James Cameron’s Titanic is not about the famed shipwreck at all, but instead about the brief romance between Jack Dawswon (DiCaprio) and Rose Bukater (Winslet). Where in a romantic comedy, the couple will have a slight misunderstanding that breaks them apart for some time before they both realize what fools they have been, the formula is different for a drama. Someone’s gotta die. And that someone is 1500 of the passengers on board the Titanic.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story is told by Rose. In 1917, she was a rich girl who had grown bored with the lifestyle. She was always going to fancy soirees and eating caviar and it was all just so boring for her. She needed the adventure that a life with the poor people could bring. Which is how she came to fall in love with Jack, a poor boy who subsists by gambling. Rose only sees Jack as a delightful misanthrope aboard a luxury liner and falls for him. She never has to know anything about the scrounging that he has to do to survive in everyday life.
As an added bonus, becoming enamored with Jack is enough to draw Rose’s wedding to her pre-selected husband into question and to make her mother positively furious. It’s a win-win for everybody. Rose’s fiance (Billy Zane) makes it easy on everybody by being utterly evil. Thank god for easy choices, amirite? Why bother with three dimensional characters with actual motivations when it’s easier to set it up as the lonely girl choosing the good guy over the bad guy? Wait, why was Billy Zane so damn determined to steal Rose’s heart again? Never mind, never mind. Jack draws women naked: isn’t that risque, and yet another way to get on the nerves of everybody in first class?
If it weren’t for that iceberg, there would be little to the plot of Titanic other than an unlikeable girl fooling around with an uninteresting boy in a ship’s cargo hold. But the iceberg does come, and with it the action-packed final leg of this three-hour film. As the water level rises inside the ship, the tension mounts and the James Cameron of Aliens and Terminator begins to show up a little bit. The lights flicker, the hallways narrow and fill with rushing water. It’s a claustrophobic feeling which works, but…
It’s constantly cutting away to annoying subplots. Molly Brown and her feigned heroism. Jack’s stereotypical Italian friend who is absent through most of the movie, but appears near the end in order to take part in a rough showdown with an upper class fellow holding a gun. The captain, walking around the ship in a daze – did he do any captaining at all?
The catastrophic climax to the film could almost have saved the movie from its tired first half, but the disaster isn’t shown in any real human terms. Oh yes, there are many people running and sliding and screaming and climbing over one another. But none of these people are actually people, so much as characters… and not even that, so much as setpieces. There were a lot of people on the Titanic, so the movie sees fit to show a lot of people on the Titanic. These people have no personality, no humanity at all. Whether they live or die is inconsequential. When a man jumps from the ship and hits the propeller, it brings a strangely empty feeling. He was nameles, faceless… we only know him as a man because of the shape of his form. Perhaps the over-reliance on CGI is to blame as well. We all know that special effects are notorious for not holding up over time, and the graphics of 1997 often look poor by today’s standards.
And then it’s 102-year old Rose providing bookend narration for the film, and doing what all old women are obligated to do in the movies: swear. Because it’s funny. And then… well, I won’t give the ending away, but suffice it to say that what the movie tries to position as a romantic gesture actually comes across as a profoundly pointless one when looked at from outside the, ahem, rose-tinted lenses of the storyteller.
So. Altogether, Titanic is a long movie with an overly simple plot. Some minor characters disappear and reappear without any reason for doing so, and some major characters’ storylines end abruptly without any conclusion. It’s a shaky movie; one that’s remained in the culture’s memory, maybe… but far from a classic.
This review was written 11/03/2009.