"Titanic" represents both the best and the worst of current Hollywood
filmmaking. At its best, "Titanic" is a lavish, thrilling account of one of the
biggest disasters of the 20th century. At its worst, the movie is flawed in the
screenwriting department, and presents numerous cliches and particularly bad
acting. Nevertheless, this is one hell of a movie and it should not be missed.
"Titanic" tells its tragic tale via the only survivor of the actual sinking of
the ship - a 102-year-old woman (Gloria Stuart) who recounts the vivid tale to
a group of research scientists led by a marine scavenger (Bill Paxton). This
scavenger is looking for a jewel aboard the Titanic's ruins, but instead he
finds a sketch of a nude girl wearing the long-lost jewel. The nude girl is, of
course, the elder woman, Rose Dewitt Bukater, who is played as a 17-year-old
girl by the stellar actress Kate Winslet.
In luminous photography and sweeping visuals, "Titanic" quickly takes us back
to that fateful day in April, 1912 when the first of the Titanic's 2,207
passengers began boarding the ship in Southampton, England. Here we are
introduced to the major characters such as the itinerant-artist Jack Dawson
(Leonard DiCaprio) who wins a steerage-class ticket in a poker game, the
aforementioned Rose, along with her assertive mother (Frances Fisher), and
Rose's snobbish fiancee, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). We also meet the shrewd,
unsinkable Molly Brown (Kathy Bates).
Director James Cameron spares us no expense in showing us the elaborate decks
of the ship, the ballrooms, the pretentious bedrooms, the tiny steerage
compartments and the hot and heavy boiler room. We also see the differences in
the lifestyles and treatment of the haves and the have-nots. These differences
are further exemplified by the forbidden teenage romance between the
near-suicidal, potentially wealthy Rose and the clever, destitute Jack who
awakens a new sensibility in her by teaching her how to spit, and sketching her
in the nude. This causes problems between Rose and the violent, spiteful Cal
who orders his thuggish partner (David Warner) to keep an eye on Jack. Before
you can say romantic soap opera, the ship hits a big iceberg. According to the
ship's builder Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), this will cause the ship to sink
within an hour. The lower levels of the ship gradually start to sink, including
the boiler room, forcing the stewards at to shut off the boilers and begin
evacuation. Unfortunately, there are only a limited number of lifeboats
available for the thousands of panicked passengers.
"Titanic" is at its best during the last hour and a half where we see the
destructive nature of the sinking of this massive ship. At this point,
Cameron's main theme comes forth - man's technological advancement (and
arrogance) spells death for humanity itself. Thousands of lives are lost, and
we see how the stewards lead the first-class passengers into safety first.
There's also a terrifying scene where one of the stewards threatens and kills a
couple of eager passengers. We also see Rose trying to rescue Jack who's locked
away in one of the lower levels by Cal's partner. This whole section is so
stirring and emotional that you're not likely to leave the theater with dry
Cameron's weakness is in his writing. The romance between Rose and Jack
certainly evokes a passion and sense of love that is unlike most other tragic
love stories. Cameron's main fault, however, lies with some of the supporting
characters. Billy Zane as the cocky, snobbish Cal is laughably oafish emitting
numerous cliches - he seems to have drifted in from a bad Harlequin romance
novel. The same can be said for the predictably cold character of Rose's mother
who does not approve of Jack because she wants her daughter to marry Cal for
the security he can provide. There's also too little of the boisterous Kathy
Bates as Molly Brown who brightens the screen whenever she shows up, and too
much of Cal's gun-toting partner who seems to have drifted in from an Indiana
Other bland characters include Titanic luminaries such as the worrisome
Captain Smith (Bernard Hill); the Whites Star Lines executive (Jonathan Hyde)
who insists that the ship travel at full speed so they can arrive in New York a
day early; and a couple of other forgettable wealthy passengers.
Another lesser weakness is the movie's obligatory framing device of having the
elder Rose tell us her story of that fateful night - it's interesting yet
unnecessary in its own way because the power of the film is the compelling
story itself that we need no guidance in following.
Still, this is among Cameron's best technical work by far, and it is a
tribute to him that we don't actually notice any of the special-effects. In a
sense, he makes us feel we are aboard the ship, before and after it sinks.
"Titanic" is an awesome spectacle and perversely entertaining, but its
narrative style and characters are less than stimulating.
Copyright © 1997 Jerry Saravia