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They called it unsinkable: Titanic review

Cover for Titanic. From Titanic (1997), directed by James Cameron and released by 20th Century Fox/Paramount.
Cover for Titanic. From Titanic (1997), directed by James Cameron and released by 20th Century Fox/Paramount.


          With the Oscars fresh on the mind, I wanted to take a look at the two winningest films in the 91 year history of the Academy Awards: Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Two films that are technical marvels, incredible stories, and box office giants. These reviews as well as others on movies of the past will not be spoiler-free as these films have been out for nearly 20 years. I have decided to do these reviews in order of when the films were released which means Titanic is up first.

          Titanic is a work of historical fiction written and directed by James Cameron based on the tragic story of the massive ship of the same name. This film set precedent for years to come and shattered box office records, earning $1,843,201,268 during its initial theatrical run and currently sits at $2.187 billion worldwide since its release. The film became the highest grossing film of all time in 1998 and held the spot for twelve years till James Cameron beat it again with Avatar. It was also nominated for 14 Oscars, winning 11, which tied Ben Hur for most all time. Now, enough about history let's get into what is great about the film.         

The Titanic sinks after colliding with an iceberg. From Titanic (1997), Director: James Cameron Released by: 20th Century Fox/Paramount

Arguably the film’s greatest attribute, the visual effects for Titanic were groundbreaking at the time and still hold up today. While some of the shots such as the ship hitting the iceberg underwater or the moments when the stern goes above water look a bit off when compared to today’s work, at the time they were spectacular. Cameron’s combination of digital effects for many exterior shots as well as the use of practical effects when illustrating the ship’s interior destruction, a specific one being the death of Captain Smith, work extremely well together in immersing the viewer into the film.

          When dealing with a story that was nearly 100 years old and had been retold constantly, Cameron had to find ways to inject emotion into the film and make the viewer feel attached to the many characters, both main and background ones. One of the ways Cameron does this is through the music which is expertly crafted and exactly what Cameron needed. James Horner was hired on as composer and creates a magnificent score for this film which moves along with the story seamlessly. From hopeful soundtracks like Hymn to the Sea during the beginning of the voyage and the dawn of Jack and Rose’s romance, to fast paced, ominous music as the ship begins to sink. The transition by Horner when the ship strikes the iceberg is excellent, as the watchers look at Rose and Jack with romantic music in the background before an intense score takes over when they see the incoming iceberg. I can’t talk about this music without discussing the song that has taken on a life entirely its own, “My Heart Will Go On,” performed by Celine Dion. Horner wrote this with Will Jennings and it is some of Horner’s best work. The song itself has become iconic and fits perfectly with Jack and Rose's love story. I have often believed that music cannot break a film, but it can make it a classic and Horner’s work does that for Titanic.

          I have mentioned the sinking scenes a few times already, and this is Cameron and cinematographer Russel Carpenter’s best work. While the simple scenes during the voyage, with the exception of the famous “King of the World,” scene can come off as a bit basic with nothing too unique, the arching exterior shots of the ships sinking, as well as interior shots are near perfect. Cameron and Carpenter do a great job of continually shifting focus from the passengers and their reactions, to larger more dramatic shots that really place the viewer in the film. This comes as almost no surprise considering Cameron’s action movie background and does wonders for the tension and intensity of the sinking portion of the film. 

Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) accompanied by Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) stands at the bow of the Titanic and exclaims "I'm the king of the world." From Titanic (1997), directed by James Cameron and released by 20th Century Fox/Paramount.

          Now, I have talked enough about the technical aspects of the film and all that's left is the story and the characters. The casting for this film is great top to bottom. Everyone really plays their characters very well regardless of some issues with writing. Standouts for me include Victor Barber, Bernard Hill, and Jonathan Hyde who played architect Thomas Andrews, Captain Smith and J. Bruce Ismay respectively. The three were tasked with playing the men who received much of the blame of the Titanic disaster and each do an exceptional job showcasing the guilt and terror those men most luckily felt when their ship started to sink, especially Barber as Andrews. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet each give great performances in this film despite the basic story and somewhat average script. 

          The biggest issue I have with this film is the story, or more specifically, the love story.  Cameron clearly wanted to make a film that was more than a documentary or retelling of the events and different from A Night To Remember, one of the first big films to be made about the RMS Titanic. Cameron intended to create a love story between the characters of Jack and Rose, or, according to rumors, Cameron wanted a “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic.” There were only so many opportunities for Cameron to have real historical characters mention certain things about the ship that was obvious foreshadowing. So Cameron crafted a love story to tie the whole movie together and make it worth its 165 minute run time.  This story is arguably the film’s biggest flaw, despite it adding some emotion to the film. It makes the film feel like a love story with the tragedy of the Titanic as the setting. The film continually jumps between focusing on the ship and the focusing on Jack and Rose. The priority of the film gets a bit lost because of this as it struggles to balance one of the greatest tragedies in history with the main characters and story. On top of that, the story is not a groundbreaking tale; rather, it is something that has been done again and again in Hollywood. Star crossed lovers fight against the restrictions of society to be together despite many almost forbidding their relationship. While the chemistry of DiCaprio and Winslet is spectacular, it cannot save a bland and somewhat cheesy love story featuring the incredibly one dimensional characters Cal and Rose’s mother.

          Overall, from a technical perspective this film is magnificent with its groundbreak digital effects combined with practical effects, a score for the ages that earned Horner two oscars, and a brilliant ensemble cast. Despite all of this, the true focus of this film is the story of Jack and Rose and that is its biggest flaw. The romance offers nothing new and makes the ship and its sinking at times feel like the background for this love story.

Favorite Quote: “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can. And she will. It is a mathematical certainty.”-James Andrews (some rumors state that Andrews actually said this)

+Amazing Music

+Excellent portrayal of the Sinking

+Great Cast

-Basic Main Story

Final Score: B+

iMDb: 7.8/10 

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

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