Hey, any of you guys ever seen TITANIC? It’s one of the later movies from the guy who did TERMINATOR. Bill Paxton stars as Brock Lovett, a deep sea explorer using THE ABYSS-style equipment to search the wreckage of the Titanic for a lost diamond. Along the way he meets Rose (Gloria Stuart), a 101 year old survivor of the famous shipwreck who teaches him valuable life lessons and what not. Also there are some flashbacks featuring Kate Winslet (HEAVENLY CREATURES ) as the younger Rose and Leonardo Dicaprio (THE QUICK AND THE DEAD), but don’t worry, he’s not supposed to be young Bill Paxton, he’s a different character.
Really, I’m surprised you guys haven’t heard of this. It was a pretty big deal at the time from what I remember.
I’d seen TITANIC exactly once before watching it again recently, and it was pretty much how I remembered. This is the worst writing Cameron has done (including his emails to Harry) and his most one-dimensional characters since Sarah Connor’s roommate in THE TERMINATOR. They’re all one-sided coins. Rose is practically a Disney Princess – feisty rich girl who ruffles the collars of her uptight mother and society friends by questioning their prim and proper lifestyle and not wanting to marry the asshole businessman (Billy Zane, SNIPER) she seems to be arranged to marry. Jack (DiCaprio) is the perfect dream boy fling for her: funny, brave, sensitive, an artist, a world traveler, a peasant, possibly a beat poet. He makes the hobo lifestyle sound thrilling and romantic, free of bad teeth or the smell of urine.
And they both find themselves talking constantly about their lifestyles. Jack is downright evangelical about his, he believes you have to have fun all the time, go where the wind takes you. You need to enjoy your life now, not later, because you never know what’s gonna happen. I mean you really, really never know. Absolutely anything could happen. You’re never safe, even on a boat like this where people are always commenting on how unsinkable it is. I mean, I can’t imagine that anything bad would happen on this particular trip obviously, but in general, after they get off the boat, they gotta appreciate every day like it’s the last day before they crash into an iceberg and freeze to death in the water.
But I don’t know, for some reason I forgive some of that aggressive corniness in a romantic melodrama/boat-destruction extravaganza like this. I have a harder time with Billy Zane’s character. This is a movie where the boat everybody’s on sinks – you don’t need to have an evil bad guy. The iceberg seems sympathetic compared to this prick. He spends the whole movie proving what a dick he is: making classist comments, bragging about being an important businessman, bossing Rose around, saying that Picasso sucks and will never amount to anything, trying to bribe his way onto a lifeboat, even snatching a kid and pretending to be her parent when the bribe doesn’t work. Everything short of building a diabolical machine that turns peasants into delicious bon bons.
There’s a moment after Rose has re-boarded the sinking ship to be with Jack, and Zane looks heartbroken. You have about 2 seconds to think “Maybe he’s human after all” before he pulls out a gun and it turns into a chase and shootout. This is a terrible character. Poor Billy Zane. I know Tom Berenger taught him better than this.
And man, all the heavy-handed irony in this movie! Always nudging us about it’s gonna sink. All the rich people splashing a bunch of hubris around, saying stupid shit about the Titanic being unsinkable and why would you need life boats anyway and we’ll never die and definitely not in the water and there really is no such thing as icebergs anyway it’s just a ghost story that poor people tell. Okay some of that doesn’t happen in the movie, but they do have Rose notice and comment on there not being enough life boats. And she happens to become friends with the designer of the boat so we can hear what he has to say about various things. And they gotta focus on every detail from their research, the exact time when so-and-so made such-and-such fatal call. James Cameron loves the Titanic disaster like Zack Snyder loves the Watchmen comic book.
But still, I’m not questioning the phenomenon of this movie, because I kind of like it. Somehow, despite all that the story pulls me in. Maybe in some way it captures what young love feels like. When you’re that age and you fall head over heels for somebody every dumb moment seems like the most important thing that ever happened. There’s an endless list of legitimate grounds to criticize this movie on, but I always kind of felt people who hated it were a little too hard on it just for appealing to teenage girls. What, they’re not allowed to have movies? I haven’t seen TWILIGHT yet but I bet this is better.
Anyway, for those of us who aren’t teenage girls the main thing is that this is an incredible spectacle, and it seems better and better the more disaster movies Roland Emmerich makes. Cameron had already had alot of practice with water disaster action in THE ABYSS, now he returns with digital technology, an even more gigantic budget and an obsessive drive to recreate every last detail of what happened. So he builds this world of opulence, fancy clothes and pretty sunsets, then he bashes it, snaps it in half and leaves it to freeze to death. You can’t really deny how fascinating it is to watch. I gotta admit I never got bored.
Three hours, twenty minutes and he still doesn’t find much time for subtlety. But he finds some a couple times. My favorite section of the movie is when the band, having been playing through all this panic, says their goodbyes and split up. But the violinist keeps playing. The others hear it and can’t help but come back and join him for one more song. Maybe they’re even thinking it’s the last song they’ll ever play. Definitely the last they’ll play together.
Then as they play the song it shows the designer of the boat and the captain in their own private hells. I think it’s a different scene though where a woman is asking the captain for help. He doesn’t answer, just stumbles away, dazed, into his flooded quarters. For once Cameron knows not to explain it to us. We can imagine what he’s thinking. There he is, that’s the James Cameron I love, the one who knew that Ripley glaring at space marines talking about alien pussy in the messhall said everything we needed to know about her opinion of macho assholes.
You know who gets screwed in this movie? Fabrizio. That’s Jack’s buddy he gets on the boat with. They check into a room together but I think after Jack meets Rose he ditches him. They run into each other while the boat’s sinking, and they hug like old childhood friends running into each other years later. There’s no time to explain that he stopped a rich girl from committing suicide, borrowed a tux, went to dinner, taught her to spit loogies, drew her naked and fucked her in the back of somebody’s car. Jack convinced Fabrizio to come with him, then left him alone and I think he dies, although I could be wrong.
You know, people always joke about TITANIC sequels. Maybe there’s your answer. Maybe Fabrizio had an incredibly romantic escapade of his own. Show the whole thing from his perspective, you get some Leo cameos – this could work.
Another steerage passenger who gets a raw deal is Shine. They don’t even show him. They got the Unsinkable Molly Brown and a Rockefeller but not Shine. I looked and didn’t even see any black people working in the engine room. Dolemite must’ve been pissed when he saw this movie.
Anyway, I get it. Corny as hell, but I gotta admit it’s captiving. It’s harder to understand how it became the unbeatable biggest movie ever. Now when a movie comes along that’s a huge cultural phenomenon and mainstream moneymaker – like DARK KNIGHT, let’s say – it might clean up, but it’s never gonna get close to TITANIC. Why is that? Why this one? I don’t know man, it was just a must-see event. It seemed grownup because it’s sort of based in history, and real life tragedy, so it brought in all those older individuals who only see movies in the theater once or twice a year. But it was also exactly the time when young girls swooned for Leonardo Dicaprio, so it brought in those teenage girls like they were 25 years olds watching Star Wars. And it also had this curiosity factor with all the press about being overbudget and over schedule, most expensive movie ever, groundbreaking special effects, etc. etc. It played for months and months. Most movies these days the theater-to-DVD window is much shorter than just the theatrical run of TITANIC. Everybody had to see it and some had to see it over and over again. Weird.
Also, this is when PG-13 still included boobs, you don’t see that too often anymore. Violence, but not boobs.
In the end though it all comes down to Bill Paxton, and America’s love of stories about sea exploration. That’s just where the zeitgeist was at in ’97. They love those stories about dudes watching monitors with blurry footage of shipwrecks.
On one of the DVDs there’s a much longer ending where Paxton confronts old Rose as she’s about to dump the diamond off the boat, and she ends up letting him touch it before throwing it over and he has learned that there’s more to life than treasure. On the optional audio commentary Cameron explains that when they watched the whole movie with this ending they realized they didn’t care what happened to this character – so if we don’t care about him at the end, why do you think we care about him at the beginning? But actually watching it this time I appreciated the Paxton scenes more. I used to think they were gratuitous overindulgence of Cameron’s sea exploration fetish, but maybe not. Showing Rose in the modern world looking back kind of puts the story in a different context than if it just ended after the crash and gave us some text about what happened to her. It shows her as a woman who lived a whole life instead of just somebody on the Titanic with a corny backstory.
I do have some questions about that ending though. You can interpret it different ways, but it seems most likely to represent her dying and going to a Heaven where everybody from the movie TITANIC is waiting for her triumphant return. So they all spend eternity on the fucking cruise ship? Is this by choice or by law? I mean I guess it’s like living in luxury, and after this long and not being mortal they don’t get too bummed out by the memory of what happened there.
But what about Rose’s husband? That poor sucker is off in some other Heaven thinking he’s waiting for Rose, she goes to Titanic Heaven to be with Jack, some boy she knew for a couple days one time. None of her family knows about him, and I’m not sure they even knew she was on the Titanic judging from her granddaughter’s confusion when she’s interested in a story about the Titanic on TV. This is just a shocking twist. But maybe it’s just because it’s fresh on her mind? What if Bill Paxton hadn’t got her nostalgic about this right before she died, would she have gone off to the afterlife with her husband?
I mean how long would that Jack-Rose relationship have lasted anyway? How long would she have wanted to be dragged along with him, jumping on the back of trains and sleeping under bridges? Once they were familiar with each other’s lifestyles what would they talk about? He better have more in his repertoire than all that seize the day shit. It’s real exciting when she’s pissing off her mom and he’s imploring her to follow her dreams, but what does that relationship look like after they’ve been together a couple years?
I guess they’ll find out now because they’re on the fucking Titanic forever. Maybe that’s what TITANIC 2 should be about, actually: the ghosts of Jack and Rose trying to escape the eternal Titanic. How far can they swim away before the dark spirits swallow them down to Hell? Bill Paxton plays a paranormal investigator. Think about it, Cameron. The technology is ready.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.