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RAISE THE TITANIC (1980)
pr. William Frye; exec pr. Lord Lew Grade, Martin Starger; scr. Adam Kennedy; adaptn. Eric Hughes; nvl. Clive Cussler; m. John Barry; cast. Jason Robards, Richard Jordan, David Selby, Anne Archer, Alec Guinness (110 mins)
An Intended Rival to the Bond Franchise
Although producer Sir Lew Grade had initially turned this project down, when re-offered a finished script some years later he began to see its potential as a rival James Bond franchise and duly purchased the rights.
He allocated a large budget although production problems soon overrode this. Original director Stanley Kramer departed, citing creative differences, and the script was extensively re-written. Completion dates were pushed back when the scale model of the Titanic proved too big for any existing water tank to accommodate. When an eventual tank was found, it had to be expanded only to discover that the water pressure was so great that it crushed the model submersibles needed for the underwater scenes. In the press, the plight of this film became almost a metaphor for the fate of Lew Grade’s entire tele-communications company. This was sadly confirmed upon the film’s release. It had been so rushed to meet the scheduled exhibition date that no pre-screening was arranged to allow for potential editing. Thus the film premiered without polishing (or interference perhaps) and flopped so completely that Grade would famously say that it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic. Original author Clive Cussler disowned the movie version and was so appalled by the treatment given his biggest best-seller that he reportedly vowed never again to sell the screen rights to his books.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
An agent in Arctic island wilds stumbles upon a cave where there are the frozen remains of former operatives, and a message. He flees pursuers and the information is brought to Washington where a scientist (David Selby) informs a government representative (Jason Robards) of a unique plan for a missile defence system.
To set up this system, they need a large supply of a metal known as Byzanium. The efforts of the agent commencing the film have yielded a new source beyond Soviet reach: it seems that the largest supply of Byzanium was in the hold of the Titanic as it sank. A unique proposition is brought forward – to raise the ocean liner and recover its precious cargo. Robards places an agent-for-hire / mercenary (Richard Jordan) in charge of the operation, much to Selby’s dismay. Problems between the two men are on the verge of being exacerbated as Selby’s girlfriend (Anne Archer) has had former dealings with Jordan. Jordan and his crew now seek to find the wreckage, using deep sea diving technology and special submersible units to survey the general area. Meanwhile, Soviet agencies have noticed the unusual activity and set up their own plans. The ship’s wreck is eventually located and indeed brought to the surface whereupon the salvage crew is stopped by a Russian vessel which threatens to sink the Titanic once again unless their demands are met
A Fatally Divided Flop
Its intriguing premise notwithstanding, Raise the Titanic is, as most critics noted, an almost fatally divided film: part enormous technical feat and part Cold War espionage thriller.
The two threads complement each other but are never woven together well enough to suggest their tense inter-relationship beyond the initial set-up. The Cold War context thus seems an obligatory gesture done in the hope of adding a surrounding tension to what would otherwise risk becoming a fictitious docudrama look at technological capabilities. Thus, the human conflicts seem irrelevant and incidental to the prospect of the film’s title attraction. However, whilst the critics felt that this was the film’s shortcoming, it is in fact one of its more telling thematic assets. For as the character conflicts seem trivial and forced as drama this only underscores what the film considers the sheer pettiness of human motivation. Thus, despite the lofty intention to end the Cold War by developing the nuclear shield, these characters act initially only out of selfish pride. In this, the raising of the ship is considered a noble ideal for it would mark a return to a more innocent age, free of pettiness and political rivalry: an ideal in the end threatened by the very nature of the 20th Century’s depersonalizing human agenda. Thus, the film emerges as a study of how personal and political rivalry threatens to complicate an endeavour that promises to be a great human achievement.
In that respect director Jerry Jameson (better known for television work) actually develops themes he revealed in the earlier Airport 77, about the raising of a submerged plane.
Here again there is a kind of techno-mysticism to the wonders made capable by human invention, which Jameson sees as the only truly redeemable aspect of the human condition, at least within such a world as that created by Cold War pettiness. With this obsessing the director it is shame that he never ventured into science-fiction proper as he seemed on the verge of it in these films. Thus, the raising of the Titanic is the fusion of the best of the old and the new, and its rocket-like return is almost that of a repressed past, first evoked in the stylish opening montage. Jameson invests this with tremendous hope that an event of this magnitude may indeed overcome the pettiness of human nature, and in part it does although he is aware in his plot mechanisms that such is an ideal. The hope is that people will remember what the Titanic once represented: the greatness of the human spirit and that that is truly unsinkable. Jameson’s guarded optimism is so contagious that it makes the viewer truly regret that the surrounding film is not better than it is. The awareness the world has changed permeates the film although the great moment of the ship’s raising is, as intended, a monumental spit in the face to contemporary cynicism.
Cheaper to Lower the Atlantic
The 16:9 enhanced transfer in 1.85:1 does not preserve the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio which is only evident in the opening credits sequence.
The title event is well rendered and Jameson’s style is formally engaging throughout, with nice shot juxtapositions and aerial work. Underwater scenes, however, are decidedly murky in this transfer and shadow detail is compromised accordingly. It is an ornate film in design, seeming decidedly formal amidst its extremes of the elements, with much difference in location work adding to the tension it is able to maintain. The underwater search and salvage scenes are fascinating but again transfer clarity is at its poorest in these scenes, adding to the frustration of an unsatisfactory DVD treatment. Underwater blackness seems like indistinct blue static and thus the teasing discovery by underwater torchlight of the sunken behemoth itself lacks the impact these scenes ideally should have had. Nevertheless, model work is always capable as the raising and final harbour scenes have a due sense of majesty to them. Daylight scenes fare much better and the scene of Jordan walking the Titanic’s decks is a definite highlight. The sense of awe and discovery are preserved although some of the plot mechanisms feel padded and forced. Scenes involving technology have an almost fetishistic quality despite some blatant brand-name product placement.
A Wealth of Telling Detail
Sound is available in Dolby Digital mono only. Considering the film’s unusual spectacle and the cult reputation of John Barry’s score (never released on CD as it is in the film) such treatment is another disappointment.
Details are centred but often seem to hover in and out of crispness and clarity levels as if the mono is about to break out into stereo at any time: some static results in backgrounds at these moments. The near-constant score works well and segues into vibrant background details which give a sense of travel beyond the listed mono. These small aural details (from crickets to motors to the final rush and croaky, rusted metal of the emerging ship) add atmosphere and presence to locations and events. There is some reflexive humour over the name of Jordan’s character (Dirk Pitt) and the vastness of sea level and undersea expanses are well established, as is the use of radio as a tool to bridge vast distances and conditions. The petty bickering between the characters builds to the moment where they can put this aside to save lives and raise the ship – finally almost just for the sake of it now rather than the political context which initially brought them there. The raising of the ship carries with it in scoring and diegesis the thrill Jameson sought. Nice use is also made of a Geiger counter’s ticking as a final reminder of what the Cold War meant to such human greatness as once was possible.
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(UPDATED: January 13, 2013 18:30 )
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