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Raise the Titanic (Blu-ray Review)

18 Jan, 2014 By: John Latchem

Street 1/21/14
Shout! Factory
$19.97 Blu-ray
Rated 'PG'
Stars Jason Robards, Richard Jordan, David Selby, Anne Archer, Sir Alec Guinness, Bo Brundin, M. Emmet Walsh, J.D. Cannon.

Tales of the bloated production of this fanciful adventure make it seem like the Hollywood equivalent of the doomed ocean-liner at the heart of its story. Based on Clive Cussler’s 1976 book, the project went through several directors and script rewrites as its budget spiraled out of control, prompting producer Lew Grade to quip “it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.”

When it was finally released in 1980, Raise the Titanic was a notorious flop and included among the nominees for the first Razzie Awards.

Subsequent bouts of Titanic nostalgia — the discovery of the actual wreckage in 1985, James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film, and the recent 100th anniversary of the sinking — haven’t exactly raised the film’s profile, but they have made it something of a strange artifact in the totality of Titanic lore.

The film is also notable for being one of two films based on Cussler’s Dirk Pitt adventures, the other being 2005’s Sahara, with Matthew McConaughey in the role.

Richard Jordan plays Pitt in this one, which dovetails from the U.S. government’s development of shield that can block potential Soviet nukes. The only thing that can power the system is a mineral so rare it existed only in one island in the arctic, where it was mined in 1912 and stuck in a vault that was meant to be shipped back to the United States on the Titanic. So the Navy latches on to the far-fetched plan of salvaging the Titanic to get the mineral, for which they turn to the expertise of Pitt.

The whole premise relies on the fact that, at the time, no one knew where the Titanic wreckage was or had any idea what condition it was in. The film pays lip service to these concerns, glossing over them with a single line from an admiral played by Jason Robards that essentially amounts to wishful thinking.

There are some faint trappings of Cold War politics with a rival Russian salvage ship, but mostly the film plays like a two-hour procedural on how to lift a giant ship from the bottom of the ocean, with some technical mumbo-jumbo involving foam and balloons.

Sure, the premise is absurd, especially considering all we know about the wreckage now. In reality, of course, the ship broke in two upon its sinking, which in itself would make raising it impossible if the ravages of a century underwater at high-pressure depths hadn’t already corroded the ship’s hull. But there is certainly an undeniable romantic "what if" quality about the potential for such an endeavor. It’s almost all worth it to get that shot of the Titanic triumphantly emerging from the water, and the subsequent glorious visual of the ship finally sailing into the New York harbor to complete its maiden voyage after 75 years.

The high-definition upgrade is remarkably clean. There’s particular grain in some shots using stock photographs or intensive underwater visual effects, but otherwise the picture is crisp and many of the special effects hold up well.

There’s a brief but welcome cameo from Alec Guinness as a former Titanic crewman who waxes nostalgically about the fate of the great ship. Plus, the film features a beautiful musical score from John Barry, a multi-Oscar winner best known for his work on the James Bond films. It makes one wish there was a score-only track so viewers could enjoy just the visuals and music (not that this was a feasible option, since the original music recordings are reportedly lost).

From a historical perspective, the film’s subplot about a missile shield presages the 1980s SDI proposals (commonly referred to as “Star Wars”), and the meticulous depiction of the months-long search for Titanic mirrored attempts by actual expeditions looking for her. Pitt’s team knows they are getting close when they start finding debris, which is how Bob Ballard’s team finally found the wreckage five years later.

The Blu-ray includes a 25-minute featurette about the making of the movie, focusing mostly on the challenges of using models and filming underwater. One effects supervisor notes how easy it would be to do the whole thing in CGI today, but then again CGI makes it easy to create much more than is even necessary, which just makes everything too cluttered.

But he also takes a lot of pride in that some of the model shots of the sunken hull were similar to what Ballard actually photographed when he found the ship. And that, ultimately, is a testament to the power of film to spark imaginations that ultimately, if imperfectly, can manifest in reality.


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