“Titanica” follows three interwoven threads—past, present, and shipwreck—all three of them more about impressions than about facts. We are told how large everything is, and how many boilers and steam engines were required, not for any mathematical reason, but just to be given an idea of the immensity of an endeavor the narrator calls the space shuttle of the early 20th century. We see footage of workers standing dwarfed by various parts. What the parts do is unimportant, only that they are so immense. A perky octogenarian survivor, in addition to tales of the puppy and stuffed bear she lost, comments on how the ends of the ship disappeared into the horizon.
We also meet the Russian scientists, who descend in sepulchral submarines to the base of the Atlantic for twenty hours at a time in search of shadowy glimpses of the doomed vessel (I suspect more than some of the footage of the men within the submarines was filmed after the fact). The heart of “Titanica” is the images of the wreckage itself. Shoes, plates, a propellor, and all manner of metal sit in the mud, coated with large mineral deposits, and appearing positively ghostly beneath the high-beams of the submarines. Unearthly fish and crabs can be found among the wreckage, and one of “Titanica’s” lighter moments includes the most Russian-looking of the scientists imitating a particular beast’s eating habits. “Titanica’s” strength is that it lets these spooky images speak for themselves, with little in the way of commentary. The narrator mentions how the calcium-depleted water would have devoured the sunken dead down to their very bones, and the musical score, mostly strings, is somber and withdrawn. There are no wild edits or camera movements, and the effect is almost painterly. At about forty-five minutes, “Titanica’s” only real fault is that it left me wanting more of what it had shown me, but the limitations of the Russian research equipment itself cannot be held accountable from an artistic standpoint.
I am not a fan of James Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic.” In addition to eclipsing a massive tragedy with a pointless romance, “Titanic” also tries to be sentimental about the disaster, while at the same time dissecting it, which is the emotional equivalent of being told in graphic detail how, exactly, your father died of cancer. “Titanica” is only obliquely interested in the mechanics of what happened to the ship, and the mystery left to its ghost images help retain their fascination. Most importantly, “Titanica” passes the crucial test for IMAX films: it would still be interesting if it weren’t shown in the IMAX format.
Finished June 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Friday & Saturday Night
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