James Cameron's Stinking Pile of Ship
FILM REVIEW By JASON LLOREN
Blast San Francisco Bureau
James Cameron's films loom large and in charge. From both "Terminator" films
to the action-packed spy flick "True Lies" to the "I'm-Better-Than-'Starship
Troopers'" outer-space sequel "Aliens," Cameron's cinema runs high on
adrenaline, spectacle and innovative special effects.
His ambitious 3-hour "Titanic" runs along the same line but comes up short.
"Titanic" is a clunky, high-tech mass that steams nowhere and takes a long
time to sink. In other words, Cameron's latest epic is one big, wet piece of
"Titanic" is actually two films of different genres: the costume period romance and the
epic. The first hour-and-a-half focuses on the budding love between the young
Jack and Rose, while the latter part of the film delivers an intense, almost
real-time tale of doom at sea.
The film's final half is at once sweeping, suspenseful and haunting, with
first-class special effects recreating the historic 1912 sinking -- not bad,
given we all pretty much know the ending. But the weak and laughably stupid
script of the first half, as well as the inconsistent visuals, sink the rest
of the film.
The film begins with an ambitious oceanographer (Bill Paxton) plumbing the
depths of the North Atlantic to dig out the treasures of Titanic's watery
grave. His efforts uncover a long-buried sketch of a young beautiful woman
wearing an expensive gem necklace. An old woman claiming to be the girl in
the drawing steps forward and relates her untold tale of love aboard Titanic.
"Titanic" then flashes back to the maiden voyage of the grand ship. The rich
American teenage Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) boards the boat with her
controlling asshole fiance, steel magnate Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), and her
controlling bitch mom, Ruth DeWitt Bukater (Frances Fisher). Ain't first
class a bitch.
Enter Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a free-spirited, well-traveled,
penniless artist who likes to drink and party (that's right, a friggin'
hippie). He and Fabrizio (Danny Nucci), his Italian friend with an accent
worse than Super Mario, win their tickets to ride Titanic in a poker game.
Jack and Rose chance upon one another on the decks of the ship. Later, with
the pressures of marrying into a wealthy but oppressive marriage closing in
on her, poor little rich girl Rose attempts a suicide leap from the rear of
the huge ship -- until Jack comes and saves her life.
The narrative structure of this visually complex film is simple enough here.
Jack gets a mirthful peek into Rose's stuffy high-class world (i.e., he
attends one of her rich people meals and has to master the differences
between salad and dinner forks). Then he shares with her the joys and
pleasures of the simple folk below deck (i.e., they get drunk and dance).
At the same time, Cameron offers glimpses into the lives of other colorful
characters: There's the real-life passenger, nouveau rich Molly Brown (Kathy
Bates), who helps Jack get a foot up in high society; the ship's managing
director J. Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), a determined man who wants to push
Titanic to its limits; and the ship's architect, Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), who doesn't quite comprehend the boat's fatal weakness until it's
Eventually, "Titanic's" script shifts from the fictional romance to the
factual disaster. The boat rips a big gash on its side after hitting an
iceberg in the dead of night, and slowly sinks into the black water of the
The first big problem with "Titanic" is the amateur script by Cameron. The
dialogue, especially that between Jack and Rose, is laughably bad, and often
anachronistic for a film that goes to great lengths for authenticity (Cameron
spent $200 million to get everything accurate, down to the correct
type of duvet used on the real ship).
And because of the weak script, Cameron creates weak characters, all painted
in simple strokes and base motivations. For starters, Zane is ham on rye as
Rose's mofo fiance and his overacting tears the scenes apart. DiCapirio is OK
but not strong enough a presence to carry the film.
Now I've had a crush on Kate Winslet since I saw her prancing in the woods
in her underwear in her film debut "Heavenly Creatures," but her character
epitomizes the film's melodramatic awfulness. Sure, it's a romantic epic --
on par, if for chrissakes you believe New York Times hack Janet Maslin, with
"Gone with the Wind" -- but "Titanic" has an almost cartoonish sense of
passion: it all looks large but it's emotionally empty.
A quarter of a way into the film, I actually turned to my filmgoing partner
and said, "Is it just me or does this look like bad Merchant and Ivory?" I
was rewriting the script in my head as I was watching it. I wanted to AK-47
Rose. "Titanic's" that distractingly bad.
The actual look of the film is often impressive. Early in the film, Rose is
shown to be a collector of art by Picasso and Monet, saying she
appreciates them because, and I'm paraphrasing here, "It's like looking at a
dream." And there is a surreal, somnambulistic quality to some of the
cinematography. The dusktime scenes on the ship's top deck is bronze-red
grainy, like a fainting documentary. The sterile and restrained nature of the
uppity upper class is mirrored in the first-class dining room, which seems
bathed in bright white most of the times. The final scenes amid the chilly
waters is given an effectively nightmarish look through blacks and suggestive
Other times, the look of "Titanic" is jarringly unnatural, with obvious
blue-screened backgrounds and telling digital sets. In two long shots of
the massive "Titanic," the crisp, clean lines are ruined by gimmicky
digitized characters, like a sailor choppily descending a stairway. I've seen
better graphics on video games like "Resident Evil." Hey, Cameron contracted
the special effects out to 20 different companies and got 20 different looks
to the film.
There are a few minor pluses. The surreal bits and pieces of the final half
of the film are indeed memorable: the sight of a stringed quartet playing
music as the ship sinks; the final embrace of an elderly couple as they lie
on a bed surrounded by water; the ship's architect sitting before a cozy
fireplace and mantle as he accepts the boat's fate.
The depiction of the ship's sinking has a dash of realism as it is shown in
a lengthy, almost real-time sequence of remarkably restrained action. This is
unexpected in that it comes from a director known for high-octane,
Overall, there is no unified look and no unified vision to the film. In some
ways the film is itself a metaphor for the ship: It sinks near the front,
then sinks sharply, then it breaks off and the rear half sinks with the rest
of the boat in a final, emotional gasp. The film quickly falls under the
weight of a bloated romantic storyline and its final disaster conclusion
I give the last half of "Titanic" a B because it is to an extent effectively
thrilling on a grand scale -- but I give the first half of the film an easy F
for "fuckin' dumb." Because the film is so ambitiously huge and falters on a
larger-than-usual scale, I also think it's the worst film of 1997.
Hey, if you want to watch a tale of discovered love amid the epic backdrop
of action-packed, watery disaster, try Cameron's 1989 film "The Abyss" -- and
watch it twice.