Titanic: The Final Word With James Cameron debuts tonight on National Geographic at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Do you care about how the Titanic sank? I mean, beyond the iceberg thing. Do you care about the angle at which it tilted and pointed before it broke? Do you care about how the stern section ended up looking like it had been bombed out once it was discovered on the ocean floor, as opposed to the relatively intact bow? If the answer is “Yes!” then skip this review and make sure you can see Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron, because it’s made for you, and probably you alone.
For the rest of us, The Final Word, a two-hour special about experts trying to model the sinking of the Titanic as accurately as possible, may seem pointless. Famous Titanic super-geek James Cameron has assembled a team of professional Titanic geeks, some of whom are bearded white males, and some of whom are clean-shaven white males. In the introduction, Cameron promises that “No one gets out of this room until we piece together, once and for all, what happened in Titanic’s final minutes.”
That seems like it could be compelling, especially if there’s lots of arguing, and especially if it seems connected to, well, anything. It’s not connected to much, though. It’s a few people sitting around trying to solve a puzzle. There are two key issues: First, Cameron dominates proceedings. It’s his puzzle, as it were, so that’s understandable, but it still turns into a problem. He says he has an idea about how the ship ended up the way it ended up, so he consults with the most relevant expert, then tells that to the group. Sometimes, they mutter disagreement, but Cameron’s in charge and used to getting his way. There’s no real interpersonal drama or argument.
Second, as Cameron narrates multiple times, they come at the puzzle as if it’s CSI. They have the evidence—the pieces of the ship at the bottom of the ocean, primarily—and they try to recreate what happened. But a ship isn’t a person, and the people on the ship aren’t mentioned until much later in the show. More to the point, this starts with the least interesting minutiae. How each vaguely anomalous part ended up where it ended up is a detail that may be important for getting as perfect a model as possible, but it doesn’t make for interesting television.
About two-thirds of the way through The Final Word, though, it starts to get interesting. Perhaps it’s that, with the boring details cleared up, the big picture can emerge. Or perhaps it’s that the experts move from engineering stories to more general, human stories. It starts when Cameron grabs a banana and uses it to illustrate how the ship broke apart. For all the CGI work done on the special, as well as clips from Cameron’s film, this ends up being one of the best visuals. The banana snaps, it pulls apart while keeping the bottom skin intact, and then that twists away. It’s clever, effective, and fast.
There’s more along those lines. One expert, a curator of Titanic objects, discusses the beauty of the smell of some perfume recovered from the bottom of the ocean, then breaks down into tears. Another, the painter of several famous pictures of the ship, talks about how he broke down when he started to examine and paint the wreckage of the ship. There's even a discussion of how the water spread through the ship in the time that it did, using computer modeling, which is made that much more effective thanks to the knowledge that a ship’s officer opened a door that accelerated the flooding and sinking, and nobody knows exactly why.
Toward the very end, Cameron also hosts a debate where he invites his experts to talk about what they might have done to save the ship. This is the only time when the whole panel-of-experts idea bears fruit, as they kick around ideas and accept or reject them. Some are fairly conventional, like encouraging the passengers and crew to build as many rafts as possible, while some are wilder, like one suggestion that key flooding areas be stocked with all the ship’s lifejackets as a way to delay the flooding for hours or even days.
The Final Word does build momentum and get interesting at the end, but it still feels unnecessarily bloated. I’m sure it’s not the first James Cameron project to demand a stronger editor. The environmental message tacked on at the end may also seem familiar. Titanic superfans may find a lot to like here, but the rest of us are better off watching just the second half of The Final Word, if any of it at all.
- With the new data and theories, Cameron has the option to change the CGI of the sinking in a Titanic rerelease. However, he says “My decision is to not change anything in the movie, because once you start that, how do you stop?” Take THAT, George Lucas!