Directed by Jerry Jameson
Written by Adam Kennedy, Eric Hughes, and many others (based on the novel by Clive Cussler)
We've offered our encomium to the disaster cinema of the 1970s already, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by Irwin Allen's final disaster film, the aptly-named When Time Ran Out..., to commend the movement gently and honorably to its rest. Depending on the strictness of your definitions, it was the final major "real" disaster film for a while, followed swiftly by Airplane!, which danced on disaster cinema's grave and was so savage in its parody that if the genre weren't already dead, it presumably still would have died of embarrassment. But just a couple months after that, in the late summer of 1980, we find a bit of a vestigial remnant of the genre, an addendum of sorts to the disaster film movement of the 1970s, not very obviously a "disaster film" itself, and clearly not designed as such, but so obviously adjacent to disaster cinema that it would be an oversight to not consider it. I've tried to do this retrospective in chronological order, but would like to save my dessert—that is, the Airplane! films—for last. It therefore falls upon us now to confront one of the mythical boondoggles of English-language cinema, perhaps the very origin of the half-superstitious proverb regarding the failure foreordained for any film that works with too much water: Lew Grade's production of Raise the Titanic.
Like most such things, its reputation is at least partly just the result of the normal, assholish desire to revel in the schadenfreude of watching other people's expensive dreams die. It isn't actually terrible. It may be worse—it's inert. I've been fairly liberal in my estimation of disaster films, not-infrequently claiming that certain films ought to have done better, but the $7 million that Raise the Titanic returned upon its $40 million—not a typo!—budget honestly seems like all it deserved, given how indifferent it can feel to you watching it. This was, to be sure, an accident—it's supposed to be eye-blasting spectacle—but the enormous (often wasteful) effort that went into it sometimes feels like it was done purely for the effort's own sake, which, ironically, would've made for a much better premise for Raise the Titanic than the one it actually has, which instead revolves around magic sci-fi laser gems lost in the hold of the RMS Titanic and the attempt by the U.S. military to retrieve them out from under the Soviet Navy, so they can win the Cold War with sci-fi so nonsensical it makes the real SDI project sound feasible.
That more-or-less encapsulates the plot already, but I can be a little less dismissive if I try: we begin—well, we begin with Grade being rather inordinately proud of the non-hereditary peerage he'd been awarded in 1969, with a big marquee that welcomes us to A LORD GRADE PRODUCTION—with a fairly perfunctory credits sequence over a kinestatic montage of Titanic photography, that isn't particularly interesting aesthetically, but at least insists far more than the film usually will upon the idea of a romantic quest to reclaim a legend. Our narrative proper, however, begins not 370 miles off Newfoundland, but on an island of controversial ownership far to the north, in the Arctic Circle. In 1911, it was the site of Americans mining for "byzanium," not a city in Thrace but a rare mineral recognized as an astonishingly powerful source of radioactivity, one which Dr. Gene Seagram (Dave Selby) and Adm. James Sandecker (James Robards) have long hoped to use to power an interlocking system of ray blasters that would, if built, render Soviet ballistic missiles obsolete. The byzanium, however, is no longer on the island. Soviet soldiers are, however, and Sandecker's man on the ground only barely escapes thanks to the intervention of one Dirk Pitt (Richard Jordan); Dirk Pitt returns with the injured man and enough clues to determine that almost a century ago the Americans smuggled the byzanium off that ice-bound rock but, unfortunately, entrusted its transport to New York by way of a particular passenger liner leaving from Southampton. As the Soviets circle, our heroes ponder their options, but really they have only one: to raise the Titanic!
I will not make the claim that this is the stupidest, pulpiest plot in the history of mainstream cinema, but if you made such an assertion I really don't know what counterexample I'd throw back at you, and accordingly I went in intending to love the crap out of it, for it's very nearly the platonic ideal of its brand of fiction. The closest the premise gets to displeasing me at all isn't even its fault: it's that the one nice thing I had to say about Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, regarding the "imaginativeness" of how it continued The Poseidon Adventure, turns out to have been a bit of a knock-off. The more important downside, however, is it doesn't often escape that idealized platonic realm into the real world of execution; the 1976 Clive Cussler novel absolutely included that exclamation point, Raise the Titanic!, in its title, and I slightly wonder if its excision by Grade and his screenwriters was a sub rosa admission that there aren't very many exclamation points in their adaptation.
Nevertheless, Grade had assumed he had a franchise-starter on his hands, a rival to James Bond—"Dirk Pitt" (it is very hard to not constantly write that name in quotation marks) was a protagonist in a whole series of adventure-y, espionage-y Cussler novels—and every atom of that recited plot screams out desperately to be given a Bondian approach. Hell, it might be too stupid for Bond—though this arrived between Moonraker and Octopussy (a title that makes me less uncomfortable than the name "Dirk Pitt"), so maybe not—but it wouldn't be out of bounds to suggest a full-on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. approach, full of pop art absurdity and the kind of mod cool that, at this point, would come off a throwback. Yet the contemporary movie it most reminds me of is Star Trek: The Motion Picture but, like, vastly moreso.
The disaster film connection we're looking for (even if "it's about the Titanic" could make it an honorary disaster film all by itself) arrives by way of pedigree: after a series of false starts, Grade devolved his authority to William Frye, erstwhile co-producer of the Airport sequels—he had left the franchise to Jennings Lang alone for The Concorde: Airport '79—but what I want you to remember is that he produced Airport '77. I don't know to what extent Grade was the mastermind, or Frye, but by the time the screenplay was finally finished—and while only Adam Kennedy is credited, it's known that it went through a dozen hands and at least as many drafts—what they wound up with was a spy thriller that manifestly doesn't care about spy stuff. Cussler wasn't happy: besides perverting his Cold War tome with a peacenik message, it also cuts out very nearly literally everything thrilling, notably a hurricane and a gunfight with Soviet marines. It cares only, and exclusively, about what can motivate raising the Titanic.
Which is what's so maddeningly unnecessary about it, because all of that—all the Dirk Pitt skullduggery and anti-missile lasers and Soviet perfidy—is not a requisite, and the prospect of raising the Titanic, though perhaps most famously-expressed in Cussler's novel, had been a free-floating idea amongst kooks and dipshits for some time already. A month before Raise the Titanic came out, one of the kookiest and dipshittiest, Jack Grimm, perhaps having grown weary of searching for Noah's Ark and settling instead on finding a real ship, had mounted an expedition looking for the Titanic, musing about how he might raise it if he found it. (For the record, nobody knew it had cracked in half yet; accordingly, this movie's wreck is, of course, inaccurate.) It's perhaps unfair to bring it up because it hadn't happened yet, but you only need to look at what happened once Robert Ballard did find the Titanic in 1985: in 1998, a company devoted to exploiting the Titanic did, in fact, raise a big chunk of it, making a circus out of the endeavor. And this was their second attempt! Their first ended when they accidentally dropped the chunk two miles back onto the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. (I'm immune to finding such things grotesque or ghoulish, and I think it's childish when people do; but it is pretty wasteful, and likely not best archaeological practice.) I guess once you paid for the spy thriller about raising the Titanic you keep the spy thriller even if all you really wanted was the title.
It wouldn't take much at all to have made a disaster movie out of such a thing—goodness, it's got all its themes pre-loaded—but, with apologies for running afield into "this movie would be better if it were a totally different movie," let's stick with the film that exists. In an almost overdetermined move, Frye tapped Airport '77's Jerry Jameson to direct, so that Jameson occupies one of the smallest niches in film history, as the guy whose entire legacy is "movies about objects on the bottom of the ocean getting raised to the top, 1977-1980." Even so, Airport '77 suggested a talented director, and Jameson does a credible job with what he has: though having no access to anything like the suspense of Airport '77's wild heist plot (or the appeal of Airport '77's top-notch cast), he shuffles through the prefatory spy stuff (and even-more-prefatory bureaucratic stuff) with enough sense of purpose to get by, even if that purpose is pretty palpably "Jesus, let's get to the rusted majesty of the Titanic already."
He's not able to fix the bone-deep problems: besides the cartoonish espionage fiction rendered unpalatably dry, there's just enough "interpersonal drama" to fuck up the procedural Jameson would obviously prefer to be making—there's a subplot about leaks to the press, which appears better-integrated in the novel and doesn't really matter here, that collapses entirely into a subplot about our science-hero Seaberg being emotionally cuckolded by his journalist girlfriend (Anne Archer) on behalf of her old paramour, our action-hero Dirk Pitt, and once it does, the subplot not only fails to matter, it doesn't even actually conclude; of course, it would need to be very interpersonally-dramatic indeed to have overcome Jordan's charisma vacuum as Dirk Pitt, who, going by his porno name, is presumably cool in the books, but is basically an ambulatory beard in this, so that the only times he doesn't appear as if he would be more comfortable running a men's sweat lodge, or sighing at Tim Allen, is when he's barking at poor Selby, which brings a second dimension to his performance in that now he's uncharismatic and a jerk. Selby, for his part, is taking this so unseriously he can barely keep a smirk off his face, yet somehow is probably the only actor who even remotely feels like he's trying to pretend to raise the Titanic.
Jameson, perhaps wisely, retreats from any of these human concerns; there's basically only the one scene in the movie that works on any human level, wherein Dirk Pitt meets with a Titanic survivor (it may help that the survivor is played by Alec Guinness), mostly just to set up a nice beat with the Titanic's pennant later. (This is also the only vector by which we are invited to recall that the Titanic might have had any particular tragedy associated with it, or even that it had any passengers and crew to be inconvenienced by its sinking. This is a movie about the hulk of the Titanic that features one corpse, which represents a fictional character, and when it shows up it's practically a gag.) Otherwise, Jameson seems preoccupied with just making a movie purely about awe-inspiring objects, and so far as the script allows him to do so, Raise the Titanic is even decent: besides indulging himself with helicopter landscape shots so frequently that the "first act" (or whatever) is approximately 30% helicopter landscape shots by volume, he gets a fair amount of mileage out of the US Navy's participation and pretty second-unit sunsets with USN destroyers and the sister of his old friend, the USS Cayuga, the Schenectady.
Somehow, then, the most objectively-boring parts of the movie are by far the best and most fun: the speculative discussion of raising the Titanic and the slow, stately, nuts-and-bolts-but-somehow-abstract exploration of how these ideas are put into action. Raise the Titanic benefits from some pretty terrific modelwork—this being one of the reasons the film cost, again, forty million 1980 dollars. The key anecdote here, I think, is that they built a model that cost $350,000, which already seems excessive as hell for a model (it seems high for a real boat), and which was too big for the tank, because I guess they didn't measure the tank; they subsequently built a new tank from scratch, bringing the price of just this one aspect of the modelwork to $6 million. Not for nothing did Grade remark "it would have been easier to lower the Atlantic." Seems like it would've been easiest to measure the tank.
It is, leaving cost aside, extraordinary at one thing most movies like this never manage, which is being pretty damn convincingly on the bottom of the ocean, murky and black, the submersibles (which unfortunately aren't as convincing as the Titanic model, but aren't bad) kicking up mud and giving the massive liner a sense of scale, and even presenting amidst the Titanic wreck the impression of an ecosystem, the submersibles' high-beams swarming with gross life, something even Cameron's superior-in-every-other-way Abyss didn't manage. It's still not as exciting as perhaps it should be (they use hydrazine to raise the Titanic, and whether or not that's scientifically sound, it's almost-not-quite admirable that it never does what hydrazine does in the movies, which is explode or poison anybody); but it does, at least, eventually evolve some quasi-disaster flick life-and-death stakes. And it is moody: the modal pixel is unlit screen, and composer John Barry reinforces the eerie stateliness and melancholy of the imagery (or tries to—he's mostly successful, though I very often found myself getting extremely irritated with him, insofar as about half of his score here is just the noodly bit from Barry's score from the previous year's The Black Hole put on repeat). The full-scale sets, themselves a redressed liner, might be even more impressive in their way than the awesome model (sorry to spoil things, but they... raise the Titanic). These render the Titanic interiors as a moldering grave, eaten away by the corrosion of more than half a century at the bottom of the ocean, still dripping and rotten with the remnants of a vanished age, charged with history and horror and more evocative of a greatness once lost and now regained than the movie even seems to be aware of otherwise. On the other hand, on their way to the Titanic they recover a brass cornet, which is as bright and shiny as the day it was made, which was clearly a day in 1979. Dirk Pitt Dirk Pitt Dirk Pitt.
P.S.: Not to toot my own cornet, but I have an elite Dirk Pitt in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.