Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Land Before CGI
Raise the Titanic

In 1980 Raise the Titanic was released to across the board pans from the critical community. The public too seemed dissatisfied with the film as it tanked at the box office. Even today all it can muster on IMDB is a rating of 3.9. So, were the original pans warranted? Yes and no. In all honesty, it's not a very good movie, granted, but it's not the worst thing ever made either. It's a cold war thriller and as far as that kind of thing goes it's decent but not without problems. The main problem of Raise the Titanic is a supreme lack of confidence in its story, taken from the novel of the same name penned by Clive Cussler. Directed without an ounce of flair by Jerry Jameson it plods through scenes that need not exceed seconds in length and exits quickly scenes that actually might hold interest. It's maddening watching someone direct a film counter to all common sensical instincts but by God that's exactly what Jameson does. To make matters worse the movie's third act is clearly truncated and rushed through. The tale of trying to extract a rare mineral thought to have been placed as cargo aboard the Titanic in 1912 spends 90 percent of the movie talking about what to do (raise the Titanic of course!) then 10 percent doing it in a race towards a climax and dénouement.

Critics and audiences were most likely reacting to the film's price tag of 40 million dollars at a time when the average film cost around eight. It is unfortunately fairly clear that 39 million went into the Titanic raising part of the movie and a million or so went to everything else. But again, as a cold war thriller with a twist ending it's not entirely bad but yes, one can find better thrillers elsewhere so why bother?

Well, because its Titanic raising sequence is pretty damn amazing for those of us who still appreciate great model work done in the most difficult setting imaginable for a miniatures/model artist to work: water. Water cannot be scaled down. It is the size it is, period, so when a big drop passes by the model it becomes clear that it's a model. High powered fans are often used to blow small thin ripples briskly across the surface while high-speed cameras shoot the action to be played back at a slower speed, hopefully simulating an ocean rather than a pool. Sometimes the effect works, sometimes it doesn't. Here, for the most part, it works. The model for the Titanic is fairly big as these things go, approximately 55 feet in length, so much of the miniature effects look good even in the water. Only a couple of shots, particularly an early one of the anchor, betray the model for what it is. The sequence was filmed in Malta and directed by Ricou Browning with superb sound editing by William Wistrom. Enjoy the clip and please remember this film was made in 1980, six years before Bob Ballard pinpointed the wreck and discovered it had broken in two before settling on the sea floor. I say this not to my usual informed readers but to anyone who may stumble across this piece by a random google search without possessing the proper historical knowledge since, remarkably, the ship coming up in one piece is criticized on many message boards I have come across for not being historically accurate. Most do not realize that unlike what is shown in the James Cameron film the ship most likely broke apart just beneath the surface hence the lack of eyewitness accounts of the ship's separation (although there were a couple of eyewitness theories along those lines based on the sounds they heard). At the time of this film's release the prevailing view was that the Titanic had gone down in one piece.

One last thing. If you are interested in the behind the scenes of the model work and filming done for this movie there is no more valuable place to go on the internet than this Raise the Titanic YouTube page where you can see great stills of the model in production here as well as a host of other interesting morsels for your consumption.