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 to the big screen things have 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 have been only two films, and both of those flopped. But 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 Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” sums up the first problem with the movie Raise the Titanic which would be that any movie that deals with water, especially saltwater would be rather hard to swallow. Movies set on the sea or in and about the sea have always been notoriously hard to make, the elements are just not all that kind to movie makers and when you compound that with shooting things underwater you are just asking for trouble, case in point The Abyss and Waterworld as the filmmakers behind those watery epics certainly learned all there is to know about sea problems. The trick, of course, is in having a good story to make the journey worth the effort, unfortunately, with Raise the Titanic that journey resulted in a rather dull movie.
The very name of the ship Titanic captures the imaginations of people all over the world, so right off the bat you have a hook into your audience, and then you tell them you are not only going to find this most famous of all wrecks but are going to raise her as well. How awesome is that? You’d 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 did just that.
The story centers around the United States government developing a defence program called “The Sicilian Project” which had one small problem which was the fact that it needed a powerful fuel source that could only be provided by an extremely rare mineral called byzanium. When government agents discovered that the only place on Earth that has this mineral was located happened to be on an island off the coast of the Soviet Union they sent a mineralogist to find it. Unfortunately, he discovered that it had already been mined way back in 1912 but we soon find out that half a ton of it was loaded aboard the RMS Titanic and thus our hopes for world peace lay at the bottom of the ocean.
The head of “The Sicilian Project” was Dr. Gene Seagram (David Selby) who with the aid of Admiral Sandecker (Jason Robards) and Dirk Pitt (Richard Jordan) would try their damnedest to 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, which is just odd considering the book Raise the Titanic was a “Dirk Pitt Adventure” so sidelining your hero for the bulk of the movie your is a strange and stupid choice.
Instead of following action-hero Dirk Pitt, while he is off uncovering nefarious plots and spies, we get scenes of Dr. Seagram with his reporter girlfriend, Dana Archibald (Anne Archer), and dealing with his jealousy over the fact that she lived with Pitt years ago. yawn In the book Dana is a marine archeologist and is integral to finding and raising the Titanic, while in the movie, she is a love interest that disappears halfway through the film, never to be seen again. Now, there is one actor who stands out as being just perfect for his part and that would be Sir Alec Guinness who plays a survivor of the sinking and is the one 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.
Now comes the next big problem with this movie and that would be the underwater action, which is greatly due to the fact that it is incredibly difficult to make action underwater realistic and or exciting. It’s possible 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 seafloor looking for a sunken ship fascinating then this could be the film for you but the rest of us watching this thing will be left bored out of our collective 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, I bet 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.
Well, eventually our “heroes” find the Titanic and a plan to raise it goes into action; they will fill the hull with foam thus forcing the water out of the ship, then they would attach buoyancy tanks and then with a few well-placed explosive charges they’d 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.
Science Note: When the submersible develops a leak at a 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 have caused 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 certainly have used a bit of action injection to help keep us awake. Sure, at one point we are told a hurricane is on the way, which is apparently supposed to add tension, but then it never shows up so that was a wash. When the Navy ships that were providing support for the operation were called away on a distress call, which allows the Russians to pop aboard the Titanic and demand that they hand the ship over to them or else they’d see it sunk to the bottom with all hands on deck. Pitt in full smug mode makes one quick call and we see a nuclear attack submarine surface and a couple of F-16 fighter jets fly over.
So now that any chance of action has been thwarted it’s 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 to no end but Sandecker says it may be for the best because the byzanium may have ended up being used not for defence but to make 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.” Yeah, that sounds about right. Later Pitt informs Seagram that the last words of the agent who went down with the ship lead him to believe that the byzanium is actually 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 the stuff buried where it is and thus making this whole movie pointless.
The Book’s Ending: Seagram has a mental breakdown after it’s 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, especially when the book’s ending was much more palatable.
Producer Lew Grade is famously quoted as saying, “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic than raise the Titanic” but as it cost over $40 million dollars to make the film and took in only $7 million at the box office I think he was screwed either way. It’s simply not that good of a movie and an even worse adaptation.
Raise the Titanic
Based on an excellent Clive Cussler novels the producers of this film fail to add action or adventure into their movie. A listless cast along with a slogging pace does this movie no favors