The MovieRaise the Titanic has become something of a cautionary tale, having been at the spearhead of Lord Grade's brave but foolhardy attempt at cracking the American studios' hegemony on big-budget genre pictures. Unfortunately the movie soaked up so much money and took such a battering at the box office that Grade's production company never recovered. But after all these years, does it really deserve the critical & commercial savaging that it initially received?
Based on a Clive Cussler novel, this 1980 adaptation charts the efforts of the US government in hunting down a mystery mineral that could prove vital to the defence of the country by powering a missile shield, codenamed The Sicilian Project. Their research tracks a historic load of the rare Byzanium to the shores of England in 1912, Southampton to be exact, where the ore and its US Army chaperone boarded the RMS Titanic on her doomed maiden voyage to New York. Looking for solutions in recovering the material from its underwater tomb - and thus beating the Russians in the race for the next big guarantor of world peace - the US Navy enlists the help of Admiral Sandecker (played by Jason Robards) at NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, who in turn puts his best agent on the job, fast living action-man Dirk Pitt (Richard Jordan). Pitt comes up with a crazy idea: instead of going to the mountain, they'll make the mountain come to them...
Sadly, Raise the Titanic manages to take what is a tense, thrilling book and turns it into a leaden lump of a movie, as Jerry Jameson's plodding direction leaves it foundering. The leads do their best, and although they're all very fine character actors in their own right, they don't have enough star power to give this film the cheesy disaster-movie vibe that it's crying out for. It's almost like they're playing it too safe, too seriously - Alec Guinness' earnest cameo is awesome, though - and it doesn't help that the narrative is badly lacking in pace and dramatic energy. The strong Cold War flavour of the book, that of facing off against those darned Russkies as they plot to get the Byzanium, has largely been overlooked, the film preferring the soppy love triangle between Pitt, Dr. Seagram (David Selby) and his wife, Dana (Anne Archer). That feeling of langour isn't done any favours by the numerous shots of submersibles pottering about below water; yes, it's naturally slow-going work but the inertia of these scenes kill the movie stone dead, and even the occasional imploding sub does little to quicken the blood.
However, the undeniable realism of the marine footage and the vehicles that they use is one of the few bright spots of the film. Made several years before the actual discovery of the wreck (which is why she's still in one piece!), the production team created an extremely believable and accurate underwater environment, the ship looking aged but not overtly decayed, and the framing of certain shots ended up being eerily similar to the images captured years later by Ballard, Cameron et al. And when the ship finally breaks the surface and is seen in all her glory, the magnificence of the $5 million dollar model - 55 feet long, weighing 10 tons, some 'miniature'! - is a sight to behold.
Another feather in Raise the Titanic's cap is the lush score by John Barry, which gives it a palpable feeling of true Hollywood glamour, and only the hardest of hearts wouldn't swell just a little when the Titanic sees daylight again, set against the sonic backdrop of Barry's lovely theme. (The original recordings for the music no longer survive apparently, but the score was re-recorded by the City of Prague Philharmonic in 1999, and it's very well done.)
You'd think that the movie would've picked up a few more fans for the model work alone over the years, owing to the near-pathological dislike of CG out there in internet land, but the continued apathy towards Raise the Titanic proves beyond a doubt that you can have as much practical VFX work as you like, but it won't count for a damned thing if the story's a clunker. Of course, we know now that the actual ship was torn asunder in her death throes which undermines the whole premise anyway, but it could still have been a slick Cold War thriller or a swashbuckling Dirk Pitt Adventure. As it is, it's neither, and the film will see out eternity as Saturday afternoon TV filler.
That said, I've still got a soft spot for Raise the Titanic, perhaps for having seen it repeatedly on TV as a kid in exactly that sort of 'Saturday afternoon' context, and so I've eagerly awaited this chance to watch the movie in high-def widescreen.
The DiscShout! Factory's Region A locked disc presents the movie in widescreen 2.35 as per the original anamorphic 35mm photography. After years of grotty pan-and-scan TV broadcasts and the occasional low-fi DVD release, it's a pleasure to see Matthew Leonetti's widescreen lensing come alive in 1080p, and the same goes for the wonderful 'raising' scene. At long last, it finally looks like a proper movie!
There's an ever-present layer of grain, which naturally spikes during dimly lit shots and the opticals, with the occasional appearance of dirt and scratches. It's not particularly stable, owing to some telecine wobble which is quite distracting in some scenes. The colour is consistent, if a little subdued, and the blacks are fairly thin. Edges are clean and sharp without any overt enhancement, and fine detail often looks terrific.
The AVC encoding is solid to a point, handling those murky underwater shots well and not showing any nasty banding. A couple of the grainier interior sequences are a bit more fragile though, the grain devolving into digital noise, but it's not too common an occurrence. You may notice people at the sides of the frame looking extraordinarily skinny in a few shots, that's merely a byproduct of using wider-angled anamorphic glass.
Audio is presented in two flavours, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and 5.1. The former is what I presume to be the original Dolby Stereo Lt/Rt mix, the latter is a discrete remix and there's not much to choose between them. This was a very early surround effort and it sounds like it, with some decent separation across the front sound stage but very sparse rear activity. There's a moderate rumble of bass during the action scenes. Dialogue is fine but the music sounds quite woolly, which is a particular shame.
The extras are limited to the trailer - which is just as lacking in impetus as the film itself, although the colour is more vibrant than that seen in the main transfer - and a brand-new 23-minute featurette about the making of the underwater sequences, with new interviews with several gentlemen who worked on the movie. You'll get no juicy information about the troubled nature of the project as a whole, just some honest recollections from guys who worked damned hard and who did their very best under trying circumstances.