“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“I mean, I got everything I need right here with me. I got air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper.”
Titanic plays a pretty important role in my development as a movie nerd. It came out when I was about 16, and like everyone else alive at the time, I saw it in the cinema. It was important because it was the first time I was really consciously aware that big budget, prestige movie making didn’t make a movie exempt from predictable clichés and lazy story telling. Before that time, I’d recognised predictability and familiar structure in cheap comedies and bad horror. But for some reason, I thought movies like this were above it.
Then I spent three hours in a cinema with Titanic refusing to surprise me in any way. I haven’t watched it since, hoping and assuming that I never would have to. Then I decided to do this AFI countdown, and shot myself in the foot. So, almost two decades later, does Titanic still live down to my huge disappointment?
In a totally pointless framing device, a present day (1997) salvage crew lead by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) searches the wreckage of the Titanic, looking for a priceless necklace thought to have been on board when it sunk. They don’t find the necklace, but they do find a sketch of topless young dolly bird wearing it. When the sketch is shown on the news, an old woman claiming to be that once topless dolly bird ends up telling her story to Brock and his crew.
Flashing back to 1912, we learn that the topless dolly bird is Rose (Kate Winslet), a rich and privileged American, boarding the Titanic for its maiden voyage with her disapproving, stuck up mother Ruth (Frances Fisher), and disapproving, stuck up fiancé, Cal (Billy Zane). In a bar nearby, a young American artist Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) wins third class tickets on the same voyage and gets ready to return home.
Separated by the class structure of the time, Jack notices the first class Rose from his third class deck and is told in some clunky exposition by a clunky Irish character that there’s no point even imagining a life like that. Later that night, this poor little rich girl decides that all her money, privilege and advantages are too much to bare and decides to throw herself off the ship. In a situation that only a sociopath like James Cameron would consider a meet-cute, Jack talks her off the ledge. Invited to dinner with Cal and the rest of the swells as a thank you, Jack gets to experience a little bit of first class life. Soon, they’re in love and trying to figure how they could ever make it work. Oh, and the ship hits an iceberg, causing it to sink in the middle of the freezing cold Atlantic Ocean.
I tried to go into this viewing of the Titanic with an open mind and fresh eyes. Really, I did. I tried to leave behind the two decades cynicism and aggravation that I’ve associated with this movie since that fateful, boring day in the 90s. But it just wouldn’t let me. And I put all of the blame on James Cameron’s horrible, horrible screenplay. I assume that because so much effort and hard work went into the visuals and ground breaking technology of this movie, that he just didn’t have time to do any more than a first draft of his script. Because at best, the screenplay for Titanic is amateur, at worst lazy.
None of these characters a real, believable people. They’re broad stereotypes there to do nothing more than quickly and efficiently get their stereotypical points of view across. All poor people are salt of the earth, all rich people are ruthless and controlling. Above, I referred to the Rose character as a “poor little rich girl”. At one stage, she literally accuses Jack of seeing her as nothing but a “poor little rich girl”. What that tells me is, Cameron recognised this problem with his script, and thought fixing it was as simple as having Rose tell Jack (and the audience) that she’s not that at all. But having her say it, then in no way ever show it through her actions, doesn’t quite fix the problem.
I will say this about Titanic though, almost 20 years on, the visuals, the special effects and the overall style of it still look incredible. I can kind of understand how people were tricked into thinking it was an amazing movie, because from a technology standpoint, it is. But from as an artistic endeavour, it’s couldn’t be any emptier or less satisfying.
Best Art Direction
Best Visual Effects
Best Costume Design
Best Original Score
Best Original Song