Published Jan 21, 2014Notable at the time for being an expensive flop, this audacious story of a covert CIA operation to quite literally raise the H.M.S. Titanic from the bottom of the North Atlantic in the hope of salvaging a rare mineral to be used in the production of an atomic nuclear defense system would seem like a Sisyphean task. But the Clive Cussler novel on which it was based was a best seller, a precursor of sorts to the Michael Crichton/Tom Clancy brand of techno-thriller of the '80s/'90s, and well, it's Hollywood.
Cussler's specialty was naval operations and here part of the attraction of this picture is the realism and attention to technical detail of the ambitious endeavour. In terms of story construction, the film, directed by Jerry Jameson and produced by Lou Garde's ITC production company, is very clever in teasing out the high concept premise. We're told a new nuclear defense system similar to the Reagan-era Star Wars system has been proposed, but requires a rare element, "byzanium," once sourced to a remote Russian arctic island but removed by US spies in 1912 and sent en route to America via the ill-fated Titanic voyage. How do you get such a parcel from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to the surface? Simply find the Titanic and raise it to the surface.
The sheer amount of money devoted to making the task of raising an ocean liner from the bottom of the ocean look and feel authentic brings tremendous credibility to the film. Indeed, the production value is impressive and use of actual naval vessels in the real ocean without any effect/process work is often astounding. But the film never attempts to truly reconcile the tragedy of the Titanic, and so here is where the picture breaks down. The military operation of retrieving the atomic mineral is prioritized so far ahead of the characters (and the filmmakers), the significance of bringing up a ship which took lives of 1500 people is shamefully dismissed.
It's never a bore though, and if treated as, say, a very expensive B-movie, Raise the Titanic admirably survives its past. Of course, this film was made prior to the famed 1985 expedition that found the ship 73 years after it sank. Before then, we didn't know the ship had broken into two pieces, one of which completely pancaked due to impact, thus rendering the possibility of floating the ship again impossible. The filmmakers can't be faulted in that regard. Going along with the expertly shot and edited salvage operation, there are a number of thrills to behold. The underwater photography of the submersibles and the carcass of the Titanic itself is surprisingly realistic for its age.
We can also take away the decent performances from strong authoritarian actors such as Jason Robards delivering their military-style dialogue with utmost conviction. But it's the "discovery" of actor Richard Jordan which sticks with us most. As Dirk Pitt, Clive Cussler's Jack Ryan-like hero, Jordan is fully in command of the screen, a handsome, bullet-proof rogue naval spy who leads the Titanic mission with guts and determination. It's an iconic James Bond-worthy performance, which sadly, because of the failure of the film, did nothing for Jordan's career. He's known today mostly for one of his final performances as National Security Advisor Jeffrey Pelt in The Hunt For Red October.
Sadly, Jordan passed away from brain cancer in 1993 at age 53, but with Raise the Titanic's re-release, we can cherish the film for the impressive performance of the underappreciated and sorely missed actor.
The new Blu-Ray edition of the film contains a short featurette on the making of the film featuring DOP Matthew F. Leonetti, underwater cameraman Mike Ferris and effects artists Ricou Browning and John Richardson. (Shout! Factory)