In the scope of all movies I have ever seen in my life, none have had so complicated a relationship with my inner critic than James Cameron’s Titanic. Indeed, one can have a relationship with a movie – a love affair, you might say – so long as you feel as passionately for the craft, as I do. But what makes this particular film so much more of a heart-breaker for me is my devoted love for the great ship itself, which sank on the morning of April 15th, almost exactly one hundred years prior to my writing this article. And as I will be honoring the memory of this monumental disaster on the date of its passing, James Cameron found it all too fitting to re-release his already billion-dollar grossing “masterpiece” to commemorate this landmark anniversary.
My opinion of Titanic, as you may be able to tell, is far away from a favorable one. Perhaps I am unfair in saying this because of my partiality towards the history of the actual ship, but this movie – despite being named for the ship itself – couldn’t be more indifferent towards the emotional core and the symbolic significance of its subject. What the RMS Titanic has stood for over time is as a prophetic forward to a century of destruction; a prelude to the end of human grace in the face of all the misery that we are capable of creating. It should never – and I mean never – have been lowered to the level of a backdrop for a three-dimensional, two-dimensional love story about a young couple who meet and die in the way of Romeo and Juliet, minus the profundity of William Shakespeare.
I will spare a plot description, because the gist of it is conveyed in the last sentence. Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson serve as this young couple, and while their journey as dreamy-eyed lovers may be gloriously touching, it is only because of the talent of their players, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. These two widely acclaimed stars handle their respective parts with remarkable talent, and in doing so add an undeniable potency to what could have been two fatally bland characters. Winslet commands the viewer’s attention and guides them through the maze of Cameron’s epic, while DiCaprio displays probably the best work I’ve ever seen come out of him as a wandering artist caught by the beauty of his lover and the ship itself.
Titanic survives mainly because of these two, yet it is likely that if it were any other pair, the film would’ve fallen apart at it’s seams due to a complete lack of emotional depth. The story itself is wonderful, and perfectly legitimate, until Rose’s tempestuous fiancé, Cal, decides to chase our heroes through the sinking ship with a pistol, thus tearing away the last bit of credibility to this film’s intensely formulaic approach. The quality of the writing is – shall I say – mediocre at best; I have read of one critic who conveyed this point through her insight as to the number of times that the main characters cry out one another’s names. For those of you who do not know, this is the equivalent of fart jokes in children’s movies – it is a sign of a complete lack of dramatic subtext, and a strong indicator as to a movie’s all around weakness in depth.
And while James Cameron paid admirably acute attention towards recreating the ship precisely as it looked, I could go on about the movie’s offenses to those who actually sailed upon the ship itself. Cameron makes a pointed effort of rattling off as many names of the ship’s real-life passengers as he can, yet he only ever grants any of them a cameo, thus ensuring that many of these deeply fascinating individuals become no more than paper-thin icons which may satisfy the shallower needs of Titanic-aficionados, yet leaves the general audience with an uniformed interpretation of the ship’s intriguing stock of real-life characters.
Much of Titanic is cheesy – an early, cheap joke in the film has Rose unloading some paintings she bought in Paris, noting that they were painted by someone named “something-Picasso…” As the film goes on, it is clear that Cameron is trying to cover too much ground; warnings about nearby icebergs are mentioned only long enough to make the audience go “Ooo…”, and many a notable incident during the sinking is covered at breakneck speed so we may get back to that loathsome young couple we have been focusing on. There is far too much we know, and far too much left unexplored in the Titanic disaster than can be covered in even three hours, but Cameron certainly seems eager to try and achieve it, and what I can ultimately say for him is that I admire his ambition.
But like that good old fellow David O. Selznick and that bore of a flick he produced back in 1939, James Cameron’s venture only ever comes through as a painfully sumptuous visual feast; Titanic is in fact one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve ever seen in my life, and in terms of its scale, its beauty, its intensity and its ambition, it is perhaps the most impressive film I have ever encountered. Yet, like Gone with the Wind – or Avatar, for that matter – Titanic can only ever slide by because of that, while in terms of quality in character, philosophy, depth, or in true emotional resonance, Titanic comes up disappointingly flat, unimaginative, and bland.
I cannot say that James Cameron is a great filmmaker; despite his technological brilliance, he does not know his limit in dramatic storytelling. What this film ever accomplished was making millions of teenage girls go gaga for the love story, and many an action-adventure devotee go mad for the immenseness of its technological innovations. I can personally attribute it with the knowledge of what has a lasting effect on world audiences, and that one shot of Jack and Rose “flying” on the ship’s prow is enough to secure the film’s place in cinematic history (even if the seed of that scene was stolen from The Lady Eve – I’m not kidding, check it out). I have been battling with the omnipresence of this movie since I saw it on DVD five years ago, and what with this 3-D re-release I can’t help but cringe even more at the ridiculousness of it all.
For what it is, Titanic is a masterwork of public phenomenon, yet it can never be called “great” – if not for its being devoid of all intellectual poignancy, then for its vastly ineffective portrayal of that final evening, which was the swan song for human ambition. Perhaps it is suiting, then, that this movie echoes that old-fashioned sentiment, and proves once and for all just how foolish human ambition can be without the proper insight – or the appreciation for that is true and real – behind it.