The UnPopular Opinion: Titanic
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
I recently had a conversation with someone and commented about how much TITANIC sucks. The person seemed aghast at my blanket statement about the former highest grossing film of all time. Confused that my sentiment was not shared with a fellow movie fan, I began asking a random selection of friends and strangers how they felt about James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster. Suprisingly, very few shared my opinion that TITANIC is an overblown and overrated film that most certainly did not deserve the Oscar for Best Picture. Rewatching the film to see if maybe I misjudged it in the last nineteen years, I found that the movie was actually worse than I had recalled. TITANIC is a spectacle, to be sure, but it also represents a blemish in the acting careers of both Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio while also featuring quite a bit of special effects work that does not stand the test of time. Overall, TITANIC is pulp fiction that somehow stole the top honors at the Academy Awards based on sentimentality, hype, and dollar signs.
I remember seeing TITANIC in theaters back in 1997 and being in awe of the enormity of what James Cameron had accomplished. It was massive and startling in it's cinematic scope and dwarfed any disaster epic released to that point. But, unlike most destruction porn films that came before or after, TITANIC was more a romantic drama than an action blockbuster. The fact that it could pull in male and female audiences and satiate every audience appetite helped it achieve such success. It also drove the hype for the film through the roof, something that Cameron was able to mimic with AVATAR. Because so many people were in love with the movie, the stars, and Celine Dion's instant classic ballad, it became popular for many to call TITANIC the greatest film of all time. It also drove those who disliked the film to outright hate it. In hindsight, I find myself feeling much different now than I did seeing the film when it debuted and can say that my true feelings about the movie fall into the category of not liking the film. I respect the achievements that TITANIC reached, but it absolutely is not a good movie.
James Cameron has been a pioneer of big screen entertainment. From THE TERMINATOR to ALIENS, THE ABYSS to TRUE LIES and AVATAR and the ambitious plan for four sequels, Cameron's films have always been more than mere movies and have been experiences. Cameron is the ultimate Hollywood filmmaker but one who always pushes the envelope technologically rather than narratively. Cameron's films rely more on a generic structure and dialogue to further his visual experimentation which leads to stilted, cliche ridden stories that rise above what would sink a less ambitious production. Cameron himself claims those critical of TITANIC, specifically renowned critic Kenneth Turan, mistake archetype for cliche. Essentially, Cameron refuses to acknowledge the weakness of his film by claiming it is intentional. I have to agree with Turan on this one; TITANIC is riddled with cliches and i becomes difficult to look past them upon repeated viewings of the film. That, along with nonsensical character decisions, makes TITANIC an unforgiveably illogical story. While there is a certain level of suspension of disbelief needed for any movie, it is beyond a rational limit in this movie.
The crux of what makes TITANIC unbearably cliche is the fictional protagonists at the center of our story. Jack and Rose are romantic ideals ripped right from classic Hollywood films. One is the ingenue who is disatisfied with her life while the other is the street urchin and thief who represents everything she is lacking. Couple that with the dastardly villain who has every stock characteristic aside from a twirled mustache and you have yourself the core ingredients from every film made before 1950. Throwing these original characters alongside the real crew of the HMS Titanic as well as historical figures like Molly Brown is meant to give us a portal into the fateful journey of the ship but instead feels like weak fan fiction. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet have gone on to become two of the most acclaimed actors of their generation, but even they must look back upon TITANIC and groan the way an average person looks at their high school yearbook and questions what they were thinking back then. It is not to say that they were bad actors in 1997, but you can select any film they made immediately before and after TITANIC and the quality of their performance is astonishing.
The key difference between an archetype and a cliche is that the latter is overused. Because a story relies on key archetypes that have been seen many times over does not automatically keep them from being cliches. For example, George Lucas' STAR WARS films rely heavily on archetypes but because they were presented in an original and unique manner, they did not become cliches. Even Cameron's own AVATAR, which is deeply reminiscent of everything from DANCES WITH WOLVES to FERNGULLY, avoids being cliche because of the originality on display through the rest of the movie. TITANIC is rife with characters, actions, and lines seen or heard countless times before and often with more conviction. Just because the final act of the movie is so astoundingly nerve-wracking and exhilirating does not excuse the three hours that came before it from being derivative and cheesy. When a film is made on a scale like this, the audience is owed a bit more than what they got.
While James Horner's score became instantly memorable, it is so reliant on Celine Dion's ballad that it is hard to separate the two. Conrad Buff's editing and Russell Carpenter's cinematography are both eclipsed by James Cameron's direction which, outside of the special effects achievements of the project, fall a bit short of anything truly special. Cameron's Oscar for directing came more as an encompassing trophy for everything he brought to this film rather than the sheer power of the film itself. AVATAR was much more technologically accomplished than TITANIC but it fell short of winning the top honors at the Oscars and for good reason. If anything, the Academy should have awarded TITANIC with special awards for what it managed to do and not claim it was the best film of the year simply due to box office and peer pressure. TITANIC was never more than a good movie with great special effects.
Now, I can respect that for many, TITANIC holds a special place in their heart. Whether you are a hopeless romantic or just a fan of old Hollywood epics, this is a movie that has a very dedicated following. But, just because you love a movie doesn't mean you cannot recognize where it falls short. James Cameron himself should be able to recognize such things rather than try and pin criticism on semantics. There is no doubt that TITANIC will remain a touchstone in Hollywood history, but I highly doubt if it will be as remembered in film history. As a relic of the late 1990s, TITANIC encompasses everything that made that decade what it was. Still, with the rapid evolution of special effects on the big screen, it is hard to look back and not see the shortcomings of the already antiquated CGI. TITANIC feels like a movie for a less discerning audience that doesn't care about weak dialogue, unconvincing relationships, and cliches. This movie is much like the titular ship: big, expensive, and full of promise and yet ultimately it was doomed to sink.
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