For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
“Titanic” is a massive film in every way possible. It is long, technologically demanding, and a period piece set on a steamship in 1914. In 1997, it was one of the most expensive films ever produced and became the highest-grossing film of all time, until James Cameron broke his own record with “Avatar”. Unfortunately “Titanic” lacks the staying power of its epic predecessors.
When I first saw “Titanic” during its original release, I was largely unimpressed. The special effects were remarkable for the time, and the slow rising water did add a sense of tension and doom, but the story and characters were lackluster and never felt shiny or real. I was of the belief that Cameron could have made a compelling story based on real characters from the Titanic, instead of choosing to create a wholly synthetic set of characters. This complaint would have been minor had his fictional characters been compelling.
My wife, Jaime, liked “Titanic” when it came out. So it was important to me that I watch it with her this time through. I wanted to keep myself in check, and see if her perspective (or mine) had changed.
Her first vocal criticism of the film came roughly 30 minutes in. I had been cringing a bit at the CG special effects. The boat has not aged well, and in a film that relies on grand computer-generated shots of the Titanic to establish the scale of the ship and place the characters in this historic vessel, it hurts. Jaime’s statement was that it all just looked fake. This fakeness was a constant reminder that we were watching a movie and hindered our ability to immerse ourselves in the story.
The next flaw that came into harsh scrutiny was a deal-breaker. The dialogue and interactions between the main characters are stiff and awkward. Jaime’s description was more direct. She said she just didn’t believe that either Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) or Rose (Kate Winslet) were in love. The words emerge from Winslet’s and DiCaprio’s mouths as if they have been carved out of wood. This is not so much a criticism of either’s acting ability, though neither was exceptional by a long way, but is a condemnation of the script, and Cameron’s unforgivable knack for schmaltzy, syrup-ridden dialogue. When the scenes work, which is rare, it is in spite of the written dialogue and not because of it.
Here are three examples, and I tried to pick recognizable scenes, because if they don’t work then the movie as a whole falls apart. The first is between Jack and Rose the day after he saved her from jumping off the stern. Vimeo was being a jerk. So the audio on this first scene doesn’t start until about fifteen seconds into the clip.
Rose calling Jack annoying is pretty much the pot calling the kettle black, as far as I’m concerned. The next scene consists of Jack and Rose at the bow at sunset.
Sheer treacle, but nothing compared to the final example, which is Jack’s final plea to Rose.
Everything about his speech feels wrong. This is not the passionate, desperate call from one lover to another to survive against all odds. Instead it has a grandfatherly weirdness. It feels old and stupid given the situation. “You’re gonna make lots of babies.” Nope, I don’t believe that this line happens.
Old lady Rose (Gloria Stuart) doesn’t get a free pass either. This scene shows her embellishing the already atrocious dialogue with an elementary schoolteacher-like reading-out-loud voice.
“A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” Ugh. This is James Cameron’s way of saying, “It’s complicated.”
I know that I’m being pretty harsh, but I don’t think that you should get on the AFI list solely because your film made a lot of money. This time through “Titanic” I did notice that the supporting characters were pretty darn good. Here is the scene when the ship’s architect (Victor Garber) is telling the captain (Bernard Hill) that Titanic will sink.
Those performances are thought out and subtle. This is one of the only moments that I believe in the whole of “Titanic”.
When Cameron directs visual sequences that don’t rely on dialogue, often they work. Here is one such sequence, which is melodramatic, but still touching and emotional.
Still these two scenes are minor victories in a three-plus-hour steaming pile of predictable garbage.
One final scene and I’ll leave you alone until #82.
“I see you?” Hmmm, kinda makes you rethink “Avatar”.
Up next, “Sunrise” (1927).