Oscar Classics: Titanic (1997)


Director: James Cameron

Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane

Release Date: 19th December 1997 (UK)

This may be one of the toughest movies I have ever and likely will ever, review. It will come as perhaps no great shock that I personally love James Cameron’s cinematic output. Even Avatar, which I want to give the panning it deserves, I am nice to as it cribs so heavily in my mind from another of James Cameron’s finest, 1986’s Aliens (a review of its prequel is available on this site and may just be worth your time) I’m tempted to nearly give it a pass.

But that’s an overwhelmingly negative review for another time. In the meantime, we have 1997’s Titanic. On a personal note, I have a degree in film and one in history so not to toot my own horn, but I feel more than justified in saying this film had a huge influence on me.

Let’s get the niceties done first. I enjoy the historical attention to detail. In the making of this film, Cameron had employed some of the finest Titanic historians going, such as the authors of Titanic: A Visual History to consult on his own designs, something he is more than able at as evidenced from his work from Terminator onwards. The consultancy work coupled with Cameron’s own gives us a visual feast and next only to the work of Bond set designer Ken Adam and miniature artist Derek Meddings, is arguably at the apex of its field.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of other details. A minor annoyance is that close to the films finale, Rose (Kate Winslet) looks at a star field while drifting on a piece of debris. That star field was categorically not there. Ordinarily I’d be only too happy to shrug my shoulders and say ‘who cares?’ and this was digitally fixed in the 3D re release in 2012, but it is somewhat an example of how this film falls down, spectacular visuals alone cannot keep a film afloat.

No, what perhaps sinks this is the woeful script. It seems like Cameron just made this as almost an afterthought, rather than the backbone of his film. Billy Zane as Cal Hockley I feel is worst served by this, his character comes off as somewhat lacking in definition and instead of treating us to anything close to a mesmerising performance that Zane is capable of, we are treated to three hours of a cardboard cut out that seems less a true character and more of a plot device for Leo and Kate to be motivated by. It also makes any character with less prominence than the second lead in Zane feel underused and 2D at best, and as in the case of the passengers in steerage, offensive stereotypes.

Also, for a film based on an alleged high degree of accuracy to history, there are quite a few glaring errors. The first is that any shot featuring two submersibles is oozing with fake, purely as logically it’d mean there would have to be a third sub with the cameras and lighting 2.5 miles under the Atlantic Ocean. There has been testimony that a crewman did shoot himself, a shooting of a passenger while the water is thigh deep is possible, but there is no evidence it was First Officer Murdoch who did this as in the film, considering his family are still very alive, to me this seems nothing short of slander.

Also on April 15 1912, according to countless testimony it was a starless night and RMS Titanic did not stand upright before splitting in two as the movie depicts, so to say the least, like many things, Hollywood is once again sexing up history in order to get more critical acclaim (then again, with over $2bn gross and 11 Oscars to its name, maybe this paid off!)

Overall, would I recommend this? Yeah, I might. It’s well made and visually at least, a good way to spend 3 hours, not to mention how influential it has been, but I would add the strong caveat that I’m only able to watch this with one of the three commentaries on, the dialogue is that woeful (the script has all the integrity of an Ice Cream Sundae on a hot August day).

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