Titanic (3-Disc Special Collector's Edition) Review

In the Northwestern Atlantic, salvage hunters have been attracted to the wreck of the Titanic following its discovery in 1985 and for one of them, Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), that means finding and recovering a rare diamond - the Heart of the Ocean. When, on a mission to the wreck, Lovett's crew finds a safe in the suite in which Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), the last name he can place as an owner of the diamond, stayed, he celebrates as though it were in his hand but during its opening on the deck, Lovett finds nothing but a sketchbook and other, less valuable artifacts.

Then, however, during a process of restoring the sketches, Lovett finds that one contains a drawing of a woman wearing the Heart of the Ocean necklace and takes to the airwaves in a subtle bid for those with information to come forward. In time, one does - Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), an old woman who claims, via a satellite call to Lovett's ship, to know about the Heart of the Ocean. Intrigued, Lovett invites her aboard his ship despite scepticism from those around him.

On her arrival, Calvert listens to Lovett and Lewis Bodine's (Lewis Abernathy) explanation of the sinking of the Titanic before telling her own story - that of leaving England for a certain marriage to Hockley, her wealthy fiance but finding, onboard the Titanic, that she did not love him. Instead, she meets a steerage passenger, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), who opens up a world to her that is uncomplicated by etiquette and the expectations placed upon women. Despite having only known him days, Rose promises, on the night of the 14 April 1912, to walk off the Titanic with Jack when they arrive in New York but as they kiss on deck, the ship strikes an iceberg on its starboard side and begins taking in water. Despite the legend that not even God could sink the Titanic, the ship's designer, Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), confirms the worst, "She's made of iron...I assure you, she can. And she will sink." As First Officer Murdoch (Ewan Stewart) confirms the presence of 2,200 souls on board, Andrews tells them that they may only have an hour, two at the most, to abandon ship...

Statisticians would doubtless refer to Titanic as an anomaly. Where budgets tend to climb over the years, they do so as one might expect - exponentially but slowly. Titanic, on the other hand, leaped out of the list of the most expensive films at the time it was made. Films may have approached it in recent years - Spider-Man 2 ($200m) has gotten closest but Troy ($185m) and, inexplicably, Van Helsing ($160m) have approached Titanic - but it remains the high point of Hollywood expenditure. With its two studios, a budget that tipped over $200m and a set that reconstructed the ship at 90% scale at a newly built studio in Mexico, it's so very easy to get lost in the size of the production.

Indeed, were all of that not enough and were rebuilding the Titanic at 90% scale not sufficiently impressive, Cameron reveals in his commentary on this set that prior to filming the sinking of the ship, they stripped down the set and rebuilt the ship at a 6% angle. Titanic may be a subtle film but, like the ship itself, it's a huge film. And, yet, it's fitting that in spite of the negative word-of-mouth on the set, Titanic became the world's best-loved film and millions took to the theatres to watch the tragedy of the sinking of the world's most famous ship.

Again, an anomaly, Titanic is, by a margin of hundreds of millions of dollars, the most successful film of all time, dollar for dollar. Without accounting for inflation, which would leave Titanic lagging behind The Ten Commandments, Gone With The Wind and The Sound Of Music amongst others, Titanic's $1.85bn take at the box office dwarfs even the number two in that list, The Return of the King ($1.13bn). In fact, you can add the takings of the fourth and fifth most successful films - The Two Towers ($926m) and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace ($924m) - and still you would only equal this film. And this was in spite of it being a period drama, an arse-numbing three hours long and a dramatisation of such a well-known event that only the newborn are unaware that the boat sinks. As James Cameron asks in one of the special features that accompanies this release, how do you entice people to stand in the rain, queuing to get into a film when they know what happens.

It's not as though, with Titanic, James Cameron hasn't had to look at how to answer that particular question before. With The Terminator and its sequel, Cameron effectively gave away the ending early in the film and over the two films that he helmed, as well as Terminator 3, his time-travelling plot was concerned with keeping John Connor alive as well as maintaining the balance between the present and the future. And yet, we knew that the machines still launched the nuclear weapons and that John Connor would eventually lead a rebellion against them. With Titanic, though, there's no time travelling to allow Cameron to jump out of a dip in the film's logic and no weaponry to allow Sarah Connor to leap ahead in the story, simply a big ship steaming to a collision with an iceberg in the Northwestern Atlantic.

To counteract his audience's knowledge of events, Cameron came up with a winning mix of swooning romance and engineering marvels for Titanic as well as a long glance back at that staple of seventies cinema, the disaster movie. If there is one famous example of two studios collaborating on the production of a film before Titanic, it is The Towering Inferno; mix that with The Poseidon Adventure and were it not based on an actual event, Cameron ought not to have been embarrassed in extending a note of thanks to the long-dead Irwin Allen for his inspiration. But Cameron realises there's more to bringing an audience into a theatre than just the thrill of watching thousands of passengers plunge to their deaths in the icy waters of the Atlantic.

Romantic, therefore, his film is, although not necessarily in the affair between Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater but in the sweeping beauty of much smaller moments in the film. The look on Captain Smith's (Bernard Hill) face as the Titanic approaches full speed in the waters southwest of Ireland says much about the romance of shipping and of the open seas, moreso than Jack Dawson's (Leonardo DiCaprio), "I'm the king of the world!" Equally, there's the pride taken by Thomas Andrews in the build and fitting out of his ship as well as the tangible excitement as the Titanic pulls out of Southampton docks, as much for those on the boat as well as those standing on the shore watching it leave.

Below stairs, so to speak, the steerage passengers have a rather more rough-and-ready approach to their thrills but Cameron still manages to capture the excitement of a ceilidh as Jack takes Rose to what is, in his words, a real party. Cliched and simplistic it may well be - less so, though, than the lovestruck Jack and Rose being chased through the bowels of the boat by David Warner's Lovejoy - but Cameron uses the scene, which is intercut with the stately silence of the First Class smoking room, to underline the differences between the classes of passengers travelling on the boat.

Following the Titanic's collision with the iceberg, there are a wealth of tragic moments as it sinks, including those of Thomas Andrews' (Victor Garber) love of the ship that he designed as he adjusts the clock and refuses to leave despite offers of a place on a lifeboat. Benjamin Guggenheim telling a steward who offers him a life jacket, "No, thank you. We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down as gentlemen" is a line that many would hope to state convincingly in as death looms whilst the friendship and love that Wallace Hartley (Jonathan Evans-Jones) has for his colleagues in the string quintet is shown by his words and with a touching performance of Nearer My God To Thee as the bow of the ship passes underneath the surface of the Atlantic, all of them refusing, like Captain Smith, to leave their posts as death approaches.

As the waters roar into the ship, two moments of such undying love stand out that not even the sinking of the Titanic can bend them. The kiss that Ida and Isadore Strauss share on the bed as the Atlantic creeps into their suite beneath them as well as the Irish mother (Jenette Goldstein) sending her two young children off to sleep and to a certain death with a story of Tir na nOg, the land of eternal youth and beauty, are the two most heartbreaking moments in the film, standing out amongst the thousands who died that night.

But the biggest romance in the entire film and the reason, no doubt, why Cameron appears on the cover of the DVD, is the love that the director has of the heavy engineering on the ship. The most lasting impression one has as the film ends is not of the strength of the love felt by Jack and Rose for one another, despite the hard work put in by the director, but of the lovingly filmed scenes of the boiler room, of the engines and, most tellingly, of the sheer size of the ship. I've long thought of Cameron being more an engineer turned director than an artist. So many of his films, although well plotted and logically constructed, do appear almost as showcases for new technology, such as the morphing in The Abyss and Terminator 2, and although Titanic is more technically advanced than both of those films - the aim is more for realism than the shock of alien or future technology - Cameron's deep love of hardware remains. There are, of course, the CG characters, the flopping of the scenes set in the Southampton docks and the morph transitions between Kate Winslet's Rose on the Titanic and Gloria Stuart's Rose but Cameron succeeds in making most of it pass by without fanfare. And yet, come the moment when the Captain orders the engines to be fired, the director simply can't help himself. We see the boilers being filled, the massive engines beginning to turn and the increasing turbidity of the water as the ship's propellers drag up sand from the sea bed. Whilst lovely shots, there's the feeling that none of them are essential - none of the main characters go to the engine room and Jack and Rose only briefly pass through the boiler room - and that both the engine and boiler rooms look only to be vanity, simply that the engineer in Cameron couldn't bear to part with them. Indeed, when viewing the deleted scenes on the three- and four-disc releases, almost all of the footage that was cut is concerned with the emotional impact of the film, not the ship's engineering.

Titanic becomes, therefore, a film that is as much about James Cameron as it is about the disaster. Cameron always puts something of himself in his films - John Connor, Jack Dawson, James Cameron...it couldn't be any more obvious - and so it's entirely fitting that he's a cover star on the three- and four-disc releases. Equally, the influence of this project is reflected in him following this with the documentary Ghosts From The Abyss, which featured footage from the wreck of the Titanic. And yet, it's not an entirely successful film despite much that it does very well. Titanic is, of course, never a less-than-impressive looking film but it simply doesn't have the emotional impact of, for example, A Night To Remember. In one, the Kenneth More character ensured that the audience saw the best and worst of the disaster and More remained the focus of the film from begriming to end. In Titanic, though, the Jack and Rose romance comes and goes depending on how distracted James Cameron gets by the ship's sinking. In its first hour, the romance is a clumsy thing as it first blooms and although it enjoys a brief flourish on the night of the 14th April, it sits back to allow the viewer to see the crisis on the bridge and the astonishing visuals of this huge ship sinking. Thereafter the romance between Jack and Rose bobs about in the film - the analogy with the stern of the Titanic would be a good one were it not for it lasting much, much longer - before a final show of Rose's love draws the film to a close.

Finally, and in spite of all of its faults, what Titanic does very well is to appeal to those cinemagoers and DVD-buyers who had been feeling left out by the rush of action-thrillers to hit multiplexes. To those looking for a good, old-fashioned story, Titanic was a godsend whilst to women, couples and teenage girls, its sweeping mix of romance and tragedy were hugely appealing. When a niece of mine watched the film with her friends, it left a room full of teenager sobbing uncontrollably and, to this day, it leaves my wife in tears with every viewing. But to say that it only appeals to girls, lovestruck couples and pensioners is to underestimate this film. Titanic is a hugely popular film, a sterling piece of storytelling and, for such a long film, its three hours pass so much quicker than they ought to. Yet it's by no means flawless but the world seemed not to care, finally bucking the trend of expensively troubled productions failing at the box office (Waterworld, Heaven's Gate, etc.) thereby letting Cameron avoid the Titanic-sized portion of hubris that ought to have been his.

Sensing that it was his night, Cameron, as he picked up his Oscar for Best Director for Titanic, had no shame in also declaring himself king of the world. If only for a moment, I'm sure that some of the audience hoped Titanic had not been the success it was but much as there are many parts of the film that leave me unmoved, I can't help but admire what Cameron achieved. Come the time when that's all but a memory and the director is remembered just as well for Battle Angel (2007), and whatever follows it, as he is for Titanic, the film will be all that's left. Despite it not being a great film, it is a big film and unlike the ship, which, one day, will leave little on the floor of the Atlantic but a shadow of where it once was, I suspect Titanic, the film, will be with us for many, many years to come.



Transfer

This is Titanic's second release on DVD - back in the early days of the format, the film made it into the shops non-anamorphically and without extras but it was never a well-loved release and many held out for this Collector's Edition, which given the success of the film, was always due. Indeed, Cameron confirmed as such soon after the first release of the film on DVD.

This time, though, there are no doubts about the quality of either the picture or the audio track as both are of a remarkably high quality. In particular, the picture has a sharpness about it that you may well have forgotten about since its 1997 theatrical showing, with the DVD showing an exceptional handling of colour, shadows and, with the film being split over two discs, very little noise in the image, even up close. It is a stunning transfer throughout; so good, in fact, that the only problem one can note with it is that, on a big screen, the CG characters and model-work is now so much the more obvious. But that is a small price to pay for an image of this quality, which offers so much detail that scenes such as the actual sinking of the ship are well worth watching again and again to spot everything that's on the screen.

Similarly, the Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks are outstanding with the latter just edging it over the former. Given the nature of the film, both tend towards subtlety for the first half of the film, with the dialogue simply being presented through the two front speakers but when the water begins to flood into the ship, the rear speakers and subwoofer come to life with there being a marked use of all six speakers come the breaking up and sinking of the ship. In particular, the stern of the ship hitting the water after breaking away from the bow is one of those moments that your home cinema system will leave you with a smile.

Finally, an equal amount of care has gone into the preparation of the subtitles with not only the film's dialogue getting a subtitle track but so too do all three commentaries. In terms of the transfer, it really is difficult to fault Titanic.



Extras

Disc One & Two

Director's Commentary: I may be wrong but I can't remember James Cameron being an enthusiastic commentator on his films. Indeed, in the opening minutes of this commentary, he admits to finding the prospect of listening to someone talk over a movie quite a strange one but as he settles in, his commentary becomes an often-fascinating listen.

Unsurprisingly, Cameron is much more interested in the technical aspects of the production than, say, the central love story between Jack and Rose - the moment in which the pair consummate their relationship in the car being shipped in the hold is accompanied by an enthusiastic Cameron talking about the make and model of the car and how such a car is on the actual wreck of the ship - but he's never dull and is very good on the history of the ship and what occurred during its sinking. It's clear, however, that he often expanded upon the facts in the sinking in favour of making his film more dramatic but, to credit him, he is honest in admitting so and where he pays homage to A Night To Remember.

Cast & Crew Commentary: Executive producer Rae Sanchini and Producer John Landau introduce themselves at the beginning of this commentary but very soon members of the cast are intercut with them and it requires a close listen to work out who's who. Gloria Stuart, who played Old Rose in the film, Lewis Abernathy and Kate Winslet are all present and from the back of the DVD case, that's all there is, which makes Leonardo diCaprio a notable absentee. Whilst Sanchini and Landau repeat much of what Cameron says on his commentary, albeit with slightly less authority and enthusiasm, Winslet makes for a good listen and she and Stuart add an emotional depth that Cameron lacks. Other than Sanchini and Landau, none of the contributors sound as though they were together during the recording with Stuart, Winslet and Abernathy comments being edited together during the preparation of this track .

Historical Commentary: Don Lynch, Titanic's Historian and Ken Marschall, the film's Visual Historian, are recorded together and duplicate much of the factual information offered by Cameron on his commentary track. Unlike the director whoever, Lynch and Marschall sound to be too much in awe of the film to be effective commentators whilst Cameron, who has more of a reason not to be, sounds much more detached from the experience. Due to what appears to be their simple excitement at being asked, they're rather too giddy to be effective and the viewer doesn't really learn anything over what they do listening to the Cameron track.

Behind The Scenes Mode: This is a branching feature that offers sixty-one behind-the-scenes featurettes, each of which last no more than a few minutes or so, that provides the viewer with a look at particular aspects of the production. As examples, there are descriptions of the underwater filming on the actual wreck of the Titanic, the model shots when real footage could not be used, the flopping of the footage shot for the ship leaving Southampton docks and the on-set effects used during the sinking of the ship.

Disc Two

Music Video (4m33s): Bloody Celine Dion, you may well be saying but back in 1997, the public took this to their hearts as quickly as they did the film from which it came. Although, if you weren't tired of it after the many, many weeks it spent at number one, you were clearly made of sterner stuff than even the girders of the RMS Titanic. Like the similar recording of Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, it's a lovely song let down by a rather overblown production. It might, therefore, be argued that it's a song well suited to Titanic given that the same criticism could be made of the film itself.

Alternate Ending (9m03s): Whilst the theme of the film is that those things that are of great value are to be found not in gold and diamonds but in one's heart, the theatrical ending downplays this somewhat but this Alternate Ending makes it all rather more obvious. In this, Brock interrupts Rose on the platform before she summarises the film for him despite her having done this already. The actual ending of the film is identical to the theatrical version and having now seen both, Cameron was right to have gone with the ending that he did.

Disc Three

Deleted Scenes (47m15s): Despite its length, Titanic has always felt like a film that has had much removed from it and so it proves with these forty-seven minutes of deleted scenes. As mentioned in the main body of the review, there is nothing of Cameron's beloved maritime engineering in here, simply much more of Jack, Rose and Cal Hockley with the longest scene being that of Lovejoy hunting the pair of young lovers soon after Cal tells him of the Heart of the Ocean diamond in the pocket of the coat that he gave to Rose. Each scene has an optional commentary by Cameron and they begin and end with footage from the theatrical cut of the film allowing the viewer to place them in context.

Fox Special: Breaking New Ground (42m46s): Featuring interviews with James Cameron, a number of survivors from the sinking of the Titanic and members of the cast and crew, this is a promotional piece produced by Fox during the making of Titanic. As such, it's very much a piece that's unwilling to point to any of the film's flaws and concentrates, instead, on its strength, which includes a fair amount of historical accuracy as well as its impressive production design.

Electronic Press Kit (18m32s): Following on from the Fox Special, this is really more of the same with there being the option to Play All or to view any one of the seven features separately. They take in such aspects of the production as Story Focus, Building The Ship, Sinking The Ship and Cameron Focus and whilst none of them last much more than two- or two-and-a-half minutes, they feature interviews conducted at the same time as those in Breaking New Ground.

Concept Posters and One Sheets: Containing examples of promotional material that date from the very earliest designs, when Titanic was due for release in July 1997, which it duly missed, to those used to promote the post-Oscars success of the film, a total of sixty-two images are included.

1912 Newsreel (2m23s): Not that this is an actual newsreel from the year in which Titanic sailed and sank on its maiden voyage, rather it's a piece of fake newsreel footage by filmmaker Ed Marsh, who also offers a commentary, that uses visual effects and a few willing members of the cast to construct a newsreel as it might have appeared. Quite unlike the main feature, this offers much mugging to camera by the likes of Bernard Hill, Billy Zane, Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet, all of which is in black-and-white with much artificial print damage.

Construction Timelapse (4m23s): Again, Ed Marsh is on hand for a commentary over his timelapse footage of the building of the tank that would hold the 90% scale set of the Titanic in Mexico as well as the construction of the set taking, in the words of Production Designer Peter Lamont, 100 days and 500 men to do what 14,000 men did over three years...sort of.

Deep Dive Presentation (15m34s): Narrated by James Cameron, this includes much of the footage that he captured on various dives to the wreck of the Titanic via ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), which was then presented to Fox as an guarantee of his involvement in the project. The actual footage that Cameron shot is quite stunning, both in showing the outside of the wreck, which tends to disappear into the darkness, as well as the interior. Cameron's narration is effective and well-prepared with him showing a deep affection for the ship and those who both survived the disaster as well as those who died on 15 April 1912.

Titanic Crew Video (17m48s): Featuring much spoof footage - Bernard Hill, being interviewed on the deck of the Titanic set, turns the wheel behind him, which cuts to footage taken from The Poseidon Adventure in which the ship turns over - it's not particularly funny but it is a difficult watch and I doubt you'll see it through even once.

Titanic Ship's Tour (7m40s): Introduced and narrated by documentary filmmaker Anders Falk, this features a tour of the set used in the making of the film and of members of the Titanic Historical Society walking about it prior to taking up roles as extras in the film.

Videomatics (3m19s): This pre-visualistion footage was used by Cameron to plan effects and the deep dive shots and some footage from these planning shots are included here. There's not enough of them to be comprehensive but there's enough to explain how the director used videomatics to plan his film.

Visual Effects (7m48s): As well as including the Titanic Sinking Simulation shown to Rose on the salvage vessel, this includes the breakdown of three effects shots - Engine Room, I'm Flying and First Class Lounge - showing how all three were constructed from a number of composite shots before the final rendering was produced.

Still Galleries: There is an enormous amount of material here including an early draft of the Script (482 pages), the Storyboard Sequences (532 images), Production Artwork (148 images), various Photographs (628 images) from the production, Ken Marshall's Painting Gallery (82 images), By The Numbers (25 pages) and a Bibliography (72 pages) of resources referred to during production.

This third disc is rounded off with the DVD Credits.



Overall

The last scene in the film is the one that troubles me most, though, as Rose, whether dreaming or having passed away, is reunited with Jack on board the Titanic. If it is to be latter, which is more convincing than Rose just dreaming, then it's a curious notion of Heaven that not only has Jack aboard the Titanic but also every decent soul that we meet during the film, including Captain Smith, First Officer Murdoch and Thomas Andrews. Whilst it's perfectly understandable that Rose and Jack may be reunited in Heaven, pity poor Andrews who, having seen his ship sink on its maiden voyage, is now doomed to spend the rest of eternity aboard it.

Titanic is often a very clumsy film, both emotionally and in terms of its storytelling. It loves to take huge leaps on a whim and although it often looks wonderful as it does so, the plotting tends to stagger about more than it should. There is, of course, no better example than that of First Officer Murdoch who Cameron portrayed as shooting dead one of the passengers before he turned the gun on himself. There is no evidence that either even took place and although Murdoch went down with the ship, no reports from any of the witnesses say that he killed himself. His remaining family protested and Cameron now says that his portrayal of Murdoch was probably a mistake but it's part of the production that reveals much about the entire film.

But I'm pleased that it is the huge success that it was and that it finally gets the DVD releases that it deserved. Any one of the releases would keep a fan of the film more than happy as it does what a DVD release should do very well indeed - present the film in as flattering a package as it can and with a stunning transfer and a very decent commentary from Cameron, even the basic two-disc package looks good. No, it's not A Night To Remember - in fact, it doesn't even come close - but Titanic is both a quite breathtaking spectacle and a hugely flawed film, often in consecutive scenes. Whilst I will admit that it was probably deserving of its success, it's still not that good a film but, by now, it really doesn't matter. This DVD, on the other hand, offers a superb presentation of the film but is the quality of the extras is variable. And yet, like the film, it scores where it matters - on the quality of the picture and soundtrack and with Cameron's commentary - and will, I suspect, add greatly to Titanic's financial success still further.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
9 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

Latest Articles