Thursday, March 24, 2016

Raise The Titanic

Though author Clive Cussler has sold millions of Dirk Pitt adventure novels since the character’s 1973 debut, only twice has Pitt starred on the big screen. Both films were considered big-budget flops: 2005’s SAHARA starring Matthew McConaughey and RAISE THE TITANIC, which found few fans upon its Summer 1980 release. Cussler wasn’t one of them, allegedly calling it “awful from beginning to end.” The experience soured him on moviemaking to the point where he refused to option any more of his books — at least until SAHARA.

LONESOME DOVE author Larry McMurtry claimed to be one of “around” 17 screenwriters on RAISE THE TITANIC, though only Eric Hughes (WHITE NIGHTS), who wrote the first draft, and Adam Kennedy (THE DOMINO PRINCIPLE), who penned the last, receive screen credit. In typical blockbuster fashion, the screenplay throws out most of Cussler’s story (which McMurtry hated anyway), but it’s hard to argue that executive producer Lew Grade (THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL) and producer William Frye (AIRPORT ‘77) replaced it with a more exciting one. At least the film’s basic premise, carried over from the 1976 novel, is compelling.

The United States needs 200 ounces of a rare mineral called byzanium to power a new missile defense system that will “make nuclear warfare obsolete.” The only place on Earth byzanium is known to be is the hold of the RMS Titanic, which sank more than two-and-a-half miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean in 1912. Since divers can’t go that deep, American spy Pitt (bearded Richard Jordan), scientist Gene Seagram (DARK SHADOWS’ David Selby), and government bigwig James Sandecker (Jason Robards) hatch a plan to raise the ship.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. John Barry’s Bondian score is lush and expressive, evoking the mystery and awe of the deep sea. The special effects, anchored by John Richardson (ALIENS), Wally Veevers (DR. STRANGELOVE), and underwater expert Ricou Browning (THUNDERBALL), are believable and occasionally inspiring, the benefit of a cascading budget that sent production costs soaring as high as $36 million (reportedly). And the great Alec Guinness (THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI) raises emotions in a cameo as a Titanic survivor.

So what doesn’t work? Pretty much everything else. As if the concept of a salvage crew attempting to raise the Titanic isn’t thrilling enough, the film tries unsuccessfully to add tension through a superfluous love triangle involving Pitt, Seagram, and Dana Archibald (Anne Archer), a reporter who blows the whistle on Pitt’s top-secret operation. From the beginning, Pitt and Seagram are antagonistic toward one another for no apparent reason beyond the writers want them to.

Jerry Jameson, a television journeyman with occasional forays into features, presumably was hired as director because of his previous film, AIRPORT ‘77, a Universal disaster movie about the government’s attempt to rescue plane-crash survivors by raising the sunken airliner from the ocean floor. Though he provided jobs for his unofficial repertory company (Paul Carr, Charles Macauley, Stewart Moss, Michael Pataki), Jameson brings little storytelling or visual flair to the adventure, despite an ace cameraman in Matthew Leonetti (STRANGE DAYS).

Ultimately, neither the plodding story nor the cardboard characters are interesting. The brooding Jordan (THE MEAN SEASON) plays Dirk Pitt, a debonair superspy in the Cussler novels, as a non-man of action whose great interest is staring slack-jawed at the intricate miniatures. There’s precious little humanity in the other characters, and poor Anne Archer (FATAL ATTRACTION) flounders with no reason to be here. With a stronger cast, meatier characterization, and an emphasis on adventure, RAISE THE TITANIC could have sustained the sense of majesty inspired by its visual effects, but as it stands, the film is all wet.

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