Have you seen… Titanic (1996)


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After weeks of delays, it’s finally here. The Titanic movie review we’ve all been expecting. The big one. The one from the 1990s with big-name actors. Yes. That’s right. The big one. It’s time for “Titanic”…

…the 1996 CBS miniseries starring the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tim Curry, George C. Scott, and a cast of many more. What, did you expect something else?

Produced to cash in on the publicity of the production of James Cameron’s “Titanic” and released a year prior, this miniseries had half the budget, half the production time, half the appeal, and none of everything that made the much more remembered Cameron version as popular as it continues to be. Although it was the first film made about the Titanic to depict the ship breaking in half. So I guess it’s got that going for it. This film is generally considered the worst film made about the disaster (unless you count those horrible animated Titanic films, one of which features a rapping dog). Much like “Raise the Titanic,” I’ve only seen clips of it here and there. I never checked out the whole thing because I always figured it would be disappointing. Boy, was I right.

The plot is as follows…

Tell me if this sounds familiar. It’s April 1912. The Titanic is setting sail on its maiden voyage. We follow several different plots that are going on onboard. For our purposes, we’ll just focus on the main three. We have a wealthy woman named Isabella Paradine. She is returning home to her family in America, but she has an affair with an old fling. Then there’s the Allison Family (a real family that was actually on the Titanic) who are returning to America. They’ve recently hired a nanny by the name of Alice Cleaver, who is clearly mentally unstable (we’ll get to that). Then, in third class, there’s a stowaway named Jamie who is being blackmailed by a criminal (played by Tim Curry) into robbing the purser’s officer. During the voyage, he falls in love with a third-class passenger named Ases, who has recently converted to Christianity. Anyway, this might be a bit of a spoiler, but the ship hits an iceberg, and the characters must find some way to survive.

I know that that synopsis seems somewhat sarcastic, but I’ve seen several Titanic films now. There are only so many creative ways that one can spin the plot. Now, where to begin with this thing? How about the DVD box cover?

The DVD and the real photo that was used

Now, I’m sure one can look at this box cover and go, “Ah, that’s the Titanic.” Well, not me. As soon as I saw the cover, I knew something was wrong with it. It’s quite simple. The ship on the box cover is NOT the Titanic. It’s actually the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic. You can tell by the window configuration on A-deck (look that up on Google if you are unfamiliar with it). But ok. They used a picture of the Olympic instead of the actual ship due to reasons. No big deal. It was probably a mistake or something. But you wanna know what really stuns me about the picture that they used? The box cover uses a cropped version of the photo. The full photo features the Titanic to the immediate right of the Olympic. Not only did they use a picture of a ship that is not the Titanic, they used a picture that actually HAS the Titanic, but they didn’t use it. Let that fact set up the immense dumpster fire that this miniseries is.

The first thing I want to discuss is the plot of this thing. Since we have three plots going on simultaneously (excluding the historical stuff, which we’ll get to), I’ll split it up into the following three sections.

The Wealthy Woman Going On A Affair

This section is about Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character reunited with an old fling while she is on her way to rejoin her family in America. It’s pretty much a soap opera-type plot. They meet, they dance, they schmooze, one of them survives the sinking, the end. The acting is ok, I guess. Although Catherine Zeta-Jones does have a pretty bad performance where she’s on the Carpathia, discovers the recovered body of her lover, and has this emotional scene. It’s a good thing she was able to get better projects after this. I don’t really have too much to say about it other than it’s basically what a Titanic film would’ve been about if there was one made in the 1930s.

The Allison Family

This section is about the film’s portrayal of the Allison Family, a real-life Canadian family that was aboard the Titanic in first class. They consisted of Hudson Allison (the head of the family), his wife Bess, and their two children, Loraine and Trevor (both were toddlers). Also traveling with them were the nanny, Alice Cleaver, maid, Sarah Daniels, cook, Mildred Brown, and the butler George Swane. On the night of the sinking, all members of the Allison Family died, with the exception of Trevor, who was taken aboard a lifeboat by Alice Cleaver. There is some controversy over what exactly happened, but it’s generally believed that Alice and Trevor were separated in all the confusion and were escorted into a lifeboat. In addition, George Swane was also lost in the sinking.

The film omits all of the family servants, with the exception of Alice Cleaver, and ages up Loraine from 2 years old to 6. Oh, and Alice Cleaver is portrayed as being mentally unstable. She is constantly staring off into the distance, talking nonsense to herself, having nightmares, being dismissive over her past, and generally acting crazy. In light of all of this, and in true 1912 fashion, the parents decide that when they arrive in America, Alice is going to get fired instead of giving her help. But the thing is, Alice Cleaver isn’t just a mentally unstable nanny. No. She’s a mentally unstable child murderer.

Yes, apparently, prior to the events of the film, she threw her baby out of a train. Now, from what I’ve read, the real Alice Cleaver did not do this. There was a woman named Alice Mary Cleaver in 1909 who was convicted for doing that, but make no mistake, Alice Catherine Cleaver, who was on the Titanic, was not that woman. From what I can tell, this has been a misconception that has existed for decades that they were the same person. And wouldn’t you know it, it was used here. Poorly. The actress who plays Alice is awful. All she does is look weird and creepy with bug eyes. It’s a really bad portrait and it makes Allison’s parents look bad because it begs the question of why they would hire this obviously unstable woman to watch their kids.

The Stowaway subplot

This section is about a street criminal named Jamie who steals a ticket to get on board the Titanic. He gets blackmailed by a crooked steward, played by Tim Curry, and they plan on robbing the riches from the purser’s office. During the voyage, Jamie has a romance with a girl named Ases. When the ship begins sinking, he must choose what to do and who to save. Oh man, this section is awful. The acting for both Jaime and Ases is pretty bad. Neither of them is particularly convincing, especially Mike Doyle as Jamie. He uses a really fake/terrible lower-class British accent (by the way, all the American actors who play British characters in this movie use awful accents). The romance for these is also unconvincing. Sure, people say that Jack and Rose’s romance in the Cameron film was ridiculous, but at least they had a reason why they hung out. He saved her from death, thus she opened up to him about all their problems. I can buy that. In this film, Jamie and Ases talk talk talk. I really don’t know why they stick with each other initially.

But by far, the worst thing about this plot is Tim Curry. Yes, I said that. You’re probably thinking why? Tim Curry is always the best part of any bad movie he’s in. Not in this film. Initially, he seems like a typical shady criminal with a Curry-esque sense of humor. If you’re a fan of his, you might start off enjoying his scenes, but then this totally unnecessary and downright brutal scene happens right before the ship hits the iceberg that totally changes how you view this character for the rest of the movie. 

Trigger Warning: sexual assault

So this is what happens: Tim Curry’s character sexually assaults Ases in the shower. It comes out of nowhere. It’s totally unnecessary and disturbing. It makes the character too evil. Not to mention, the movie just has Ases get abused so that Jamie could go on his redemption arc. You know, they could’ve done a redemption arc for Jamie that didn’t involve the girl getting assaulted.

I heard once that for every one-star movie Tim Curry is in, he’s the reason it got that one star. This film didn’t get that marker.

On to the rest of the film

As for the other stuff that happens in this movie, it’s just historical stuff. But it’s all historically inaccurate. The 1953 film was also inaccurate, but that film was made at a time when information on the disaster wasn’t as easily accessible, so you can excuse it. This film was made at a time when such information was much more easily accessible, and they didn’t bother to use that information well. Inaccuracies that this film has included the following:

  • Several key real-life characters are excluded including Thomas Andrews (whose attributes are combined with Captain Smith), Chief Officer Wilde, Third Officer Pitman, and Sixth Officer Moody (whose attributes are combined with Fourth Officer Boxhall).
  • Bruce Ismay is depicted as convincing the Captain to try for a speed record. No matter how many people say this did happen, make no mistake that THIS DID NOT HAPPEN. In fact, Ismay is depicted as a straight-up coward in this. Quite the opposite from the real man.
  • Much of the interior set decoration is wrong.
  • Characters like Molly Brown and Alice Cleaver are depicted very inaccurately. The real-life Molly Brown in 1912 was a well-spoken political activist and socialite who was in her 40s. This film’s version of her is a much younger, sexy hillbilly-type. Alice Cleaver, we’ve already discussed.
  • Fourth Officer Boxhall is depicted as dying during the sinking. He did not. He actually survived, went on to serve in WWI, and has a technical advisor on “A Night To Remember.”
  • And many more!

Speaking of the 1958 “A Night To Remember,” as for the rest of the historical stuff that they depicted, I swear their research for this thing must’ve been that they watched that film, then they read a bunch of old newspapers from 1912, and called it good. There are scenes in this film that are pretty much stolen from the 1958 film, such as the scenes involving the SS Californian. There are scenes depicting stuff that has only been reported in sensational newspaper stories from the period, such as Captain Smith telling his crew to “Be British.” There is one more big historical thing that they depict in this movie that has to be discussed, and coincidentally this was also depicted in the Cameron film – the Murdoch Suicide Scene. 

There is a rumor that when the last lifeboats were being lowered, a group of men tried to storm the boats. An officer is said to have shot both of them, and after realizing what he had done, turned the gun on himself. It is rumored to have been First Officer William Murdoch but there is no way to prove it one way or the other. Both this film and the Cameron film depict Murdoch shooting himself. When Murdoch’s surviving family spoke out against the depiction, James Cameron attracted controversy and criticism. Cameron has since stated that if he were to make the film today, he would not include Murdoch shooting himself. Fair enough, but the Murdoch Suicide Scene in the 1996 miniseries is WAY worse than how it was in the 1997 film.

Just look at it. The bad acting. Bad script. Bad direction. Bad sets (notice how right behind them is a giant black wall). It speaks for itself. Why Cameron got the blame and this film received a free pass, I’ll never know.

Honestly, that last paragraph pretty much sums everything up to say about this film. What else is there to say? Well, the film has terrible effects. There’s a lot of CGI, but they clearly didn’t have the budget for it. As for the practical effects, it’s pretty lackluster for the same reason as having a low budget. I read once somewhere that some of the extras were strategically placed around the set to conceal the fact that the sets were falling apart. Oh, and there’s this thing’s claim to fame of being the first Titanic film to show the ship break in half. Surprise, it’s poorly done because of the bad editing of the final moments scene. It might just be one of the worst-edited scenes I’ve ever seen. Take a look:

Overall, I would say that the 1996 Titanic miniseries is the worst thing to bear the ship’s name, but the Titanic is famous because of a horrible tragedy. So instead, I say that the 1996 miniseries is the worst thing ever made about it. If you want a good film from the 90s about the Titanic, then watch the James Cameron version. It’s a way way way way better movie than this. At best, this miniseries…film…whatever, could be a good film to sit down and make fun of, but at a two hours and 50 minutes running time, it’ll be a slog. If you ever find this thing, steer clear away from it at full speed.

Side Note

Got a bonus review for Titanic-a-thon coming soon. Stay tuned.