By Jim Hull
© Copyright © 1998 Jim Hull
You can drown watching the film "Titanic." You can also survive. Both these things can happen because this movie so thoroughly involves you in that terrible sea disaster that you come away drenched with the shock and horror of a real experience. People die on the screen before you, but the reality and the terror and the cold and dark are so real the screen disappears and you're there on that ship with those doomed passengers.
Director James Cameron has done a new thing. Two new things, in fact. He has raised the special-effects film to the level of literature, and he has reproduced an historical event with such fidelity that you, too, experience the pain of it along with the victims. It cost $200 million and a lot of heartache, but "every penny is up on the screen," as one admiring showbiz vet declared to me. Every emotion is up there, too. That's the danger and wonder of the film: it grabs you by the neck and shoves you down into that freezing ocean until you're faced with the thought of your own death. Now that you're stuck onboard a doomed liner, the film demands, what will you do? How will you face your Maker? These are terrible thoughts, and many (including some critics) have turned away angrily from what they thought would be an entertainment but which instead invites a dark catharsis.
Friends say, "It was so real, like you were really there!" I warned those who hadn't yet seen the film that it might be a tough sail emotionally. Two days after I saw it, I awoke in the middle of the night with visions of the Titanic's stern rearing into the dark sky, screaming passengers hanging from railings or sliding off the decks to their deaths, as the broken ship begins its final plunge. The scene kept repeating in my mind like a broken record. I remembered how, after the Northridge quake, I'd awakened night after night with the memory of that violence stunning me all over again. Could a film do the same?
Some critics, while acknowledging the technological tour-de-force, lambasted Cameron's script for its romantic sub-plot - a "Romeo-and-Juliet at Sea" - calling it trite. I prepared to wince at corny lines that, I was warned, would ruin the mood. Those moments never came. The words were simple and they'd been uttered before in fiction. Yet their simplicity, and the skill with which they were delivered, appeased me. Cameron had written a tale uncluttered by subtleties for a good reason: the saga speaks for itself and resonates, across the decades, with symbolism. There is no need to gild this lily.
Cameron chose simply to reenact, with astounding thoroughness, the relentless unfolding of that most famous of sea tragedies, and let the human folly and the ensuing disaster speak for themselves. Into this he wove a love story involving a woman who, in the face of doom, awakens to her own strength of character and to the world beyond pretention and greed. Her story helps makes sense of that huge, tragic waste of life. The actual event is cluttered with an overlay of meanings. Isn't the Titanic the very symbol of hubris? Isn't its hurried race through the Atlantic icebergs a warning about the impatient search for glory? Isn't the ship's moniker, "Unsinkable," rich with a false sense of immortality? Against these symbols of arrogant striving Cameron balances the delicate - but no less hardy - drives to love, to create, to dance, to rebel, and finally to survive.
Cameron lets the disaster strike us with full impact. As the ship succumbs, minute by minute, we witness all the little inevitable things that would happen on such a night: water stealing up a slanting corridor, dishes suddenly sliding off to shatter on the galley floor, lights flickering as a boiler explodes in a deluge of freezing seawater. Cameron builds these details, layer on layer, until the film attains an unstoppable momentum. There is physics in this tale, and engineering, and the fateful destructiveness of a natural world deaf to our screams. "The ship is made of iron. It will sink," says the builder.
Of all people, Cameron the action-adventure director has placed his high-tech special-effects skills at the service of historical fiction and created a new genre, the "effects classic." Not only is the film larger than life, it stays with you, making you ponder big questions like death and purpose and fate, issues you'd long since tucked away like a bookmark in some college text. In "Titanic" all those unanswered questions come back to life, dripping and cold, demanding your attention. It's quite a trick Cameron's pulled off, this double invention, this new film paradigm, and he and his studios deserve the hundreds of millions of dollars that have poured in from record-setting ticket sales, and they deserve all the awards and kudos that have been lavished upon them.
My hat's off to James Cameron. But I'm keeping the life jacket..
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