Directed by: James Cameron
Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Bill Paxton
Though rarely referred to as a genre flick – and if so, most often categorized as a romance – the biggest movie in the world is nothing but a very, very expensive disaster movie. Yes, that would be James Cameron’s Titanic, which not only became the highest-grossing movie ever to date but also scooped the Oscars with 11 wins, giving Cameron himself opportunity to proclaim himself “king of the world”.
Whatever you might think of this film – and as celebrated as it is it does have its detractors – you can’t argue with the craftsmanship. James Cameron is a very talented filmmaker and an equally excellent technician, if not the most subtle guy working in Hollywood.
Part of what made Titanic such a huge hit is the forbidden as well as doomed romance between upper-class girl Rose and working-class slob Jack, played by the excellent Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. But for some of us, the highlight of the film is not Kate’s and Leo’s tryst in the automobile or their iconic ‘flight’ at the stern of the ship, or even their desperate last moments in the freezing water. All of this is very well done, to be sure, but what makes the movie worthwile for disaster film fans is of course the drawn-out struggle of the wounded ship itself and its spectacular final destruction.
Because this, you see, is a James Cameron film. James did two Terminators. James knows destruction. And James is obsessed with the Titanic. Thus, the whole process from the initial collision to the bitter freezing end is rendered in loving detail. Sure, having Jack chained up deep down in the ship as the water rises, or having Rose’s villainous fiancée running around with a gun as the ship goes down is pure melodrama, but we also get to suffer with the third-class passengers who are trapped on the lower levels, so as not to disturb the finer folks upstairs, and left to drown. And the final death spasm of the Titanic, as she breaks in two and sinks below the surface, is a stunning sequence with flawless FX work. (Did I mention that this is a James Cameron film?)
Cameron might be criticized for laying it on a bit too thick. But that was – obviously – good box office sense. A strightforward retelling of the Titanics voyage from port to the bottom of the sea without a big love story and despicable bad guys and intrigue and theft and treasure would probably not have raked in a billion dollars worldwide. And to be fair, it’s all in keeping with classic disaster movie aesthetics, where you’ll have the main characters solving their personal problems or falling in love or quarrelling or threatening each other with guns as volcanoes or earthquakes or storms reduce the surroundings to rubble.
It’s overly long, and the romance gets a bit too overblown for my personal tastes (and that Celine Dion song really gets on my nerves) but once we get to the gist of it, Titanic delivers a lot of disaster movie thrills.