Disaster movies have been popular for years. Take many big name (and not so big name) celebrities, place them in a dangerous setting, add incredible special effects, then watch them survive (or die trying).
There were disaster films set in airplanes (“Airport” and its many sequels) capsizing ships (“The Poseidon Adventure,”) burning buildings (“Towering Inferno,”) cities destroyed by things from outer space (“Meteor,” “Fire in the sky,”) as wells as floods, fires, earthquakes and all kinds of other celluloid catastrophes.
So when I first heard about Titanic, I was anticipating another disaster film. One with a very, very large budget, but still a disaster film. The Poseidon Adventure part II, perhaps.
Oh, my, was I wrong. And so was everyone else.
This film affects each one who sees it in a unique and personal way, and after three viewing I feel I must share my impressions. Simply put, you MUST see this film. You must experience one of the grander offerings Hollywood has given us while it’s on the big screen. You must experience this story for yourself.
Women who see Titanic are sobbing at the end. Big, burly guys leave red-eyed, sniffling. You can’t help it. Often we go to the movies and our minds wander, or we leave to go the bathroom or buy more popcorn. Not this time. With this movie, no one leaves. People lean forward in their chairs watching the drama unfold. They’re spellbound.
For three and a half hours you leave the theater and go back to that terrible night of April 15, 1912. You see this film and you think, “this is what movie making is supposed to be about.” Epic. Larger than life. Pure escapism. And much more.
Why is this film such a success? Why are people seeing it again and again? Why the Golden Globe awards and a sure-fire Oscar night sweep?
Well, there are many reasons, and the first is realism. History, by and large, can be a pretty dry subject. There are facts, figures and events, but often there’s no personal connection. The words, “Titanic hit an iceberg and 1500 people died when it sank,” are just words. Sure, it must have been very catastrophic, but we never met any of those people. That was 85 years ago. It doesn’t convey any sense of tragedy.
Where Titanic succeeds first — and it does so on many levels — is that its realism is so striking that you feel as though one of the passengers was filming the entire event with a camcorder. Every detail (costumes, props, mannerisms, dress, sets, china patterns, etc.) is so perfectly recreated that very quickly you forget you’re watching a movie. The illusion is so perfect that you never once think of what you’re seeing as a “re-creation.” The verisimilitude is tangible.
As such, you cringe as people die. You feel the panic as people fight for a slot on one of the few remaining lifeboats. As the water rises and crashes through staterooms and corridors, your pulse quickens. You shudder at the lifeless bodies bobbing in the frigid Atlantic. You almost feel the cold. You watch an “unsinkable” ship be consumed by the unforgiving sea.
“But this ship can’t sink!” Ismay cries.
And Titanic’s builder, Andrews, replies, “She is made of iron, sir. I assure you, she can. And she will. It is a mathematical certainty.” You know the ship is doomed. And you are a witness to its sinking.
This is no fictitious ship or skyscraper, but a very real ocean liner whose actual twisted wreckage on the floor of the Atlantic is seamlessly matched with the recreations of those long ago days.
You see the history, and you learn. You learn what a beautiful ship Titanic was, how strong, how fast. A ship of dreams. You learn why the ship sank, and how. You learn that the band played on deck until the ship sank, and that the lights stayed on almost until the same time. That the ship broke in half after lifting its stern into the air. You learn how human arrogance led to the disaster. You might have known some of these things before, but now they seem more real. Almost like you were really there.
But what makes the film such a true success is the love story. Rose DeWitt Bukater, an upper-class American suffocating under the strict expectations of high society, and Jack Dawson, a free-spirited poor boy, never really sailed aboard Titanic, but they — and the characters around them — are so well-written and acted that you believe they might have. They could have. For three and a half hours, they really did.
No one in this film is a cartoon stereotype. Even Rose’s icy mother, who on the outside appears to be just a stuffy, aloof high-society woman, is revealed to be on the verge of poverty, desperately trying to marry Rose into wealth. “We’re women,” she laments sadly. “Our choices are few.” The dramatic class war between first class and steerage is complex and vivid. First class socializes in stuffy formal tea, cigar and dinner parties. They’re dull and bored. Below decks, the “have nots” have rowdy, wild step dancing parties filled with music, singing, laughter, arm-wrestling and much drinking. They have nothing, yet they need nothing — absolute joy permeates the air. Attending such a party, Rose cuts loose and has a wonderful time. “Money can’t buy happiness” never seemed more obvious.
As disaster strikes and the “haves” wonder if the lifeboats will be loaded by class, the “have nots” merely fight for their right to be rescued as well. And for many of the lower class, there is a quiet dignity as they accept the inevitable (a mother tucking her children in bed as others scramble to escape), while the rich use any means to escape the doomed ship (Cal using someone else’s child as a ticket onto the “women and children only” lifeboat).
Titanic is filled with powerful scenes. Rose’s wordless observation of a little girl being trained in the proper way to sit up straight at a table and fold a napkin — the look on Rose’s face conveys her rejection for that code of conduct and way of life.
A father consoles his sobbing children and wife as they board a life boat, “Don’t cry … It’s OK, they have another boat for the daddies.” But the look between husband and wife says it all: I’ll never see you again.
In another scene, you marvel at the kind way “Unsinkable” Molly Brown fondly looks after Jack and lends him a tuxedo. Throughout the film, you believe that 101 old Rose holds a love for Jack that has withstood 84 years. In a tasteful and non-explicit scene, as Rose and Jack make love for the first time, you feel the passion they share, and you believe they are really in love.
Despite the tragedy, the film is also surprisingly filled with many scenes that make you smile or are very humorous. The amusing way Jack — clearly a fish out of water — attempts to emulate the walk and gestures of the upper class is very funny and endearing. Jack teaching Rose to spit — something she admits she never learned in finishing school — shows the different worlds they come from. And in the memorable scene where Jack sketches Rose in the nude, Rose teases him: “I believe you are blushing, Mr. Big Artist. I can’t imagine Monsieur Monet blushing.” “He does landscapes,” Jack replies.
James Horner’s soundtrack is haunting and beautiful, and as the credits roll and Celine Dion’s “My heart will go on” begins to play, you’ll just be staring at the screen, amazed at how perfect a movie-going experience can be. “Love can touch us on
e time / and last for a lifetime.” Expect a sweep on Oscar night. But for now, go see Titanic. You must see this film while it’s on the big screen.
When you do, then you’ll understand.