The Titanic gets a huge Hollywood theatrical release, heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio as its male lead, a whopping 11 Oscars and box office receipts that smash records globally. By contrast, Titanic’s similarly ill-fated sister ship Britannic gets … two hours in January on the Fox Family Channel. Ouch.
Clearly, not all seafaring disasters are created equal, and this bizarrely earnest Brit-produced telepic loosely based on the sinking of the Britannic brings fresh meaning to the term artistic license. It does everything in its power to emulate the “Titanic” sensibility but comes far closer to outright satire.
It’s painful, because Britannic coulda been a contenda. Like its sister Titanic that sank so momentously and majestically in 1912, Britannic was considered equally unsinkable when it succumbed to suspected foul play Nov. 21, 1916. And yet while Titanic is mourned and ruminated over with a passion bordering on reverence, Britannic was pretty much forgotten entirely until Jacques Cousteau and his undersea team discovered the downed vessel in the mid-1970s.
Britannic’s real problem is one of simple numbers. The Titanic lost more than two-thirds of its passengers to drowning and hypothermia. Conversely, only 30 of the 1,164 humans on board Britannic perished. Survival, as we all know, is a dreadfully boring and unromantic concept. So is the sinking of any ship that fails to first strike an iceberg or similarly immense object.
Thus, some 84 years later, here comes “Britannic” — and it’s not a pretty sight. Its existence is of course motivated entirely by an obtuse goal of snaring some of that reflected “Titanic” glory. Even so, the wildly implausible teleplay by Brett Thompson, Kim Smith, Dennis Pratt and helmer Brian Trenchard-Smith doesn’t even attempt to mask its aim of virtual duplication.
Well, sort of, anyway. To be sure, the fetching Amanda Ryan and her improbably full lips portray a character meant to mimic that of Kate Winslet’s plucky Rose in “Titanic.” Ryan’s character Vera Campbell falls in heavy lust during the last days of the great Britannic. But let’s just say that compared to “Britannic,” the star-crossed lovers storyline that heated “Titanic” was downright credible.
Consider that Vera is a rookie undercover operative for British intelligence posing as a nanny for a pampered princess played by Jacqueline Bisset (aping Frances Fisher’s snooty society dame in “Titanic”). She’s onboard to sniff out suspected spies who may try to thwart this hospital ship’s delivery of a top-secret munitions cargo to Cairo. Vera does pretty well on that score. Her mistake is falling for a German spy masquerading as a British chaplain (Edward Atterton). She also has all of these recurring nightmares because she’s a Titanic survivor to boot.
This isn’t quite “Get Smart,” but it’s awfully close. What winds up happening later is more uproarious still: The spy blows holes in Britannic with explosives and ether, but Vera still loves him, still has to save his life in uncanny Rose-rescues-Jack fashion. We’ll just see if British intelligence sends her out to police its unsinkable vessels again.
Director Trenchard-Smith proves adept at stirring the melodramatic pot that is “Britannic,” stylishly whipping the action into a frothy frenzy (supported by some especially intense scenery chewing from John Rhys-Davies as the Britannic’s captain). There’s also some nifty underwater work from director of photography Ivan Strasburg and his team, though many of the accompanying visual effects tend to fall on the cheesy side.
“Britannic” is, no doubt, precisely what an H2O movie made for roughly 5% of the budgets accorded “Titanic” and “Waterworld” should feel like.
Authenticity proves the greatest casualty.