Main      Site Guide    
At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Titanic (1997)



Reviews and Comments

During production, James Cameron's Titanic encountered delay after delay and exceeded its budget by leaps and bounds. Without adjusting for inflation, it swiftly became the most expensive movie ever made, costing over 200 million dollars. Studio executives were panicked. A rumor surfaced that an executive from Paramount and an executive from 20th Century Fox (the two studios which split production costs) got into a fist fight over it. Many people -- from marketing executives to the casual movie fan -- were predicting a financial disaster. After all, who's going to pay to see a 194 minute historical romance with a known ending and no A-list stars that would open opposite James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies?

If you'll permit me a moment of self-indulgence, I state with pride that I was not among these naysayers. I predicted Titanic would surprise a lot of people. I predicted it would not only be a commercial success but also a good film, and that the knowledge that the ship sinks in the end would make the film more effective, not less.

At the box office, Titanic proved unstoppable. It made far more than even I was predicting, earning over 25 million dollars for each of seven straight weekends, emerging on the top ten list of the highest grossing films ever in that time and showed no signs of slowing down. It became the first movie to exceed $500 million and the first movie to exceed $600 million in the domestic box office, and the first movie to exceed $1 billion in the foreign box office.

And the amazing thing is, it's a genuinely great film, again surpassing my high expectations. 194 minutes passed quickly for me -- a remarkable achievement given that the first two hours is essentially a love story with the famous doomed ship and her own tale a glorified backdrop. In the final hour, when the ship is in its painful death throes, it wasn't the spectacle of the disaster or the special effects I was watching. I was watching the characters. I was watching with rapt fascination to see how they would act in the crisis.

That's how movies should be. Films should be about their characters, not about their special effects or action sequences. In most "big" movies, we're there to be dazzled by amazing sights and narrow escapes. Most of the time action heroes are interchangeable. In Titanic, the special effects are stunning, yet they stay, as they should, in strict service to the story and its characters.

It's a love story, as I mentioned before. Leonardo DiCaprio (made an A-list star by this film) plays a poor wanderer who wins a ticket aboard the Titanic in a game of poker. Kate Winslet plays an unhappy member of an upper class family who feels suffocated by the rigidity of the social convention imposed on the rich. She's driven almost to suicide; fortunately for her, she runs into DiCaprio and thus begins a romance as grand and glorious as the Titanic herself. But there's Billy Zane to contend with, Winslet's cold, arrogant betrothed. And Winslet's mother, deathly afraid of losing her social stature.

Although some of the co-stars seem stock, there's depth and purpose to them beyond the usual usages of these character types. But the two main characters, DiCaprio's and Winslet's, are fascinating. They have a wonderful on-screen chemistry and are both deeply human and larger than life. Put in other terms, these are characters easy to relate to and understand, yet there's something dramatic and heroic about them that inspires awe and wonder.

The tragic sinking, when it comes, is brutal and heartrending. It's also meticulously well constructed. The beginning of the film contains a sequence that takes place in the modern day, where the stages of the Titanic's sinking are described in detail. Hence, when the sinking is depicted for real, the viewer knows exactly what's going on. And Cameron took great pains to make the details as accurate as possible. He looked at old photographs, read accounts from the survivors, and incorporated many of the factual elements he found into the film -- details few would ever recognize and appreciate. He was pretty accurate with regard to time, too. The actual sinking of the ship took upwards of two and a half hours. In the film, it takes about half that, but I suspect most of the time that was cut was from the early stages, before people realized what was going on.

And boy is it brutal. I walked away from Titanic emotionally wrenched in a way very few movies have ever done. I wasn't able to feel the supreme satisfaction of having viewed a great work of art right off -- initially, I was overwrought with the feeling that I had experienced this historical tragedy as closely as I ever could without actually being there. 1500 people died when the Titanic sank. But they weren't a collective statistic. They were real people.

As technology strides ahead almost too quickly for us to keep up, the sinking of the Titanic may be one of the most important lessons humanity should take to heart. The great ship was unsinkable. We had conquered nature. Nothing could withstand this colossal monument to human progress.

Its maiden voyage proved how wrong we were.