This week’s post is going to be difficult because I just got out of “Cabin in the Woods,” and I’m still picking up pieces of my brain from the floor of the theater.
Anyway, (seriously, don’t read this blog, go see “Cabin in the Woods” and come back later) with the re-release of Titanic in 3D, I thought I would share my thoughts on this movie, and how people can turn on movies just for being insanely popular.
“Titanic” was the first non-kids movie I ever saw in the theater. I saw it with my Mom when I was 9. The most memorable thing about seeing it then was my mom desperately trying to cover my eyes during the Kate Winslet portrait scene, and how blown away I was by the movie’s sheer spectacle.
So here’s the question: is “Titanic” good? Overall, yes. Contrary to the IMDb boards, this isn’t the worst movie ever made. Far from it. This film’s strengths and weaknesses can easily be split into two halves: James Cameron the writer, and James Cameron the director.
I’m not bothering with a plot synopsis, since everyone has seen this movie: Titanic sets sail, two people fall in love, boat sinks, Leo dies. That’s pretty much it. Since this movie took over the world in 1997, its become a bit of a punching bag among people who don’t want to admit they liked this movie because it’s a “chick flick.” But, more on that later. I saw this movie on HBO again 2 summers ago, so it’s pros and cons are still fairly fresh in my mind.
Let’s start with what doesn’t work: the script. Here’s where I stand with Mr. Cameron: James Cameron the filmmaker is a genius. James Cameron the writer, however, is a fucking hack (you know who isn’t a hack? Joss Whedon, who co-wrote “Cabin in the Woods,” which you should see). The central love story between Jack (Leo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) is really broadly written. All the 1st class passengers, where Rose is, are rich snobs, and everyone in 3rd class where Jack is are impoverished and lovable. Some of the dialogue is cringe-inducing (“I’m flying, Jack!”) and too contemporary. Jack talks like someone from 1997, not 1912. And then there is the Cal problem. Cal, played by Billy Zane, is Rose’s fiance, and is an over-the-top douchebag. William Goldman, one of the greatest screenwriters who ever lived, has a great essay where he calls Cal the most useless character in movie history. He’s probably right. He exists only to be a jerk, his character has no arc whatsoever. It doesn’t help that Zane is hilariously over-the-top in his performance. The scene where he flips out on Rose and flips the table (not on YouTube) is more funny than menacing.
But the weaknesses in the script are helped by two things: the acting and the structural clarity. With clarity, what I mean is that Cameron is a very fluid, if problematic, storyteller. His movies never become incoherent. We always know who the characters are and what is happening with them, even when the boat starts sinking. That may sound like a minor point, but in movies these days, especially action movies, directors don’t care about that, they just want more explosions and camera tricks (see Bay, Michael). Another thing that helps is that DiCaprio and Winslet are fantastic together. They transcend the crudeness of the writing with vivid, impassioned performances; you really believe these two are in love. DiCaprio hasn’t been as relaxed or charismatic in any movie since, and Winslet finds the steel-willed woman buried underneath Rose’s constricted exterior.
With these flaws, why is Titanic still a good movie? Easy: the second half. All of the bad dialogue and melodrama goes away once the iceberg hits the boat. The second half of Titanic is the greatest disaster movie ever made by far, and has some of the greatest filmmaking ever done. Period. Watching the Titanic sink is an amazing sight, and Cameron’s wizardry with combining practical sets and CGI is amazing. This is a greater achievement than “Avatar” I think, since so much of Titanic is done with mechanical effects. Titanic didn’t deserve Best Picture at the Oscars that year, but Cameron absolutely deserved to win Best Director.
I think the reason people rip this movie so much is because of its popularity; this happens with every piece of pop-culture, especially movies. I actually like it when things I like become popular; great art is best when experienced and discussed with others. I might write an entire post someday about this issue, but in Titanic’s case, it just really annoys me. There is nothing wrong with enjoying this movie (or Cabin in the Woods, which you should see).
So overall, Titanic is a mediocre, but well-acted, movie for the first 90 minutes and an absolute masterpiece for the last 90 minutes. Except for that nightmare of a Celine Dion song. That really is awful. Go see Cabin in the Woods.