"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 16, 2012

"Titanic" (1997) by James Cameron (film review)

Yesterday, April 15, it was 100 years ago that the Titanic sank, killing 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers in the chilly waters of the North Atlantic - a disaster that has always figured large in the public consciousness because of its epic qualities - the largest and most luxurious ship ever built, with as passengers the creme-de-la-creme of society, goes down after hitting an iceberg on - of all things - its maiden voyage. It seems a very apt illustration of the saying "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."

In the past I had seen the 1953 movie, and I remembered it as a rather depressing vehicle. That memory is probably the main reason why I never had watched the 1997 movie by David Cameron - with as additional obstacle that this new Titanic was advertised as a sort of spectacular disaster movie, a sort of blockbuster I always try to keep away from. Well, yesterday I had my private "Titanic commemoration" by watching the 1997 Titanic and must say that despite my initial misgivings I greatly enjoyed it. It is the best Titanic movie I know (also better than the British half-documentary A Night to Remember from 1958) and an excellent, flawlessly crafted movie in its own right.

I believe it is so good for the following reasons:

  • There is an authentic, human story: the love affair between the penniless artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the 17-year old Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), who is forced by her mother (Frances Fisher) to marry a rich American - her snobbish fiancee Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) is also on board which leads to interesting complications and even violence in the end. They are both a sort of prisoners - Jack of his financial circumstances, Rose of her family - and it is great to see them standing on the prow of the big ship looking towards the sea and sky inhaling the fresh air of freedom. 
  • This human story takes the central place in the film. In contrast to the bulk of disaster films, where we have scores of characters who are all followed to their doom or redemption, here we have only Jack and Rose. This allows us to really get to know them, in other disaster films we only see a little bit of many (usually not very interesting characters) and therefore we immediately forget them.
  • The story of Jack and Rose is deftly interlinked with the disaster, for example when Jack has been accused of theft by Rose's fiancee and chained to a pipe on one of the lower decks where, as the ship starts sinking, the water dangerously rises. Rose comes to the rescue!
  • The special effects are wonderful: from the majestic ship itself when it sails out, to the disaster - for example the breaking of the ship in two halves where the lower part finally stands vertically in the water. At $200 million this apparently was the most expensive film ever made until 1997, but the money was well spent. Above all, the special effects are always in the service of the story, never a goal in themselves.
  • And finally, there is an interesting contemporary framing story, of treasure hunters searching the wreck of the Titanic (there is some real footage of the submerged ship here) for a precious diamond which belonged to the Rose of the story - and she still is alive, now 101 years of age but still going strong (played by Gloria Stuart). She visits the treasure hunters to tell her story and that story, shown in flashback, is the major part of the film. This also proves that we are following at least one major character who survived, which makes the film much less suffocating than its predecessors.

My evaluation: 9 points out of 10 for the meticulous detail of this film, that makes us "experience" the Titanic as if we were ourselves on board.
Ebert; Berardinelli; DVD-Talk