Usually, fiction-based disaster films try at least implicitly to put the blame for the disasters on unpredictable Mother Nature – but they do make a show of portraying the very predictable acts of human nature that seem to bring on these disasters: the “one-way” city officials who won’t close the beach in Jaws, those who built the skyscraper in The Towering Inferno, or the developers in Poltergeist (“You only moved the headstones!”). However, most of these seemingly motivating characters are flat, easy targets for pinning blame. This is called taking the easy way out, unlike the very human character Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s original science fiction-horror novel about man’s hubris in the face of nature.
James Cameron’s Titanic, for the most part, doesn’t take that easy way out. The ship’s great disaster was compounded by such acts, assumptions and other signs of human nature as the one I mentioned at the start of this review:
The real story of Titanic (as the ship was originally called, as opposed to “The Titanic”) gets two fictional stories added here: a love affair on the voyage, and a present-day framing story about a 100-year-old survivor who tells salvagers a secret about what went down with the ship. In 1912, passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (the luminous Kate Winslet of Sense and Sensibility and the harrowing Heavenly Creatures) is sailing towards an unwanted wedding, surrounded by upper-crust socialites who don’t value how bright a woman she is (they belittle her interest in Picasso and Freud). She falls for American Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio of Romeo + Juliet), who won a ticket from gambling. They find joy together while avoiding her snob fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane of Dead Calm and The Phantom) and then try to survive the wreck.
This is all very traditional, in the style of romantic epics throughout film history – from the coding of their names (the oh-so-common Jack, the upper-class beauty of Rose) to the warm colors the lovers are bathed in when they’re happy. Some of this plot is too convenient, especially when Cal sets up Jack for a crime, and this might keep Titanic from being a true classic – but the sheer scope and emotional sweep of it all, aided by groundbreaking special-effects work and Enya-styled music by Braveheart’s James Horner (who once said his job as a composer is “to manipulate the hell out of the audience”), make this a film for which they invented the big screen.
Titanic is an involving, overwhelming, and in the end hugely satisfying work – maybe the ultimate disaster movie ever, because it is all about the human side – and the random horror of seeing a person right next to you die a horrible death – of one of this century’s most harrowing events. As summed up by the Internet’s Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News, “I’ve seen it. So should you.”