms of shooting models underwater. Although there a couple of technical quirks (the interviews will intermittently jump from a standard shot to the exact same angle, just slightly closer to the subject, and one of the participants is looking directly into the lens), this is an engaging little featurette that makes do without any B-roll or behind-the-scenes footage. Although they make some slightly repetitive comments, all four men have vivid memories of working in a Malta water tank, fighting with technology.
An original theatrical trailer for Raise the Titanic is also included.
A bit more sense of adventure and excitement would improve Raise the Titanic, but the film is still a well-made visual marvel. It's a reserved picture that attempts to ground its spectacle in the real world, and does a good job even if the material might've been better served with a bit more flair. Shout! Factory's Blu-Ray features a strong presentation and an excellent little bonus feature. Recommended.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.