Titanic – A Grandiose Epic of Human Tragedy

I will admit that I am a big history nerd. I really am. My “to read” list is full of books about history and historical figures, both fiction and non-fiction. My favorite era in history is from the Civil War to the 1920s. Granted, the beginning of that period is nothing like the end of it, but there’s something to it that I love to focus on and read about.

One of the major, cataclysmic events towards the end of that era is the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912. I think most people know the well-worn, tragic story of the ship. The Titanic, The Unsinkable Ship, sank on its maiden voyage to New York after it impacted an iceberg. Following that disaster in which more than 1,500 people needlessly died, sweeping new regulations went into effect that forever changed maritime law.

When it comes to the depiction of that event both then and in the modern day, there are a number of documentaries, books, and articles that help to dispel myths about the ship and to keep the memory alive of those lost. But when it comes to feature films, there are decidedly few choices. In fact, there are only really two movies that deal with the subject.  The first is the 1953 version of Titanic.

The second and one of the most well-known and commercially successful movies of all time is Titanic, James Cameron’s 194-minute love epic of the ill-fated voyage. This movie was nominated 14 times at the 70th Academy Awards and won 11, one of three films to win that many, the others being Ben-Hur (1959) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). It was the first movie to ever gross more than $1 billion during its run, remained the number one movie for a record 15 straight weeks and had a theatrical run of almost 10 months.

When I was analyzing this movie, though, I had to take the hype and success out of my field of view and rate it based on an honest opinion. And, well, my opinion is good.

Titanic is the first movie of 2018 for me and it’s aged well over the 20 or so years since its initial release. Hidden within this piercing human tragedy (which Cameron doesn’t shy away from) is a tender, emotional love story, as well as criticism of wealth and snobbery. It’s obviously a multi-layered film that will live on for generations. And that doesn’t include the dazzling special effects and the fact that this was a damned difficult movie to make.

Anyway, here’s the rest of the story:

Plot

I hate to spoil it here, but the Titanic sinks. I spent the movie hoping it didn’t, but it sure does. The tale in Cameron’s movie swirls around two unlikely people, upscale and wealthy Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and the poverty-stricken artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). The story is told through a 100-year old Rose in the present day. Rose boards Titanic trapped in an unhealthy engagement to the villainous Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Rose, seeing no end to her misery, decides to take her own life. Jack talks her out of it. Throughout the movie, they fall in love and stick together despite protests from her fiancé and her family.

But the plot has many layers which keep an ordinary story going. These include Rose’s family being buried in debt, the regret of Captain E. J. Smith (Bernard Hill) for pushing Titanic despite multiple iceberg warnings, and the shame of Thomas Andrews (the ship’s architect, played by Victor Garber) and J. Bruce Ismay (the chair of the White Star Line, played by Jonathan Hyde) on the sinking of the ship.

But Titanic’s plot does more than providing us a simple story, it adds a great human element to the tragedy. I think that we, as humans, have a hard time truly digesting large losses of life. It’s probably a defense mechanism by the brain. They’re still more than tragic, though. But, when you add faces and names to people who have been lost, then it hits home more than it would a movie about the disaster. When it comes to the plot, it’s not overly original. It’s a love story, after all. However, Titanic excels in marrying the plot to the backdrop and enhancing the audience experience. 1.

Writing/Dialogue

Titanic’s director James Cameron also wrote the movie. To say that the writing is flat would be an understatement. This is particularly true with Jack Dawson. Rose’s room is in First Class, meaning she’s with the elite during the trip. Her speech is very prim and proper, which is obviously indicative of her background. Jack is in Third Class and he’s more the common man. Therefore, he speaks more colloquially and at the same level that most of the audience will.

Jack has a nasty habit of saying exactly what the audience is thinking or narrating what is happening on-screen. There’s one moment near the end of the movie when Jack and Rose are trying to make their way to the stern of the ship and they have to cross different decks that are at different levels. Jack tells Rose to jump down to the deck below them even though she’s obviously going to do that.

Additionally, Cameron has each of the characters refer to each other by name often throughout the movie. While this is certainly needed early to introduce characters, there’s no need for it later on. Yet, they still do it. It’s nice to know who the characters are talking to and about, but that also shows how busy the movie is. A multi-layered plot isn’t bad, but you have to keep it simple enough so the audience can keep up with the cues rather than holding their hand. 0.

Sound

Alright, now we’re getting to the point where Titanic kills it and becomes a great movie. Many movies that I’ve reviewed up to this point have been light on music throughout the film. Titanic does not fit into that category. However, that’s not a bad thing, either. In fact, it’s terrific. James Horner composed the score for this movie and that earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score. Horner’s score is grandiose and sweeping, fitting of a grand epic like Titanic. It’s revolutionary in its use of subtle synthetics to complement a light, stringy orchestra and breathtaking vocals. The melancholy bits give the listener a sense of sadness but also hope for a new day.

Titanic won an Oscar for Best Original Song with “My Heart Will Go On” which was performed by Céline Dion.

Also, Titanic won two other Oscars for sound: Best Sound and Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing. 1.

Set Design

When I watch any movie I review, I try to take copious notes. I divide the notes into the seven categories that I talk about here and then some general notes about the movie as a whole. Well, I only wrote down two words when it comes to the set design: “holy crap.” Well, “holy crap” is right.

First of all, there is no detail left out of this movie. This goes all the way down to the wood carvings on staircases and the Victorian style of all the furniture. Each of the crew members has “White Star Line” embroidered on their clothing, adding a ton of realism.

But more than that, this movie excels because of what they do to the set. First of all, an almost perfect scale model of the Titanic was constructed in a 17 million gallon tank. Then the ship was sunk. Second, each of the interior rooms was reconstructed to the exact size with the same details and finish as the original thing. I could really go on and on about Cameron and production designer Peter Lamont’s attention to detail, but I don’t have room in this blog. The Titanic won Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Direction and Best Costume Design. 1.

Cinematography

It’s not often in a Best Picture winner that the special effects steal the show when it comes to cinematography, but the effects do in Titanic. This movie was a massive undertaking from the start and it required top-notch effects. The digital recreations of the ship and her sinking are done beautifully and flawlessly. This was the movie that set the standard for years to come in terms of special effects.

The other thing that stood out to me was the number of camera movements. It seems like it never sits still. But the movements vary, too. Sometimes they’re subtle and other times they’re not. It’s used to bring you into the action or to break up what is otherwise a long shot.

Finally, the scenes that are outside when it’s light out make great use of sunshine. They’re all shot at the “golden hour” or when the sunlight is the least intense. The best use of all three of these elements can be seen in this clip, or the famous, “I’m flying” scene.

Overall, Titanic is a beautifully shot movie. What I’ve mentioned here doesn’t even go into detail the soft, yet rich colors of the movie or the fact that all the shipwreck shots are from the actual shipwreck. This movie won a pair of Oscars for cinematography: Best Cinematography and Best Effects, Visual Effects. 1.

Acting

Like I said before, there are many different elements at play by several different characters, but the story of course centers around Rose and Jack.

Kate Winslet (Rose DeWitt Bukater) Kate Winslet received a Best Actress nomination for her role as Rose and this was a terrific performance. Rose is often moody, detached and impulsive, yet you fall in love with her just the same. She’s fiercely loyal to Jack. Yet, she still has to discover those traits about herself. For Rose, Titanic is her coming-of-age story and Winslet plays that role perfectly. She goes from being prim and mostly well-mannered in the beginning to openly rebelling and siding with what she loves. She bucks the trend of women just falling into line behind their husbands. She wants to be her own person. Winslet excels in the role. Rose is often conflicted and she expresses that conflict simply yet effectively.

Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack Dawson) This movie was the first of seven Best Picture winners or nominees that DiCaprio has starred in and he was only in his early 20s at the time.  Jack Dawson plays a very interesting role in this movie. He’s smart on his feet, always happy go lucky and he doesn’t care about class or wealth. But his character doesn’t change, his arc is just a line. He’s always the same. But that’s okay in this instance. The story is told from Rose’s perspective and she falls in love with Jack just the way he is. So, why should he change? DiCaprio takes this role and runs with it, displaying that charming smile at every chance and always having a little pep in his step.

It’s also worth mentioning that the famous drawing scene in which Jack draws Rose naked was their first scene to shoot when making Titanic. 1.

Directing

When I was brainstorming this, I thought how fascinating James Cameron’s career was in all of this. Titanic is the stand-alone oddball amongst his filmography. He’s done Terminator, Aliens, and Avatar, all of them great science fiction films. Yet, Titanic is the only historical love story he’s done. But it wasn’t stretch for him to do this movie.

Cameron is obsessed with shipwrecks and submersibles. In fact, he’s one of just three people to be to the deepest place on Earth, the Challenger Deep. Throughout the film, he uses footage from the actual Titanic wreckage during some of his 33 dives to that site.

Because of his fascination with the ship, his commitment to telling its story the right way was was unparalleled. The detail of the whole movie plus the immensely personal tale makes Titanic one of the best historical feature films ever done. So much so, that Cameron won Best Director for his effort.

Visually stunning, heartbreaking and impressive in its scope and ambition certainly send Titanic over the top. And, while the final score won’t indicate it, this is one of those movies that will live on. Or, its heart will go on. 1.

Bonus Points

I have to give a bonus point to each the sound, specifically the score, and the cinematography, due to the impressive special effects.

Final Score: 8/10

Oscar Facts

Titanic won the 70th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 23, 1998, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Billy Crystal hosted the event. The award for Best Picture was presented by Sean Connery and accepted by the producers, James Cameron and Jon Landau. In all, Titanic won 11 Academy Awards out of its 14 nominations. It beat out As Good as It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting and L.A. Confidential for the award.

Other winners that night included Jack Nicholson winning Best Actor for his role in As Good as It Gets and Helen Hunt winning Best Actress for her role in the same movie. Robin Williams won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Good Will Hunting and Kim Basinger won Best Supporting Actress for L.A. Confidential.

Upcoming

Next week, I’ll take a look at the first of Frank Capra’s two Best Picture winners in It Happened One Night. After that, it’s the second Capra piece from 1938 You Can’t Take It With You. Then it’s The Deer Hunter, No Country For Old Men, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Dances With Wolves.

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