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1 Year, 100 Movies #83 Titanic (1997)

by Trey Hock on August 11, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

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).

1 Year, 100 Movies #84 Easy Rider (1969)

1 Year, 100 Movies #85 A Night at the Opera (1935)

1 Year, 100 Movies #86 Platoon (1986)

1 Year, 100 Movies #87 12 Angry Men (1957)

1 Year, 100 Movies #88 Bringing Up Baby (1938)

1 Year, 100 Movies #89 The Sixth Sense (1999)

1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

1 Year, 100 Movies #91 Sophie’s Choice (1982)

1 Year, 100 Movies: #92 Goodfellas (1990)

1 Year, 100 Movies: #93 The French Connection (1971)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier August 11, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I agree 100%, I have never liked titanic, and pretty much all of the criticisms for titanic, I think are equally true to avatar. Impressive cgi (for the time), but one dimensional characters spouting cheesy unnatural dialogue. I have a feeling that Avatar will share the same fate as titanic and will lose all of its appeal and strength once the technology surpasses it


2 Phil Fava August 11, 2010 at 5:15 pm

I haven’t seen the movie in years, but you’ve made a pretty strong case that it’s a remarkable shit heap.


3 You know who I am. August 11, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Gilbert Grape, Basketball Diaries, and maybe as the random add-on kid on Growing Pains: beyond that the career of Leonardo DiCaprio is one of regret. Titanic was horrific when it came out and is still. It should be condemned just for Putting Celine Dion on the world stage. Badly done James Cameron. Badly done.


4 Streams of Whiskey August 11, 2010 at 9:08 pm

I once had to learn how to play that awful Celine Dion song on accordion. To this day, I’m not sure whether that detracted from or enhanced the original music. I’m leaning toward “enhanced,” though. Sometimes two wrongs do make a right.


5 Rosie August 11, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Loved this review. The hilarious and witty reviews, like yours, are possibly the only good things to result from Titanic.


6 Xavier August 12, 2010 at 5:24 am

@YKWIA, you have got to be kidding me about DiCaprio, he was amazing in the Aviator, had good turns in Revolutionary Road and Gangs of New York and was great in both Shutter Island and Inception this year.


7 Randall August 12, 2010 at 7:19 am

Thank you for validating my hatred of “Titanic.” I hated it when I saw it in the theater, and I have no desire to waste another few hours on anything James Cameron does.


8 Trey Hock August 12, 2010 at 9:47 am

To Xavier, Phil, Randall and Rosie,
You are welcome for the review. I think that some movies just reach a weird critical mass for little to no reason at all. Titanic is perhaps a little too approachable and easy to understand, and that made it heaps and heaps of cash money. Still many get nostalgic for it, so it was important to me to combat nostalgia with fact, by using actual clips. Glad you enjoyed it, and I appreciate the comments.

Though I think you might be a tad harsh, I would agree that DiCaprio is one of the most overrated actors of our day. As you and I discussed Daniel Day-Lewis would make a DiCaprio Sandwich and devour the squinty-eyed man-child, if the role called for it.

Streams of Whiskey,
I must have a recording of that. Now.


9 Streams of Whiskey August 12, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Did anybody notice the distinct “Avatar” vibe in the final plea from Jack to Rose? Their skin is just so… blue.

@Trey Hock: Sadly, I think that recording has been destroyed forever…


10 You know who I am. August 12, 2010 at 2:16 pm

I have very sensitive tastes: I am the cinematic boy in the bubble who does not have the immunity to endure the work of Mr. DiCaprio. Please refer to my comments about George Clooney in reference to Bringing Up Baby.


11 Terzah September 27, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Ha! Agree with you on this pile of treacle 100%.


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