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Titanic 1997 movie retrospective
Image: Paramount

Film

James Cameron’s Titanic: A Beautifully-Made Bad Story

Why I hate James Cameron’s Titanic

As my wife and I settled down into our seats to watch Titanic with our sodas and popcorn, I picked up my first warning sign a few rows ahead: eight or so young ladies (late high school and/or early college was my guess), very much wired up for the movie.  I overheard them in a can-you-top-this kind of conversation:  “You’ve seen it four times?  I’ve seen it six times!”

Oh-oh.

Oh-oh, because my wife and I hadn’t been all that keen on going to see Titanic (1997) to begin with, and now I was apprehensively wondering what the possibilities were of me liking a movie an adolescent girl could sit through six times.

Ok, I told myself, you’re an old fart (I was in my early forties at the time); maybe it’s a generational thing.

I thought my wife would be a better gauge.  While she was older than the girls (remembering their tittering and giggles, it’s hard to not call them girls) sitting ahead of us, she was also significantly younger than me.  So, writing off my opinion as older generation crabbiness, I waited for her verdict.

I didn’t have to wait very long.  About twenty minutes into the movie, she turned to me and said, “So when does this fucking boat sink?”

####

Titanic
Image: Paramount

The sad thing is I had been a Cameron fan at one time.  I hadn’t seen his low-budget writing/directorial debut (Piranha II:  The Spawning [1981]).  Like most of us, my introduction to the man’s work had been with The Terminator (1984).

Made for an even-then slim $6.4 million and often resorting to sneak-shooting around L.A. without a permit, structurally, it reminded me a bit of Mad Max 2:  The Road Warrior (1981); a lean, mean, non-stop, action-packed express train with just enough economically delivered character to make you care.  I also remember thinking that here was possibly the first director who’d managed to turn Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dramatic limitations into an asset; a perfect role for the actor as prop expertly positioned by Cameron.

“It’s fun to fantasize being a guy who can do whatever he wants,” Cameron would later say of the movie.  “He can be as rude as he wants…it has great cathartic value to people who wish they could just splinter open the door to their boss’s office, walk in, break his desk in half, grab him by the throat and throw him out the window and get away with it.  Everybody has that little demon…the bad kid that never gets punished.”  Oh, yeah!  I was with him on that ride!

The Terminator was a huge hit, particularly in light of its minimal cost:  $78.3 million (adjusted for inflation without taking into account rising ticket prices, that’d be close to $220 million today – a definite blockbuster on an indie film budget).

The Cameron name hadn’t quite stuck with me yet, but it definitely did on his next outing:  Aliens (1986).

James Cameron
Image: Paramount

I remember it was an open question at the time on what Cameron’d be able to pull off with a sequel to what had become an instant classic; Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).  But Cameron didn’t try to match Scott’s brooding gothic tone.  If Alien was like a piece of classical music, Aliens was rock ’n’ roll.  Like The Terminator, once it got moving it barely took a breath, yet at its core was a nice bit of heart because, in the end, Aliens was a mom vs. mom story (Ripley [Sigourney Weaver], the stand-in mom for poor little orphaned – and adorable – Newt [Carrie Henn] duking it out with the Alien queen).

But what really tickled me was that squad of Colonial Marines backing up feisty Ripley.  It was as shrewd a character-building shortcut as I’d seen with Cameron cloning old WW II movie stereotypes into his Space Age version of Combat!:  the cigar-chomping top sergeant, the screw-up novice officer, the griper (beautifully played by Bill Paxton) whose dialogue became so pop-culture indelible as to be integrated into that generation’s videogames (“Game over, man!”), etc.  For audience members of my generation who’d grown up watching those old movies, Cameron’s clones became instantly – and delightfully – recognizable.

And while he was working with a larger budget — $18.5 million – it was hardly lavish for the kind of world-building, space-hopping actioner it was.  That year’s Poltergeist II:  The Other Side went for $19 million; Top Gun for $15 million; Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, $25 million.

Titanic
Image: Paramount

One could argue Scott’s Alien is the better film, artistically speaking, but Aliens is easily the more fun, and with it, Cameron scored yet another home run, scoring a monster $85.2 million box office (almost $225 million in today’s dollars) and coming in Number 5 for the year.

But for me, the scales began tipping the other way with his next at-bat:  The Abyss (1989).

In several ways, it seemed to be the movie he’d been working toward:  it was his biggest budget ($70 million) and – at least this is my take – his most personal movie up to that point.  Maybe that’s why, to me, on both those scores, I found it to be profoundly disappointing.

In an interview talking about moving away from traditional film to new non-celluloid technology, Camera said, “Filmmaking is not about film, not about sprockets.  It’s about ideas, it’s about images, it’s about imaginations, it’s about storytelling.”   While I’ll give him his due on being able to fill a screen with images that dazzle and sometimes overwhelm (the then state-of-the-art CGI which produced the water entity is still impressive), but what had in his earlier features seemed shrewd tactical shortcuts now showed themselves as a paucity of ideas, storytelling, and imagination.

Everything about The Abyss seemed familiar to me, and not in that fun way the Colonial Marines had been.  This time around it felt more like rehashing.  The motley crew of the underwater installation seemed like an I’ve-got-nothing-else reworking of his interplanetary Marines.  The separated husband-and-wife (Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) were that tired movie cliché of the mismatched couple that everybody and his brother but the couple knows belong together.  The hard-nosed leader of the underwater equivalent of Aliens’ Marine squad cracks because, well, because Cameron needs him to crack.

And that’s the feel of the whole movie; characters do things because Cameron wants them to do things.

Ok, if that’s a little foggy, let me digress a bit.  When I teach writing, whether for the page or screen, I tell my students, “Don’t create characters; create people!”  By “characters” I mean constructs designed by the storyteller to make things happen not because any recognizable human being would do them, but because the storyteller wants things to happen; they’re devices to push plot points, and The Abyss – from its psychotic military man to it’s of-course-they-really-love-each-other husband-and-wife leads – is riddled with them.

James Cameron directing
Image: Paramount

Even the driving plot of undersea aliens who at first are viewed as hostile but turn out to be benevolent (and heavy-handedly envisioned as near-angelic) was stale.  I guess anybody impressed by it hadn’t ever seen The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), some choice episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, hell, how about Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)?  And those are just the ones that come to me off the top of my head.  Give me some time, and I’ll come up with more.

The point is that, to me, The Abyss had an empty feeling of warmed-over stuff from both Cameron’s previous features as well as God knows how many other movies.  And then there was that humongous finale which illustrated what I would come to see as another Cameron habitual flaw; mistaking bigness for dramatic heft.  The Abyss was the start of a trend I saw in Cameron’ movies; they were like beautifully decorated hot air balloons – large, eye-catching, but empty and unable to carry much weight.

On The Abyss, I wasn’t in the minority.  Box office score:  a little over $54 million.  That year, even Uncle Buck and Turner and Hooch did better.

I don’t know what Cameron’s thinking was behind Terminator 2:  Judgment Day (1991); was he looking for a surefire hit to come back from The Abyss?  If so, he found it.

Terminator 2 went on to become the top-grosser of the year, the first movie to earn $300 million worldwide, and – adjusted for inflation – the top-grossing R-rated movie of all time.

There’s no denying the movie is an eye-dazzler.  With the largest budget he’d ever worked with ($102 million), Cameron (another habitual trait) pushed FX technology to the limit with the movie’s shape-shifting hunting cyborg and oh-wow stunts.  Hey, I have to admit, I had a kind of fun watching it.

I say “kind of fun” because while it’s more spectacular – in fact, I’d say it’s grander in every way than its predecessor — again, I had this feeling of, “It’s bigger, but we’ve already done this.”  In many ways, I felt it was more an upgraded remake than a sequel.

Titanic
Image: Paramount

And while Terminator 2 was able to amp up all the physical aspects of the original, what it didn’t improve on was some of the small bits of warmth that gave all the original’s shooting and explosions and chasing around the city some kind of weight.  In the original, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is, well, she’s recognizable and sympathetic in her total unspecialness; a young woman with a blah job whose importance is in a future of which she is completely unaware.  The thrill of her ultimate victory is watching an Everywoman find the resourcefulness and grit to top what seems to be the ultimate, unstoppable killing machine.

But in Terminator 2, ripped, steely-eyed and stone-faced, and looking like something out of The Road Warrior, well here’s what film critic Roger Corliss said in a 1992 Time essay by Nancy Gibbs, “The War Against Feminism”:

(Female characters like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2) are not strong women who use their ingenuity, humanity and mother wit.  They are Rambo in drag (FYI:  Cameron wrote the screenplay for Rambo:  First Blood Part II [1985])…Too many filmmakers strapped by the conventions of the shoot-’em-up genre think they are solving the problem of beefing up women’s roles by turning them into beefcake…(A filmmaker like James) Cameron wonders, Why can’t a (modern) woman be more like a (mean) man?  Then he makes her into one.

Between The Abyss and Terminator 2, I didn’t feel any particular interest in True Lies (1994) which gave Cameron another huge hit ($146.2 million – Number 3 for the year – although that’s against a budget of $115 million).

All of this is why, by Titanic time, I had no great interest in Cameron’s most expensive ($200 million), most physically spectacular effort up to that time.  Well, that’s not all of it.

Titanic movie retrospective
Image: Paramount

I’d seen the tragedy played as the backdrop for soapy melodrama (Titanic [1953]), an ok but fictionalized rendering in the 1979 made-for-TVer S.O.S. Titanic, a pretty bad 1996 miniseries, and the sinking had been tucked into a corner of the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), but nothing had come close to the combination of grace, heartbreak, and tragic waste of A Night to Remember, the 1958 close adaptation of Walter Lord’s factual account of the ocean liner’s sinking.  Having read that, for all the money Cameron was spending on getting the physical details of the ship and its tragic end right, he was laying a fictional Romeo & Juliet type story over it; well, that was something I could easily give a pass.

But what really clinched it for me was the way Cameron reacted to Los Angeles Times’ critic Kenneth Turan’s pan of his movie.  Granted, Turan was scathing in his criticism:  “What really brings on the tears is Cameron’s insistence that writing this kind of movie is within his abilities.  Not only isn’t it, it isn’t even close…Titanic is not an example of Hollywood’s success; it’s an emblem of its failure.”  Turan went on to say that the major reason the movie performed so well was that so much else coming out of Hollywood was worse.

Look, critics have no obligation to be nice.  They calls ’em as they sees ’em.  While most critics liked and even loved the movie (still holds an 87% positive standing among reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes), Turan wasn’t alone (if you want to plow through the over 200 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll find them) but maybe it was Turan’s prominence in a major newspaper that got Cameron riled up enough to write an op-ed calling for the paper to fire Turan.

Kate Winslet
Image: Paramount

Having been on the point end of a bad review or two in my time, yeah, I realize that they sting (and when it’s in a major publication – mine was in The New York Times – they really bite), but it goes with the territory.  It almost seemed to me that Cameron was saying that anybody who had the temerity to not like his movie, well, there has to be something wrong with that person!  How could anybody in their right mind, with an ounce of taste and respect for the great effort of a dedicated filmmaker and the obvious sentiments of the masses, not like Titanic?

Well, it’s easy:  I didn’t like it and I like to think I’m not any more out of my mind than anybody else (although my family might disagree).  I don’t know if I’d go as far as Turan did in how I’d phrase my dislike, but I still thought Cameron’s response was petty and ego-driven.  Didn’t exactly to do much to drive my interest.

But then the movie went on to become the first film to earn a billion dollars worldwide (in fact, it would go on to top $2 billion), and then it won all those damned Oscars, tying Ben-Hur’s (1959) record eleven.  At a certain point, I felt almost a professional moral obligation to see the movie.  Even my wife was curious to see what all the buzz and bucks was about.  So, off we went.

making of Titanic

And from its opening scenes – Leonardo DiCaprio’s playful gamin who cons his way onto the ship, poor Kate Winslet being forced into a marriage with Snidely Whiplash – oops, I’m sorry, I mean dastardly Billy Zane — to bail out the family’s financial problems, I was gritting my teeth.

Look, all filmmakers are manipulators.  That’s what they do to elicit the kind of reaction from the audience they want.  What I look for is how skilled at manipulating are they.  Is the manipulation one of massaging something approximating reality?  Is it – for lack of a better word – honest?  Or is it one of the cheap shots?  Titanic sails on the cheapest of cheap shots.

DiCaprio and Winslet are nothing less than idealized versions of ’90s teens shoved into Victorian melodrama, with the period’s characteristic tight-assedness laid on with a trowel by Cameron in case we miss the message:  Oh, I get it!  These two are free spirits!  And all these people in the nice clothes are assholes!  Yeah!  Right on!  Power to the people!

And Cameron, characteristically, is under the impression that this corny teen romance gains some kind of dramatic heft by setting it against an admittedly spectacular physical reproduction of the doomed ocean liner and its demise; it’s that bigger-equals-substance foible of his.

It was all of what I’d come to see as Cameron’s flaws amped up to match the screen-filling production:  emotional manipulation, characters that were characters and not people (Billy Zane’s villainous suitor is probably the most egregious example, as is David Warner’s loyal minion who – for God knows what reason – is willing to carry out Zane’s request to kill the young couple even as the ship is sinking and he’s sloshing through thigh-high seawater).

Titanic
Image: Paramount

In some ways, Cameron’s Titanic reminds me of another period epic:  Michael Cimino’s ill-fated Heaven’s Gate (1980).  In both, the filmmakers went to great lengths to create in minute detail their respective periods (for Heaven, it’s the Old West) only to woefully distort the historical history and slop on contemporary moralizing to a period where it doesn’t belong (someday ask me about Cimino’s movie).  In Cameron’s case, his depiction of one of the ship’s real-life officers was so woefully off the mark (Cameron has First Officer Murdoch take a bribe and later shoot several passengers before shooting himself) that Cameron had to issue a public apology to Murdoch’s surviving relatives while 20th Century Fox VP Scott Neeson traveled to Dalbeattie, Murdoch’s hometown, to also apologize and donate 5000 pounds to a local school to smooth over hurt feelings.

Cameron (as well as Cimino) is not the only filmmaker to commit the sin of bragging of the historical authenticity of the physical trappings of your movie but then when it comes to the actual storytelling, just making all kinds of shit up.  Yes, there is a needle to thread here with any kind of period story:  how honest are you obligated to be when you’re crafting a piece – especially an expensive piece – of entertainment.  I love Westerns but I’ll be the first one to tell you most of them don’t look like the real Old West.  That never stopped me from rooting for John Wayne to punch some bad guy’s lights out.  But then I think of A Night to Remember, Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973), even Kenneth Branagh’s more recent Belfast (2021), and realize it’s possible, but it takes a more deft, more delicate filmmaker than Cameron; one who understands and revels in nuance, subtlety, texture, characters who are people

I don’t know; maybe it’s just Cameron’s incessant pomposity that drives me crazy; him always sounding like he’s invented the wheel when he’s only invented whitewalls.  I tried watching Avatar (2009), but turned it off because I felt like I was watching an animated film, and as for the story?  Stephen Whitty was one of the New York/New Jersey metro area’s leading film critics at the time and he wrote an essay on how many other sci fi tales Cameron’s main plot seemed to borrow from including (my contribution to the essay) an episode of the old The Outer Limits TV series.

I don’t mind schlock.  I still enjoy watching old Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies, old flag-waving war movies, 1950s monster flicks and I never feel manipulated, pushed to feel, because there’s a certain honesty about their schlockiness; they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are.

James Cameron is a hell of a movie maker.  His mastery of the technology of the medium puts him among the medium’s tech elite, up there with Lucas and Spielberg.  And his box office scores definitely show that he knows how to push an audience’s buttons.  And, most reviewers seem on his side most of the time.

But there’s no objective “right” or “wrong” to this.  Movies – or any creative expression – involve subjective responses which is a fancy way of saying each of us likes what we like and doesn’t like what we don’t.  The Oscars are not infallible (Google up infamous Oscar snubs) and neither is the box office (a constant on this site as well as other movie sites are box office flops that have gone on to become considered classics; if box office was a true measure of quality, The Hangover and its sequels are as great comedies as anything by Chaplin and Keaton).

I didn’t like TitanicIt’s a beautifully-made bad story that pushes the easiest-to-push of the audience’s emotional buttons.  I don’t like that stuff, so sue me.  Or ask to have me fired.

Bill Mesce

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Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press). You can find his work at the link below.

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