Monday, September 21, 2015

Guest Review: Raise the Titanic! (1980)

by Rustbelt

Okay, close your eyes for a second and picture the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word, “Titanic.” Is it the majestic, doomed liner heading out on her maiden voyage? The plight of 1,500 souls about to die in the icy waters of the North Atlantic? The eerie, ghoulish images of the rusting wreck on the muddy, ocean floor? Leonardo DiCaprio screaming “Rose!” 50 times, with Kate Winslet shouting back “Jack!” 80 times? (Yes, someone counted.) The suffering those of us old enough to have been teenage boys in 1997/1998 had to endure during theater viewing number 5 in the hopes of making out with then-girlfriend afterwards?

How about an amazing mystery/techno/espionage thriller turned into a boring, watered-down,* by-the-numbers salvage movie? If your answer is the latter…first, you need to watch better movies. And second, welcome back to Raise the Titanic!

(*- this pun, and many more like it, 100% intended!)

Image and Text Spoiler Alert
In the Beginning... (actually 63 years after the sinking...)

Clive Cussler wrote a book about a fictional salvage operation that brings the wreck of RMS Titanic back to the surface. Government investigators have learned that a rare (fictional) mineral- byzanium- was secretly mined in Russia in 1912 and smuggled onto Titanic. With this mineral, American scientists can finish the Sicilian Project: a pre-Star Wars force field that can protect the U.S. from a Soviet missile attack. (It’s named after a chess move.)

It was Cussler’s fourth novel to feature his hero character, Dirk Pitt (or the ‘American James Bond,’ as Andrew calls him), who leads the operation. However, the Soviets learn of the Sicilian Project and plan to take the byzanium for themselves- all leading to a climactic showdown on the Titanic’s risen hull. With all that, what could go wrong? Uh…

Before We Continue… Titanic’s wreck wasn’t found until 1985. Before then, it was unknown if the ship was intact or broken. Plus, oceanographers weren’t sure if corroding bacteria existed in the high-pressure, freezing waters of the ocean abyss. Therefore, Cussler’s idea of a preserved, intact Titanic was still considered plausible when he wrote his book in 1975. Anyway...

The Movie: A Truly Joyless Experience

After investigating a frozen mine, a man dressed like an Eskimo runs across a Russian glacier and is shot by a Soviet solider, who is then shot by another man, revealed to be Pitt (Richard Jordan). But we’ll call him BeardedBillPaxton. Back in the States, Dr. Gene Seagram (David Selby), whose skull looks like it could burst at any time, explains the Sicilian Project to several high-raking officers (see above). Five minutes later, BeardedBillPaxton reveals that the byzanium from the Russian mine was smuggled by American miners to the Titanic in 1912. NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) chief Admiral James Sandecker (Jason Robards) and others then grant BeardedBillPaxton’s request to raise the wreck.
After getting some background information from a retired Jedi/Titanic’s last surviving crew member (Alec Guinness)- who encountered the last surviving miner on the doomed boat- BeardedBillPaxton, some boats, and a few submersibles then spend half the film (well, that’s what it seems like, at least), searching for the Big T. Finally, a cornet is found, pointing the way to the debris field and an unconvincing model of the Big T. Titanic is then raised prematurely when a damaged submersible malfunctions and gets stuck on the boat deck.

Meanwhile, the Russians get word of this and leak the information to the press. It all leads to a Soviet spy ship sending the KGB’s BaldingBillyZane via helicopter to Titanic. He menacing-though-not-threateningly asks them to leave so the Reds can pirate the ship and have the byzanium all to themselves. The Americans politely show him a nearby nuclear sub ready to attack and start WWIII and say, “no thank you. But please don’t leave without a copy of our newsletter. Bye.” BaldingBillyZane leaves.
Titanic arrives in New York to much fanfare. However, the byzanium is not in the safe, though the smiling corpse of the last miner is. (Maybe he was glad it was all just a cameo.) Sandecker says the government wanted to weaponize the byzanium, angering BurstingSkull. However, a postcard found on the corpse leads BeardedBillPaxton and BurstingSkull to Southby, England. There, they find the byzanium in the grave of another one of the original miners. However, deciding not to tip the balance of Cold War power, they leave it in the grave. Fin.

Okay. That Was Dull. What Did They Leave Out?

Glad you asked. Uh... cool plot stuff for $1000, Alex. Alex: Answer: this was cut. Uh, how about the opening scene in 1912 where the Titanic crewmember (John Bigalow) is held at gunpoint by the last surviving miner (Joshua Brewster)? Also, the lengthy search in Colorado to track the miners’ actions from evidence found in Siberia? The Soviet Captain’s plan to take the Titanic by force? Pitt’s search for Soviet agents in his salvage crew? The violent showdown between the Soviet sailors and Navy SEALs on the Big T during a hurricane? The CIA’s plan to leak details of the Sicilian Project to lure in and capture a leading Soviet spymaster?

Alex: Good. Onto Round 2. Okay. Cool character stuff for $2000. Alex: Answer: left on the editing room floor. Where’s the all-too-human president who only wants to get through his second term and retire to Tahiti? Where’s Seagram’s manic obsession with the project that drives him to permanent madness and destroys his marriage? (In the film, his wife, Dana, is just his reporter girlfriend. More in a second.) Where’s his partner-in-crime, Mel Donner? Where’s the slimy Soviet Captain Prevlov, whose plan to capture Titanic may lead to a decent promotion? Where’s Pitt’s right-hand man, Al Giordino?

This film could qualify for its own series of ‘Have You Seen Me?’ milk cartons.
In Other Words, A Whole Lotta Nothing Goin’ On

If I could sum this flick up in one word, it would be ‘boring.’ Just long stretches of padding and establishing shots peppered here and there with things that happen, but completely lack anything resembling buildup and payoff. That’s right. Nothing happens with any consequence to the plot. The audience is left not caring and why should they? Consider:

● A submersible, the ‘Starfish,’ explodes. Everyone’s sad. Then it’s back to the briny deep as thought nothing happened.
● The Soviets leak information of the Sicilian Project to the press (Why? Secrets are power in the intelligence business!), through Seagram’s girlfriend, Dana. After a brief press conference, the revelation is never mentioned again. No public outcry. No Congressional hearings. Back to the guys on the salvage vessels... boats.
● At sea, Pitt and Sandecker discuss a few crewmen who may be sleeper Soviet agents. (In the book, they really are.) Following this discussion, the plot thread completely disappears. Back to men on the
● As noted, the Russian arrival is as disappointing as finding a carton scooped free of ice cream. The scene feels like a business meeting without any true attempt at a hostile takeover. BaldingBillyZane just leaves on his chopper, with BeardedBillPaxton, Sandecker, and some extras on the risen ocean liner...boat watching him head out.
● The discovery of Brewster’s corpse in the vault is ‘meh.’ We learned nothing about him earlier (like we did in the book). Why should we care? The men onscreen stare, mope, and then get back to standing on the derelict, prized discovery, ghost ship... boat!!!
Okay, we get it! We get it! They’re on a boat! They’re on a boat! Take a good, hard look of them on the m*****f****** boat! Yeah, yeah!


Damn You, the 70’s!

In addition to taking the fun out of the story, the filmmakers felt the need to re-fit the screenplay with bell-bottoms. For one thing, when Seagram and Dana go fishing, he calls her a ‘fisherperson.’ (insert groan here) Is this because there was no chance to mention ‘people-hole covers?’

And that thing about weaponizing the byzanium (isn’t it already being weaponized? –defensively, I mean?); well, it can’t be the 70’s without a cynical plot of evil military or government men, can it? After all, Jaws had it. All the President’s Men had it. Mitchell had it. And, dammit, this movie’s gonna have it, too!

Even worse than that, Pitt was completely gutted as a character. In the introduction to my Kindle version of the book, Clive Cussler called Dirk Pitt a man of action- “a man of the 80’s in the era of the 70’s.” He’s got a fierce independent streak and has to be recruited by Sandecker into finding the ship. In the film, people call Pitt a ‘pirate.’ But just calling someone ‘Han Solo’ doesn’t make him Han Solo. In fact, Pitt acts more like a bureaucrat, shouting in offices, and being meek in the field. This role called for a tough guy of the era, like Burt Reynolds or Tom Selleck. Instead, we got Richard Jordan wearing “sweaters that say I’ve read the works of Alan Alda.” (Mike Nelson, MST3K, Episode 0903, “The Pumaman”). Good grief.

And that ending. THAT ENDING!!!! What unimaginable bastard could’ve come up with something like it?! In the book, the last thing we read is the successful testing of the Sicilian Project. (The byzanium was recovered from the grave.) In the film, we get the usual lefty notion that no one should have the advantage in anything. Everyone should have an equal chance of being killed if nuclear war breaks out. Bad Americans for wanting a defensive weapon. Bad! Détente sucks, There, I said it.
Final Thought

Just to prove I’m not a total cynic, there are three things I like about this movie. First, the scene where the Titanic breaks the surface is truly beautiful. Second, the scenes of Titanic sailing through New York Harbor are also quite nice. And finally, the film score is truly awe-inspiring. But this is a film unworthy of its score. (Much like ‘John Carpenter’s The Fog.’) Full of boredom, horrific plotting, and characters duller than contestants on post-Regis Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, this flick was a box office bomb that sank faster than the real ship. (See Jason’s Mini-Major report for the full story on what it did to ITC Entertainment.) And, God willing, its heart won’t go on.


ScottDS said...

I usually avoid reviews of movies I've never seen but I made an exception in this case!

Yeah, seems to be the general consensus where this movie is concerned. Sounds like they took an exciting novel and sucked the life out of it. Perhaps they thought the idea of raising the Titanic was enough so they didn't bother to fully explore the Russian stuff. I've said before in reviews that too many movies tend to overstuff their plots: A isn't big enough so they throw in B, C, D, and E. This movie seems to suffer from the opposite problem.

And that ending doesn't bother me... didn't For Your Eyes Only do the same thing? "That's detente, comrade: YOU don't have it, I don't have it." (Also the 70s, I know.)

And yeah, everyone seems to love John Barry's score. One of many examples of a great score for a bad film. (As a Jerry Goldsmith fan, I sympathize.) :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Thanks for the review! My parents loved this book, so we went to see the movie when it came out. They were less than pleased. I still remember that. Years later, I read the book and I understood why. The book is fantastic. it's exciting, original and impossible to put down. But the film is lifeless. They sucked out all the interesting parts and it just became guys standing around. What a waste!

Rustbelt said...

Scott, when Bond throws the ATAC device at the end of FYEO, he's preventing the Soviets from getting their hands on a weapon that gives the West an advantage. He's actually preventing an even playing field. (His remark really doesn't make much sense when you think about it.) So, the scenes, IMO, don't really match.

And, yeah. Terrific score. Completely unworthy movie.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, I'm glad you liked it!
That must have been a pretty big letdown if you can still recall it all these years later. (I would've denied it at the time, but I now have a similar memory of a space opera movie from 1999. Meesa want mine memory wiped!)

What really amazes me is how the filmmakers claimed the book was just a 'manual for raising a ship.' Yet, that's all they left in the screenplay. And actions speak louder than words. I can understand why Cussler hated this film so much.

PikeBishop said...

Like Andrew I loved the novel, and bad reviews kept me away from the film. It was fun and exciting and well-plotted, it really drew you in. Now that you tell me what they left out from the film, as they toned down its politics, Raise the Titanic had, IMHO, one of the most memorable scenes in all Cold War Fiction ever!


The Soviets board the Titanic and attempt to take control of her. They end up with their guns drawn on Pitt and his salvage crew, who refuse to help them repair or steer the ship. They are willing to be shot rather than help the Russians. The Soviet commander orders Seagram's wife to strip naked in preparation to be raped, hoping the Americans will comply to save her from being assaulted. The Americans even turn their backs to not look at her. Finally she yells "Fuck you" to the Soviet officer and then starts one of the most memorable scenes in all of Cold War art.

She tells the Soviet, "If you clowns knew how much the world laughs at you behind your threadbare backs every time you spout off about Marxist this or Imperialistic that, you guys might straighten up and show a little class! You guys are the biggest joke foisted on humanity, since we climbed down from the trees!"

That to me as a teen ager in the late 70s summed up the Cold War for me! We actually had to treat this backwards ass country, and their incompetent, insanely inefficient economic system as if they were a real country. And why? Because they had "the Bomb!" Ridiculous.

I always loved that scene, and to hear they cut it just breaks my heart! And in a 70s movie they skipped a chance for some non-gratuitious T&A, which actually is part of the plot? Unbelievable.

WillowViney said...

The actual surfacing was rather beautiful to watch. I always wondered how they managed to do that pre-CGI (filmed in 1978).

The 55 foot long ship model is still sitting in Malta, where it is rotting away. Ironically it now looks somewhat like the real wreck.

Kit said...

"Glad you asked. Uh... cool plot stuff for $1000, Alex. Alex: Answer: this was cut. Uh, how about the opening scene in 1912 where the Titanic crewmember (John Bigalow) is held at gunpoint by the last surviving miner (Joshua Brewster)? Also, the lengthy search in Colorado to track the miners’ actions from evidence found in Siberia? The Soviet Captain’s plan to take the Titanic by force? Pitt’s search for Soviet agents in his salvage crew? The violent showdown between the Soviet sailors and Navy SEALs on the Big T during a hurricane? The CIA’s plan to leak details of the Sicilian Project to lure in and capture a leading Soviet spymaster?"

Ok, so after that what, besides the Titanic being raised, was left in>?

Kit said...

"That to me as a teen ager in the late 70s summed up the Cold War for me! We actually had to treat this backwards ass country, and their incompetent, insanely inefficient economic system as if they were a real country. And why? Because they had "the Bomb!" Ridiculous."

Clap… Clap… Clap… Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. APPLAUSE!

Rustbelt said...

Pikebishop, that is a kickass scene in the book. Nothing like a smug commie getting put in his place. To be honest, I didn't like either of the Seagrams for quite a while. This scene put Dana up with the best of the characters. (Gene snapping and going permanently mental at the end- after chokeslamming Brewster's corpse- was rather fitting.)

And while we're at it, how about the scene where Pitt was nearly washed off the ship in a helicopter? It was also cut! He had to go all John McClane, scale the ship, and navigate the boat to reach the others- with a massive head wound.

And then, after the SEALs take control again, Pitt gleefully looks at the two traitors and tells them, "congratulations! You're getting the death penalty!"
So much good stuff lost.

Rustbelt said...

Willow Viney, I saw that about the model. I think there was a group that tried to have it preserved, but their efforts came up short. The model, IMO, looks beyond repair. LINK

Sad when the human actors get out-acted by a model ship, isn't it?

Rustbelt said...

Kit, I'd like to say the skeleton was left in.

Bu they were still missing a clavicle, the left scapula, and both femurs.

Voz said...

Rustbelt, you made my day when you quoted Mike Nelson and arguably the best MST3K episode ever! "Thepumaman Copyright 1462" I recently got to watch this...I'd wanted to for years and I knew it was a stinker to begin with but I wanted to see it anyways...I basically watched it on fast forward...I liked McConaughey as Pitt in Sahara and Steve Zahn was decent as Giordino.
Raise the Titanic was dead in the water...pun intended like yours were.

Rustbelt said...

Voz, whatever I can do to make a fellow Mstie happy! Ah, the 'glory' of the Pew-may-mun. He flies like a moron...BTW, my name is Pleasance and I am FUN-KEE!
You know, that was one of the few shows that only got better with time. Amazing how many classic episodes came during those 3 years on the Sci-Fi Channel. (Anyhoo, I added the joke after watching this glorious annotated version HERE. This one, 'Werewolf, and 'Space Mutiny' and simply among the must-see episodes of the series.)

I haven't seen Sahara. I'm not really a McConaughey fan. However, Penelope Cruz is in it. So, I may give it a shot.

Keep the puns coming! This movies deserves nothing less!

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