James Cameron's 'Titanic' special misses the boat

Posted November 16, 2017 1:54 p.m. EST

— There's a great special to be made about "Titanic," the movie; and Titanic, the giant ocean liner that sunk 105 years ago. "Titanic :20 Years Later With James Cameron" splashes down somewhere between the two, and in the process almost completely misses the boat.

Produced by Cameron, and coinciding with an anniversary re-release of the film and a related book, the special focuses on the veracity of the movie, and how well its conclusions have held up as new revelations about the ship and its sinking have arisen in the years since the film.

The result, though, is a pretty wonky look at the science of all that, including experiments and reenactments designed to illustrate precisely how the ship went down, or how long it would have taken for a man with a knife to cut lifeboats loose.

It's moderately interesting, in the way almost everything about the Titanic is, beginning with oceanographer Bob Ballard, who discovered the wreck more than 30 years ago while on a secret mission for the U.S. Navy. And Cameron's passion for and knowledge of the subject obviously shines through.

The special also seeks to incorporate a more human element, with Cameron interviewing descendants of passengers who either survived or perished aboard the ship, including relatives of John Jacob Astor, Molly Brown, and Isidor and Ida Straus. It's a promising idea, but mostly plays like an excuse to have these family members pat the director on the back for how moving they found the film to be.

The real drawback with "20 Years Later," though, is all the avenues left unexplored. "Titanic," for example, was an enormous social phenomenon, whose record-breaking box-office haul was powered in part by teenage girls who flocked to see it again and again. Hearing from some of those fans, two decades later, would add zest and context, instead of treating it like just another cold case to be unraveled using modern techniques.

Similarly, the making of the movie was an enormous challenge, with talk of budget overruns and reports that studio executives were terrified they had a modern-day disaster on their hands.

News accounts at the time called the $200-million production "the most expensive film ever made," and even a solid opening weekend left doubts as to whether the studios that bankrolled it, Fox and Paramount, could recoup their investment. The film went on to gross more than $600 million in the U.S. alone, a figure that stood until Cameron's "Avatar" dethroned it.

Any acknowledgment of those subplots, alas, will have to wait for another special. But given the durability of the title, perhaps "25 Years Later" will offer another chance for "Titanic" to raise its game.

"Titanic: 20 Years Later With James Cameron" premieres Nov. 26 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.