february 1998
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Water, Water Everywhere

In Hollywood tonight, heads are spinning more rapidly than usual. Against the better judgement of everyone who'd offered an opinion, they let Jim Cameron make a movie twice as expensive as the most expensive movie ever made. Sure, they weren't complete fools - any marketable movie can be expected to turn some kind of profit eventually. You got your domestic box office, followed by your foreign B.O., your pay-per-view, your video rental, military screenings, Home Box Office, laserdisc, DVD, college circuits, sell-thru videotape, Fox night at the movies, and eventually even local television showings. Movies are still your best entertainment value - as long as you've got your percentage under contract.

Still, nobody ever dreamed that Titanic could earn back its budget within a month of its premiere. A recent run of disaster movies, wrapped in the shells of modern action thrillers and carefully diagramed to reflect theme park rides, have all done no more than respectable business. Anticipating Cameron's biggest T yet, a few have even been given an aquatic setting.

But Speed 2 sank, and Titanic's script is even less original. Gloria Stuart, a sweet old woman who enjoys telling stories about her days as a sexy starlet in James Whale horror pictures in the early '30s (check out The Old Dark House sometime for some real fun), plays a survivor of the disaster. It's she who tells the tale of the wreck in vivid flashback. And it's she whom I suspect making the whole damn thing up. The shipboard romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet has the most patched together string of cliches since that Harlequin guy first started rewriting Jayne Eyre for mass market paperback consumption.

So why the big success? Two years ago, Ridley Scott gave us an incredible stinker named White Squall, a highly fictionalized based-on-fact story about the sinking of a ship full of teenage boys. But in the middle of all the rubbish, Scott created one of the most harrowing disaster sequences ever. That 15 minutes put me on board that sinking ship and got my heart racing and made me forget the grandstanding camp it was spliced to. Titanic is a much bigger, much more detailed version of that same experience and audiences are eating it up like overpriced popcorn.

At this moment, is a seven-figure studio head looking past his plate of scallop sausage quiche and having a revelation of what the public really craves: unique, exciting, enthralling entertainment? Maybe. But more likely he's holding his expensive bottled French tap water aloft and shouting, "Eureka! It's the water! The kids are nutty about the water!" Since Titanic came out six months later than intended, we're already seeing the results of this kind of original thinking. Much of Tomorrow Never Dies takes place on the high seas. Hard Rain features convicted bitch-slapper Christian Slater in a mix of action and flood damage. Amistad puts in some running time on a leaky boat. And soon we'll be watching more terror asea in the Aliens knock-off Deep Rising and the Forbidden Planet retread Sphere.

Overseas, they think nothing of blatantly cashing in on a big success. Back in the 1970s, Hollywood didn't mind churning out low-budget copies of The Exorcist or putting out a half dozen movies with the word "jaws" somewhere in the title. But in recent years, studios have tried desperately to promote an image of artistic respectability. Whenever they're caught ripping off a hit, they say they're "riding a trend", or even claim that they thought of the idea first. Only Roger Corman keeps a sense of humor about his work, openly rushing Carnosaur into production before the first weekend grosses for Jurassic Park could be counted.

Think I'm imagining things? Check it out: Cameron's portrait of a naked Winslet has barely bobbed to the surface and already we've got Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets and Gwyneth Paltrow in Great Expectations immodestly posing for cinema's sensitive young pretend artists. Mark my words: don't be surprised when you see trailers for Lucitania, Ebben Fitzgerald and Rowan Atkinson's wacky version of The Wilhelm Gustoff Story.

And it won't stop there. I hear they may be changing the plot of the new Love Boat to include a lot more drowning. Next season, Politically Incorrect will be taped on board a crowded lifeboat. Martin Scorcese is making a film about small time mobsters on an iceburg. And I hear Pamela and Tommy Lee are buying one of those cool submersible robot cameras.

DOUBLE DIPPERS Those enjoying more than their share of marquee space this month include: Morgan Freeman, Sigourney Weaver, Robert DeNiro, Djimon Hounsou, Ben Affleck, and Robin Williams.



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