Can James Cameron's epic Titanic possibly live up to the expectations freighted onto it by a desperate film industry and a globe-full of jaded moviegoers longing for the ultimate blockbuster? In the event, the film is undeniably spectacular but also, in many respects, very ordinary.
Cameron aims for something more than a mere disaster movie illustrating a famous historic incident. He fills out his canvas by providing a human interest story – that's roughly two hours worth of slender human interest before the sustained hour of impressive carnage as the ship fills with water, splits and sinks.
This is essentially the tale of two blazing, young creatures, Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rose is about to be married off to the pale, mercenary, conformist Cal (Billy Zane), but her heart is elsewhere: she's a modern gal who reads Freud and gushes over her personal collection of Picasso paintings. Jack is a wild, free-living boy born under a wandering star. These two are destined to collide and scandalise polite society – that is, until catastrophe intervenes.
Cameron wraps this story inside another, contemporary one. A team of explorers search the wreckage of the old ship for an item of jewellery that is worth a tidy fortune. Their hi-tech scavenging turns up a tantalising, anonymous sketch of a naked girl. Rose, now a frail, old woman, sees this picture of herself (drawn by Jack) and comes forth to tell all.
There is no doubting the effortless, star charisma of DiCaprio and Winslet. DiCaprio exudes an enviable naturalness on screen. The role of Jack allows him to be, by turns and sometimes all at once, strong, sensitive, artistic, romantic and courageous. Winslet has the harder part – since she has to spend much of her time standing up to dummies – but her amorous clinches with DiCaprio have a fine tension and chemistry.
Speaking of dummies, we come to the first of Titanic's structural flaws. Cameron – who could perhaps have allocated a little of his three-hundred-and-thirty-million-dollar budget on script revisions by a writer other than himself – loads the story in favour of his beautiful heroes, and against just about everyone else. All the upper-class representatives (including Rose's mother) are prissy, forbidding, joyless types. They are one-dimensional caricatures set up in order to be easily skittled.
Wouldn't the ultimate disaster on board have counted for more if we felt some compassion or understanding for this passing parade of characters about to meet their doom? Cameron's decision to rob them of much humanity means that, instead of drawing some pathos from the spectacle of their demise, he is forced to skip lightly over the gruesome details of this vast human tragedy. Or – and this is less forgivable – he exploits our easy glee at seeing the flagged baddies get their fatal comeuppance.
Titanic is based, from first moment to last, on a static, simplistic, binary opposition between upper and lower classes. Cameron's earnestness and insistence on this point becomes, for me, unintentionally comic. The rich folks on the top deck dance stiffly, speak in whispers and eat delicately; while the proletarian mass below deck engages in non-stop raucous partying, folk jiving and chummy brawling. It's all a bit like the lurid diagram of class and power in Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis (1926) – but without the dynamism and variety.
Why are the framing stories in contemporary Hollywood movies – the narrative devices that trigger a look-back into some dark, buried or forgotten tale – so often creaky and corny? The present-day section is certainly the worst part of Titanic. Bill Paxton leads a crew of nerdy professionals who could have stepped straight out of Twister (1996). Their patter about the Titanic and their exploratory mission – predictably divided between rapt and cynical responses – is naïve and awkwardly staged. Even the spectacle of dear old Rose, a few touching moments aside, becomes wearying.
Cameron has rightly pointed out: "All my films are love stories". To be more precise, his movies tend to be about a passionate love that is formed – or tested – within a dramatic crucible of life-threatening, almost apocalyptic proportions. This is true of The Terminator (1984), in which a man travels back in time for his rendezvous with romantic destiny; and of The Abyss (1989), a bold and somewhat underrated drama of remarriage that is still, for me, his best work.
Titanic shares with The Abyss a fascination with the ocean – both for its physical and symbolic properties. Water dazzles and overwhelms (like love), it blocks and destroys (like a repressive society), it hides and erases traces (like history). One of the film's most striking details is a simple, almost throwaway line of dialogue, after all the expensive special effects have played through. Old Rose, having confided her life story to the investigating team, re-draws the veil over her experiences, explaining: "A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets".
Titanic is not exactly a dud. Its love story has an elemental power, and the elaborate sequences devoted to the disaster contain many thrilling moments. Ultimately, it is Cameron's overweening ambition to overlay a grand journey of the human spirit atop all the thrills, spills and clinches which hobbles his epic, rendering it enjoyable but mediocre.
© Adrian Martin December 1997