The RMS Titanic was a behemoth of machinery. A technological marvel for its time.
In spite of its aura of majesty and strength, the ship was marred by severe design and operational flaws. The initial impact of the iceberg breached 5 watertight compartments (one above the maximum allowable quantity of maintaining the ship’s float). There were not enough lifeboats for every passenger on board, purely for aesthetic reasons.
This isn’t even mentioning that the crew was reckless with its running of the ship. They went top-speed inside a reported iceberg field at night time.
The result of these oversights? 1,500 people lost their lives in the dark of night, under a frigid sea.
The Titanic boasted the status of being the pinnacle of man’s ingenuinty. Though the tragic result proved otherwise.
Kinda like the movie.
You know, the one where Kate Winslet uttered “I want you to draw me like one of your French girls,” the epitome of seductive one-liners?
I’m not here to bash the movie. Far from it, really. It’s not my favorite film, but it’s my favorite kind of film: that is, the kind that carries so much potential, though has a few flies in its celluoid ointment.
It’s the kind of film that I can still admire, while picking apart its flaws and explaining what they could’ve done better.
Trust me, us bloggers LOVE this stuff. It’s a treasure trove of content.
During the mid-1990s, James Camereon wanted to depart from the usual action/sci-fi pieces he’s known for. He delved into ocean exploration with 1989’s The Abyss and wanted to take his passion even further. What better than to film about the greatest nautical disaster in human history?
Cameron was going to visually recreate the Titanic in all its architectural splendor. Splendor that many did not get the chance to see, as the ship sank only 4 days after disembarking for the first time. But hey, making a bland documentary isn’t going to sell tickets. This was going to be an expensive endeavor on Cameron’s part.
So, HOW was he going to recoup the cost? HOW was he going to entice filmgoers to spend their money at the box office? You guessed it…
He was going to write a LOVE STORY. *cue Jaws theme* (Wait, wrong sea movie)
*cue Celine’s lovely Titanic theme* 👌 Perfection.
James Cameron is…a stranger when it comes to writing romance, especially when it tries to pass for Shakespeare. It feels like a great bulk of the film’s melodramatic dialogue was written by a playwright. Maybe the dialogue could’ve worked during the Gone with the Wind era (rise of the talkies) where classically-trained actors made the norm.
In the modern era of method actors, however, the audience expects to hear dialogue that is believable with a dash of panache (consult with Mr. Tarantino if you’re feeling lost). But even so, the modern-day scenes, involving Bill Paxton and his ocean explorers/treasure hunters, had “everyman” dialogue that fell flat.
In a nutshell, Cameron wasn’t too concerned with the dialogue in spite of writing some sharp exchanges himself (Aliens, Terminator, and The Abyss). Cameron was more interested in creating a spectacle: A grand historic event serving as the backdrop of a love story gone awry. He was going to create the Ben-Hur of the 1990s.
Every love story needs to have its villains: Players scheming to tear the two lovers apart. In this case, it was Cal, Lovejoy, and Ruth. Cal, played by the darkly dashing Billy Zane, was Rose’s fiance and your typical richboy snob, pouty lip and all. Lovejoy is the clutzy servant that follows Cal’s orders to the letter (the Otis to Cal’s Lex Luthor).
Finally, Ruth is Rose’s scheming, manipulative, aristocratic mother who arranged her daughter’s marriage in order to secure her family’s financial future. Frances Fisher played her brilliantly with her cold, blue-eyed stare that could freeze and shatter recalcitrant souls.
For me, the villains just didn’t work. There was no layer of complexity given to any of them. They were caricatures, dare I say, of stanard villain tropes. Should we empathize with them? Understand their ulterior motives?
For being a 3-hour epic, the movie doesn’t provide us with space to ask ourselves these questions. What makes their schemes all the more unbelievable is they persisted in their designs while the ship was sinking.
If you had roughly 2 hours to get off a sinking ship, in the middle of the night time Atlantic, and the Officers are prioritizing women and children into the lifeboats, I don’t think your fiance and her lover will be on your list of concerns. But, that’s just me.
In all fairness, this was the mid-1990s. Three-dimensional villains were unheard of at the time. Villains that you could relate to and even empathize with (like, say, Ra’s Al Ghul from Batman Begins) wouldn’t show up until a few years later.
So, I’ll let the villain part slide.
What about the love story? Did it work? Ultimately, it did work. During the experience, there were a few missteps the writers made. Why did Rose reject Jack and then say “Oh! I changed my mind!” after seeing a little girl put a napkin on her lap at dinner?
Why did Rose suspect Jack stole the diamond when he displayed a lack of interest in her opulent lifestyle? More importantly, why did Rose consider Jack the love of her life when she was only 17 years old and knew him for 2 days?
The afore-mentioned dialogue didn’t exactly help, either:
Jack: “How did you know I didn’t do it?” Rose: “I didn’t, I realized I already knew!”
“Take some practice swings with that ax, will ya?”
“Water that cold, feels like a thousand knives all over your body…”
I could keep going, but I’d bore you. The dialogue bordered on schmaltz. Hell, it was schmaltz. Did the love story work? During the experience, it didn’t. BUT, remember when I said that it ULTIMATELY did work?
What I mean by that is the final scene. The scene where old Rose passes away in her sleep and her spirit moves on to the Titanic afterlife. There, she meets all the souls of those that departed during the sinking. They all look at her and smile. Happy to see their fellow passenger after 84 long years.
And then Rose sees Jack at the top of the Grand Staircase, gazing into the clock saying 2:20 (the time the Titanic finally vanished into the sea). Without a word, Jack smiles and offers her his hand. They embrace and kiss at last, after 8 and a half decades.
The departed souls look on and applaud. Happy to see Jack and Rose finally become one after so many years apart.
That, to me, is what the perfect ending to a love story looks like. The kind of ending that acknowledges the tragedy that ensued. The kind of ending that ties everything together. The kind of ending that gives the survivors and victims a semblance of closure.
I am of the opinion that Good Will Hunting deserved the Best Picture Oscar that year (1997). While the movie was written (and acted) better, it didn’t tug on your heart strings the way Titanic did, that’s just a fact. The voters of the Academy, being human, voted with their hearts and not their brains. This, I can’t disparage.
The voters were subjected to the power of filmmaking. Films are supposed to make you feel. If it got to the point where it influenced a voter’s decision, well, guess what? Titanic did very well with what it sought out to do. And yes, the film succeeded on other fronts that didn’t involve the visual spectacle. It was also emotionally-powerful cinema that will stand the test of time.
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