Saturday, 7 April 2012

Why I Love Titanic: Part 1

I think I love Titanic more than many (especially men maybe?) but isn’t this new release a bit pointless?

Let me get a couple of things straight.  Firstly, I was always slightly fascinated with the sinking of the legendary ship on its maiden voyage.  Before James Cameron’s film existed, I had read A Night to Remember, a highly detailed and well-researched book about the events that took place that night.  Secondly, I loved the work of director James Cameron.  Terminator 1 and 2 are still two of my favourite films of all time, Aliens is easily the best of that franchise and True Lies is a really fun action movie.  

But on the other hand, in 1997, I was 16 years old and put off by the soppy, romantic look of the film, not to mention Celine Dion hogging the number one spot in the charts.  I was intrigued by stories of the amazing production design and the escalating budget but not enough to make a trip to the cinema.  But then a friend raved about it.  He told me the entire plot and although I didn’t get why an old woman would throw away a priceless necklace at the end, my friend emphasized the fact that pretty much the whole last hour was an action film.

So I went along to see it with the friend who had told me the whole story.  He said he would be happy to see it for a second time which also made me optimistic.  I was blown away.  I loved every moment of it: from the romance to the tragedy to the brilliant special effects, music, sets and costumes, even Dion warbling over the credits.  Here’s why:

The music

Ok forget My Heart Will Go On for a minute and look beyond to James Horner’s masterful score.  From the haunting sadness of Never an Absolution and Hymn to the Sea to the awe-inspiring Southampton and Take Her to Sea Mr Murdoch that perfectly capture the magic and majesty of the ship, it is one of my favourite soundtracks.  And then there is the perfect blend of horror, sadness and wonder created by tracks like A Building Panic, The Sinking and Death of Titanic.  Yes it all might sound a little too Enya inspired at times and Celine Dion’s vocals spell it all out rather pointlessly by the end but nevertheless this is a grand and epic score that has an undeniably HUGE part to play in creating the emotional response of the viewer. 

The cast

Kate Winslet shines as the trapped rich girl Rose, promised to a man she doesn’t love and desperate for adventure and escape.  Her character is the best written and carries the film from forbidden love to horrific tragedy to quiet optimism.  Leo is slightly short-changed as Jack Dawson, saddled with some cheesy lines and a fairly two-dimensional character in comparison.  But he does get stand-out moments like when he teaches the rich folk he has been invited to dinner with a thing or two about living life to the fullest. 

Rounding out the love triangle that puts Twilight to shame is Billy Zane as Cal, Rose’s fiancé and a bit of a pantomime villain bastard.  Zane gets a bit of flack for his eyebrow acting in this film; all that’s missing is a moustache to twirl and crazy maniac laughing but actually his final moments in the film reveal that he isn’t quite the total bastard he appears to be for the rest of the film.  And his delivery of the line ‘not the better half’ when Rose tells him ‘half the people on this ship are going to die’ is a deeply chilling moment of cinematic villainy. 

The love story

Somebody once told me Titanic was Romeo and Juliet on a boat.  With Leo just coming off Baz Luhrmann’s take on that Shakespearean tragedy, it was easy to believe.  But unlike R&J, we have a surviving member of the doomed couple to relate the story to us.  Yes it’s a tragic love story and Rose is promised to a man she does not love, while her family disapproves of her new found bit of rough Jack but the class dimension adds a lot more to this tale of forbidden romance.  Her mother wants what is ‘best’ for Rose (and herself) and Cal might actually truly love her.  But her desire for more from her life leads her into a collision with the free spirited Jack and it’s a romance we can root for.

It also has one of the sexiest scenes in cinema history.  No, not the couple copping off in the back of a car (“Put your hands on me Jack”) but the moment Jack draws Rose ‘like one of his French girls’.  The sparkle in Winslet’s eyes as she disrobes for the blushing Jack is irresistible.

The ship

From the outset, Cameron was determined to spare no expense when it came to technical realism. That was why he built three massive sets in huge, man-made, concrete-lined "lakes" for the movie's shooting. It was also why he rented a submersible to dive down to the real Titanic wreck and photograph it. And it was why he demanded that the set designs--from the style of the carpeting to the patterns on the wood moldings--faithfully re-create the original.

Given those demands, giant scale models were the only viable option. Unlike most sea-based films, which make heavy use of models measuring a mere 10 or 15 feet long, Titanic would come as close as possible to the real article. Engineers on the project ultimately built a scale model measuring 775 feet long--about 90% of the size of the original”

How cool is that?

The sets had to tilt and be capable of being flooded in order to recreate the legendary and terrifying sinking.  “In terms of cost and practicality, the only solution was hydraulics. To raise and lower it 15 times a night, there was no other way."  It is this that gives the climax its breathtaking and horrific power.  The practical effects and scale of the sets used is phenomenal.  Watching the special features shows Cameron orchestrating organized chaos on the huge, mesmerizing replica sets and every frame that features the interiors of the ship is a testament to production designer Peter Lamont.

Tomorrow I will post part 2 where I will consider the historically accurate details Cameron included in the film, the messages that can be taken from the story, and whether this new 3D release is cashing in or commemorating.