Directed by James Cameron
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane
Release Date (3D Version): April 4, 2012
I’ve now officially contributed twice to the highest grossing motion picture in history.
I had the opportunity to go out to the movies the other night, and I had a lot of choices, including a remake of 21 Jump Street I’d heard was quite funny, and a reunion sequel to American Pie, but my decision in the end was determined by a film whose experience I couldn’t replicate at home: James Cameron‘s 3D post-conversion of Titanic (1997).
The last time I saw Titanic was in the theaters fifteen years ago. It’s not that I hadn’t enjoyed it; I had always meant to see it again. I’d even picked up a DVD at one point (okay, so I contributed thrice), but I’d never unwrapped it. My recollection of it was that it was technically brilliant, but flawed in many ways. I just never felt that compelled to revisit it. Cameron’s year-long, $18 million 3D conversion gave me a good excuse to do just that.
For the few people in the world who haven’t seen it, Titanic is a retelling of the 1912 tragic sinking of the eponymous British passenger liner, ironically dubbed “unsinkable” by its builders. The White Star liner hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, which set off a series of events that would find the ship at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean less than three hours later, with 1,514 of her 2,224 passengers drowned or frozen to death. Cameron’s version is framed by a fictional recollection of one of its survivors, Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Kate Winslet in flashback and Gloria Stuart in present-day), a society girl fated to marry wealthy industrialist Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), when her destiny is sidetracked by devil-may-care vagabond Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). Their romance blossoms, an iceberg strikes Titanic’s hull, and the rest is, literally, history.
Seeing it again fifteen years later (and having seen many, many films since) has softened my perspective on it a bit. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered. Technically it still holds up quite well, and is an astonishment to watch in its slavish dedication to historical verisimilitude in all aspects outside the Rose/Jack storyline. It’s easy to see the reported $200 million dollar budget on-screen in the ship sets’ frighteningly accurate detail.
The film isn’t perfect, however, and this time around I was able to summarize Titanic’s major problems into a few points:
- Any scene involving Jack and Rose’s relationship is horribly stilted and on-the-nose. This is my major complaint with Titanic, and what makes the difference between (merely) an impressive cinematic accomplishment and what could have been an unqualified romantic film classic on the level of Casablanca or Gone With the Wind. While Winslet and DiCaprio’s on-screen chemistry is palpable, they’re constantly sabotaged by Cameron’s soulless dialogue.
- Titanic is simplistically heavy handed in its portrayal of class differences. While class was an issue aboard Titanic, here it’s shoved down our throats. Most first-class passengers (besides Kathy Bates‘ nouveau riche “Unsinkable” Molly Brown) are cold, heartless narcissists, and most steerage passengers are rustic, illiterate, yet blissfully happy in their squalor. There are no shades of gray in between in Cameron’s world. I can only assume he paints in these broad strokes due to the sheer amount of storytelling needed for such a compressed running time.
- Gloria Stuart was an astonishingly poor casting choice as old Rose. She delivers Cameron’s forced lines as if she’s narrating an audiobook on the subject of Titanic, not reliving the most intense and memorable life-changing event of her life. Despite the clever passage-of-time transitions, there’s no connection between Winslet’s curiously spirited Rose, and Stuart’s monotone performance. If the audience can’t buy her as the elder version of Kate Winslet, there’s no point in having her in the picture, and by effect, the whole deep-sea salvage framing device and the “Heart of the Sea” either.
- Titanic’s god-awful parting final shot, which I will not spoil, but to say it involves a ham-fistedly sentimental absolution of its major characters. It was like finishing a fine four-course meal with an after-dinner mint made of crap.
The 3D effects were restrained and never showy. The 3D post-conversion was impeccable, as if the footage was originally acquired in 3D, and should stand as an example for any studio considering post-conversion. In fact, it only stood to highlight some of the technical limitations of 1997’s state-of-the-art special effects, which Cameron chose (for whatever reason) not to update for 2012. One particularly egregious example is a scene where Jack and Rose are running away, in slow-motion, from a wave of water in one of Titanic’s flooded corridors. It’s painfully obvious to see Winslet and DiCaprio’s faces digitally pasted onto the stunt actors’ bodies.
If you can suspend disbelief of the main relationship, watching Titanic feels as close to having been on board during that fateful night without all the hypothermic chill of the North Atlantic. Overall, it was absolutely worth a revisit, and definitely worth seeing on the big screen, if you’ve never seen it before.