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Friday, November 7, 2014

Raise the Titanic (1980) - Review

Clive Cussler is an author of over 50 books, many of which have made it on the New York Times bestsellers list, but when it comes to translating them well to movies it’s not gone so well. Dirk Pitt, the hero of most of Cussler’s sea adventures, seems a natural candidate for a film franchise but to date there has been only two films and both of those flopped. Why hasn’t this popular book series turned into an ocean going Bond franchise? Well today we will look at Raise the Titanic the first attempt at bringing a Clive Cussler book to the big screen and see where things went wrong.

“Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink,” This quote from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner sums up the first problem with the movie Raise the Titanic and that it is a movie that deals with water, lots and lots of water, but like salt water not much of this movie is drinkable or palatable. Movies set on the sea or about the sea have always been notoriously hard to make, the elements are just not kind to movie makers and when you compound that with shooting things underwater you are just asking for trouble.  The producers of The Abyss and Waterworld certainly know all about sea problems. The trick of course is in having a good story to make the journey worth it but unfortunately in the case of Raise the Titanic the journey resulted in a rather dull movie.
jason robards 
Jason Robards lectures us on The Titanic.

The very name of the ship Titanic captures the imaginations of people all over the world so right there you have a hook into your audience, and then you tell them you are going to not only find the wreck of the world’s most famous ship but are going to raise her. How awesome is that? You pretty much have to go out of your way to muck up a great premise like that. Well producer Lew Grade and director Jerry Jameson do just that.

“Don’t work guys I’ll make enough money for all of us.”

The story centers around the United States government developing a defense program called “The Sicilian Project” which uses sound waves to knock down incoming missiles, this would create an impenetrable shield over North America, but there is one small problem it needs a powerful fuel source that can only be provided by an extremely rare mineral called byzanium. When government agents discover that only place on Earth that has this mineral is on an island off the coast of the Soviet Union they send a mineralogist to find it. Unfortunately he discovers that it had already been mined back in 1912 and we soon find out that a half a ton of it was loaded onto the RMS Titanic. Our hopes for world peace lie at the bottom of the ocean.

I think someone left the tub running.

The head of “The Sicilian Project” is Dr. Gene Seagram (David Selby) who with the aid of Admiral Sandecker (Jason Robards) and Dirk Pitt (Richard Jordan) will try and get the byzanium before the Russians do. The strangest decision the filmmakers decide on here is that of making Gene Seagram the nominal lead in this movie and not Dirk Pitt. The book Raise the Titanic is a Dirk Pitt adventure so sidelining your hero for the bulk of the movie is a strange and stupid choice.

This is not my idea of Dirk Pitt.

Instead of us following Dirk while he uncovers nefarious plots and spies we get scenes of Dr. Seagram with his reporter girlfriend Dana Archibald (Anne Archer) dealing with his jealousy over the fact that she lived with Pitt years ago. *yawn* In the book Dana is marine archeologist and is integral in the finding and raising of the Titanic while in the movie she is a love interest that disappears halfway through the movie never to be seen again.  There is one actor that stands out as being just perfect and that is Sir Alec Guinness who plays a survivor of the sinking and who gives our heroes a vital clue, his performance adds warmth and gravitas to the movie and once he is off screen he is greatly missed.

“I would advise trying The Force to raise it.”

Now comes the next big problem with this movie and that is the underwater action, that being it is almost impossible to make action underwater realistic and exciting. You can do one or the other but doing both is a bit of a trick. If you find scenes of submersible slowly combing the sea floor looking for a sunken ship fascinating than this could be the film for you but the rest of us we are left bored out of our bloody minds. I would bet a mathematician could come up with a formula showing the percentage of underwater footage in a movie is in direct comparison to how successful it is. An extra half hour of Bill Paxton puttering around in his sub in James Cameron’s Titanic could have resulted in a flop instead of a mega hit. But hey, that’s just my theory.

Slow and murky wins the race.

Well eventually our “heroes” find the Titanic and plans to raise it go into action; they will fill the hull with foam thus forcing the water out of the ship, then they will attach buoyancy tanks and with a few well-placed explosive charges they will rock the ship free and float it to the surface. Sadly accidents will happen and one of the submersibles is trapped on the deck of the Titanic and the only way to save them is to raise the ship in a matter of hours instead of the weeks that were scheduled. That they accomplish this with almost no problem tells me their schedule was for shit.

“Did anyone pack a caulking gun?”

Science Note: When the submersible develops a like at the depth of 12,000 feet we are told they have only six hours to live before running out of air but in reality they should have died instantly. The pressure at that depth would cause the sub to implode immediately upon springing a leak.

The sequence of the great ocean liner rising out of the depths and bursting to the surfaces is damn impressive. A beautiful fifty foot model was built to achieve this and it does look like money well spent, sadly it was too long of a slog with uninteresting characters for this payoff to be worth it.

There is very little action in this film and at almost two hours it could have used a bit of action injection to at least help keep us awake. Sure we get a bit where we are told a hurricane is on the way which is apparently supposed to add tension but then it never shows up so that’s a wash, and the when the navy ships that are providing support for the operation are called away on a distress call allowing Russians to pop aboard the Titanic and demand they hand the ship over to them or else see it sunk to the bottom with all hands on deck. Pitt in full smug mode makes one quick call and a nuclear attack sub surfaces and a couple of F-16 fighter jets fly over.

“Take that Ruskies!”

So now that any chance of action has been thwarted it’s now time to go into the cargo hold and find us some byzanium. But gasp, the safe in the hold is full of boxes of gravel. This depresses Seagram but Sandecker says it may be for the best because the byzanium may have ended being used not for defense but for a bigger bomb. This enrages Seagram and he asks, “Then  why in god’s name did you okay this mission?” A very valid question that is answered in the stupidest way possible, “If someone was going to make a byzanium bomb I wanted it to be us.” *sigh* Now later Pitt informs Seagram that the last words of the agent who went down with the ship leads him to believe the byzanium is buried in a cemetery in Sotheby England, and this turns out to be the case but because of the threat of a byzanium bomb is too much for Seagram he decides to leave buried. Making this whole movie pointless.

Do you think anybody in the audience is still awake?

The Books Ending: Seagram goes into a mental breakdown after it is discovered that the byzanium was not aboard the Titanic but once Pitt figures out where it’s buried he and Sandecker retrieve it and do a successful test of the Sicilian Project.  Why the filmmakers decided on a depressing, “Fuck it, let’s just leave it there” ending is beyond me when the books ending was much more palatable.

The End.

Producer Lew Grade is famously quoted as saying, “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic than raise the Titanic.” As it cost over 40 million dollars and took in only 7 million at the box office I think he was screwed either way. It’s just not a good movie and an even worse adaptation.

So what I’m saying is, go read the book.

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