James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ (1997)

15Jun09

I watched Titanic on TNT this weekend. I hadn’t seen the film since its release when I believe I saw it something like 4 or 5 times in the theater. What can I say? I was 14 and Leonardo DiCaprio was, like, so hot. I was looking forward to watching Titanic again with some distance from all of the hoopla surrounding its release. With anything that receives as much attention and public affection like Titanic, inevitably a reciprocal wave of disdain and criticism will follow. The shiny gloss of Leo’s pretty face has worn off a little and time and experience have made Titanic’s flaws more pronounced, but ultimately I come away from the film thinking that James Cameron crafted a good film.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are immensely appealing as Rose and Jack, the star-crossed lovers whose romance forms the backbone of the film. Despite some of the preposterous dialogue that Cameron gives them, both Winslet and DiCaprio manage to create very human, engaging characters, whom the audience never stops caring about. They have a playful, affectionate rapport that’s delightful to watch. But as much as I adore Kate Winslet, I still don’t understand why she received an Oscar nod for this performance. She is excellent here, as she is excellent in all her films, but Rose DeWitt-Bukater doesn’t stand out like Clementine Kruczynski, Marianne Dashwood, or even Juliet Hulme do.

Visually, of course, Titanic is stunning. Cameron did not stretch too far beyond his means in creating these special effects: these are good effects that hold up over a decade later. And of course the costumes, set and prop design are impeccable. The script…well. The script could use some help. The dialogue is…not impressive and descends into schmaltz several times. There is a lot of repetition and calling of characters’ names, which suggests that Cameron couldn’t think of anything more interesting for them to say. Cameron does an excellent job of giving the audience characters to latch onto and care about, but the romance between Rose and Jack is anything but unique. Theirs is a typical slightly unbelievable movie romance, but I’m inclined to be forgiving of Cameron’s use of a hackneyed vehicle. Everyone who sees this film knows the rather depressing ending — the romance manages to serve as a little bit of fantasy and escape. Also, given that the audience has a “foreknowledge” of the film’s outcome, Cameron does a phenomenal job of creating dramatic tension.

Titanic represents a rather unique entry on James Cameron’s resume. It’s more of a romance with a heavy splash of adventure than a true action flick like True Lies, and no science fiction devices, like robots or aliens, pursue our heroes as they do in the Terminator movies, The Abyss, and Aliens. However, consider this speech Kyle Reese gives in The Terminator:

It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop…

That description of the T-1000 is easily applicable to the titular antagonists in Aliens, the strange, aquatic creature in The Abyss, and the rising, arctic water in this film. Cameron obviously loves a good ruthless villain, and here he expertly turns water into a sinister entity through the effective use of lighting in particular.

Cameron has helped create some strong female leads in the past, such as Ripley in Aliens and Sarah Conner in Terminator 2, but his last couple of leading women have been more “spunky” than empowered. Rose does survive Titanic while Jack dies, but he dies “acting like a man” and the audience is left with the distinct impression that Rose would not have survived if Jack had not been present. Well, that’s probably not true. Had she never met Jack, Rose probably would have been on the lifeboat with her mother, but that would have made for a dull movie. Of course, given their backgrounds it’s realistic that Jack would know more about dealing with a boat sinking into freezing water, but I don’t have to like how often Rose imploringly and almost, dare I say, helplessly calls out Jack’s name as the boat sinks. Rose does get her chance to save Jack when she frees him from being handcuffed to the ship, but Rose saving Jack becomes a humorous situation and it’s luck that she doesn’t seriously wound him instead. I’m probably being a heartless cynic, but Rose taking Jack’s name to hide from Hockley after the ship sinks just bugs me. Rose rejects Hockley because he subjugated her, but by taking Jack’s name she effectively subsumes her identity under his, so I don’t know if that situation is much better. Even though he’s dead, Rose is only able to achieve any sense of empowerment by latching onto a man.

Originally posted 11/27/2006; updated 6/15/2009

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