Until The Lord of the Rings, Titanic was the most expensive movie ever made, and it shows. The special effects, art direction, and machinery behind this behemoth are lavish, stunning, and deserving of praise. Unfortunately—even tragically—the normally reliable director James Cameron gives in to almost blinding pomposity, and its story is just awful.
Kate Winslet is a spoiled little rich girl engaged to wed spoiled little rich boy Billy Zane. Together, with their parents and extended families and various hangers-on, they set sail for America on the RMS Titanic. She is not entirely satisfied with her forthcoming engagement, and why would she be, since Billy Zane is wholly, one-dimensionally, and entirely bad, in all the archetypical ways in which the offspring of old money are supposed to be despicable. I’m sure you can think of all the things wrong with him in the time it will take me to write them. This drives her to attempting suicide.
Also on the boat is Leonardo DiCaprio, a dirt-poor aspiring artist. He rescues Winslet from her suicide attempt, thereby giving him a way into her world and her heart. Anyone who has ever seen any movie or ever watched television for more than fifteen minutes can guess whether it will be DiCaprio or Zane who wins Winslet’s heart by the end of the film. There are other characters in Titanic, but being even bigger archetypes than Billy Zane they run together very quickly.
And that’s it, for the first ninety minutes or so. DiCaprio tells Winslet over and over again that she should wed Zane only if she loves him—which she, duh, obviously does not—and to never marry anyone just because her social circle tells her to. And again and again and again, with circular conversations laden with platitudes. Writer James Cameron sounds like he learned everything about turn-of-the-century class conflicts from overhearing someone else’s not-very-good conversation. Think A Room With a View remade as A Room Without a Brain. I have two theories about why there are so many dead-end scenes involving DiCaprio pleading with Winslet: 1) So much effort was put into the art direction that Cameron wanted us to see as much of the boat as possible, from the weight room to the bowels of the engine, and 2) “Important” movies tend to be long—The Godfather trilogy, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Schindler’s List, Barry Lyndon, Spartacus, Patton, The Deer Hunter, etc.—and director Cameron wants Titanic to be “important.” Titanic simply does not have enough ideas to warrant its length.
The final ninety minutes of Titanic is the boat being obliterated. The characters, about who I feel nothing except maybe mild loathing for their having stood in the way of the pretty art direction, flee for their lives amidst an ocean of special effects. As good as the effects are, Cameron seems to use them as an end within themselves; characters run for their lives toward the camera, in shots composed to give us effects as opposed to giving us any sense of their danger. This is the same man who directed Aliens, which was genuinely intense, yet here he directs all the action from a safe distance, as if showing off his sets, as if terrified to let a single detail of candelabra slip out of the frame. Or maybe the action is directed well and I was just too offended that he expected me to care about Winslet and DiCaprio after spending an hour-and-a-half showing off how dull they are.
At first James Cameron seems a perfect choice to write and direct this material. From The Terminator to Aliens to The Abyss, so many of his films have dealt with the mankind-machine relationship. If anyone could explore the hubris and flawed pride of creating this giant boat, it ought to be Cameron, but instead he gives us the boring romance of two superficial people.
But what makes the entire endeavor so unbearable for me is that every frame, every word, every note on the bloated soundtrack drips with self-importance. “This is important,” “This is greatness,” “What you’re seeing is SO good.” Everyone refers to the ship as “Titanic” instead of “The Titanic,” which is somehow really off-putting and pretentious. The movie is book-ended from the present by a modern archaeologist, played by Bill Paxton, in search of some deep, cosmic truth buried in the ship. We’re supposed to feel his quest is somehow profound but, just like this movie, there isn’t anything on the inside waiting to be found.
Copyright 2002 Friday & Saturday Night
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