James Cameron’s new film Titanic is quite a spectacle! It stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as star-crossed lovers named Jack and Rose. He’s a poor guy, she’s a rich girl, but they buck class conventions clearly delineated by the ship (and the world at large) and decide to hook it up in an old-timey car anyway. But it’s bad timing, because — spoiler alert! — the ship hits an ice berg. Now, I won’t say whether or not the Titanic actually sinks or if Jack and Rose survive and make babies together, because you should probably see this for yourself before I go and ruin the ending.
I will say, however, it’s an epic mix of action and romance featuring the winsome Winslet reunited with her Revolutionary Road costar DiCaprio (who has clearly had some work done recently — he’s much more visibly baby-faced here than he was recently in Inception or Shutter Island). The movie is probably too long to have a huge impact at the box office and too focused on the shipwreck peril to do well during awards season. Plus, it was released in April, so it’ll be forgotten by December, surely. Still, I recommend you see it now, in theaters, to ensure good sound and picture quality. Because it’s not like movies get released in theaters more than once, now, do they?
Okay, now in all seriousness. I already wrote about my history with James Cameron’s epic in “I’ll Never Let Go, Jack: Not Even Fifteen Years Later,” so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice to say, I’m on Team Titanic, and while I wouldn’t say I worship the movie, exactly, I think all the naysayers who pooh-pooh it are low creatures who shouldn’t be allowed to breed for fear of tainting the populace with silly notions of Titanic not being amazing. It’s like people who don’t believe in evolution!
But enough about them. Watching Titanic on the big screen again after all this time is a curiously intimate experience. It’s not like watching a new movie, because in that case, you and your fellow moviegoers have no idea what you’re in for. With Titanic, you know exactly what you’ll get — Jack and Rose falling head over heels for each other (first figuratively, then literally), lots of wet panic and peril, and Celine Dion’s heart still going strong after all these years (for better or worse).
Titanic became such a pop culture milestone, so of it’s moment (1997, to be exact), that it can’t help but be a little kitschy now — the way everything you love is after a decade or two. In fifty years, we’ll be able to return to Titanic the way we look back at Gone With The Wind or Vertigo or Sunset Boulevard, embracing its snapshot of 90’s blockbuster filmmaking. But fifteen years is still too soon to really respond to Titanic itself, as a film, without still connecting it to the zeitgeist. There’s no apology necessary when you’re walking in to see a revival of Casablanca, but you do need to prepare yourself before going into Titanic. You and your brethren enter into a contract, agreeing to put aside all 21st century ironic detachment for three and a quarter hours, to revel in something you loved whole-heartedly when it appeared and expect to continue loving, cheese and all. I mean, I know there are people out there who didn’t think Titanic was the bee’s knees even back in 1997, but I didn’t know those people. Everyone I knew genuinely enjoyed it, and believed Titanic deserved all its box office glory and slew of Academy Awards. Most still do. And we are the ones going back to Titanic now, in 2012.
We are, however, more advanced and detached and hipster-y these days, burdened with the knowledge that not every element of Titanic has aged quite like a fine wine. By entering that theater, we expose ourselves for what we really are, lay all our cards on the table. We say: yes, even though this is a corny 90’s love story that’s been mocked within an inch of its life ever since, I will still surrender to James Cameron because Titanic still does it for me, despite all that. In a sense, we’re all as naked as Rose when Jack sketches her “like one of his French girls,” laying bare our vulnerability. After all, you can be ridiculed in this day and age for such a thing as loving Titanic, but once the lights go down and James Horner’s score comes up, we in the theater know we’re amongst friends. (Because any Titanic hater who would actually pay the 3D surcharge to see this again in the theater is a closet Titanic fan who just can’t admit it to himself.)
So, what’s changed since the good old days, when a movie like Titanic could remain at the #1 spot at the box office for fifteen consecutive weeks and still be playing in theaters ten months after its release? Plenty.
The late 90’s were a pre-Katrina, pre-9/11 world when scenes of mass hysteria and innocents swimming for their lives were just a thing of the movies, less an echo of real life. (Of course, the Titanic disaster was a real one, but with enough historical distance to not feel that way. Though you have to credit Cameron for making such a familiar disaster tale feel immediate and vital.) Seeing the film now is a somewhat different experience, because not only have we been bombarded with movies depicting this kind of widespread tragedy, we’ve seen more of it on the news as well. I think this achieves the impossible of making these events feel both more horrifying and easier to digest. Maybe this time I was less engaged in the individual deaths and more overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of losses. As Cameron tells it, many of those aboard this ship met their ends with more dignity than you see in such stories today. Sign of the times? Quite possibly.
So then, perhaps it’s surprising that the most remarkable thing about James Cameron’s film is the same thing that was so jaw-dropping back in 1997. This time around, I watched Titanic in awe at how Cameron controlled the chaos — scores of extras flailing and falling and flying around — not just in a couple of shots, but for a good chunk of the movie. These are not tight shots but wide ones, and with Titanic again in theaters, you can see all the masterful attention to detail Cameron employed both in the recreation of the ship and in the disaster sequences. I can’t think of another production that’s as impressive on this level, even fifteen years later. I’ve never seen another film that could make this kind of massive event look so real. It’s the rare $200 million dollar movie in which you can see where every dollar went on screen.
If Titanic were made today, you can be sure that pretty much all of that stuff would be computer generated and it wouldn’t have had nearly the effect it did and still does to this day. (Titanic did use some CGI, obviously, but not as a cop out on using real extras and stunt people.) It’s a bit cliche to make the case for practical effects against computer-generated ones, but if ever there was evidence that technology can’t quite capture flesh-and-blood physicality, Titanic is it. CGI doesn’t age well; Titanic did.
What didn’t age quite so well, exactly, are all the “beauty shots” of the ship early in the film. Cameron spends a lot of time admiring his handiwork, and this isn’t quite as captivating as it was in the 90’s. It’s not a major flaw, but those of us watching the film for the umpteenth time are thinking: “Yes, Jim, we’ve seen the boat. Get on with the story already!”
Of the film’s much-maligned screenplay — which most, including myself, would admit is its weakest link — I’m of two minds. First, and as expected, the clunkier lines of dialogue stuck out more for me now than they did when I was in middle school. Jack and Rose have an annoying tendency to add “Rose” or “Jack” to the end of every sentence, respectively, even when they’re the only two people in a water-logged room. Surely, in a moment of such urgency, you’d shave the precious milliseconds it takes to constantly say the name of the person you’re talking to, no? Jack also has a tendency to speak in earnest romantic cliches that too broadly sum up the central conflict of the movie: “They’ve got you trapped, Rose. And you’re gonna die if you don’t break free. Maybe not right away because you’re strong but sooner or later that fire that I love about you, Rose… that fire’s gonna burn out.” (Note that he said “Rose” twice within three sentences.)
But as a storyteller, James Cameron really is quite good — and on that level, the Titanic screenplay succeeds more often than not, even in the first half’s talk-heavy scenes. And even though the dialogue could’ve used a polish by a writer other than Cameron, I’d like to point out how refreshing it is to see a blockbuster that takes a good couple hours to set up its characters — and actually let them speak. In its own broad and somewhat obvious way, Titanic is about more than the sinking of a ship and the survival of two young lovers. There are a number of scenes that have nothing to do with the ship and everything to do with the human story. How often do you see that in a Hollywood movie anymore? Most of the comic relief still works like gangbusters (mostly, the tiny, throwaway lines from the ensemble’s strongest actors like Kathy Bates and Frances Fisher). As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, Titanic is about more than the tragedy of these 1,500 or so individuals, but the death of this kind of snobby “old money” type as a whole. The iceberg represents the 20th century, and taken in that context, the film takes on even more power.
The addition of 3D is fine, but unnecessary. It doesn’t make the action any better or more immersive, but that’s only because it was already so effective in two dimensions. 3D is a fun new way to watch a favorite film on the big screen, but from here on out I’d still prefer to view Titanic in good ol’ 2D. (I don’t know why, but for me the most noticeably different segments were the present day ones featuring Gloria Stuart. Her wrinkles jump out at us like no splash of water or chunk of iceberg ever could.)
And speaking of those scenes — I barely remembered him at all, or maybe just blocked him from my mind, but a character who seriously did not age well is the Comic Relief fat bozo (portrayed by Lewis Abernathy) I will call “90’s Guy” because this protptype appeared in numerous other 90’s movies to equally annoying effect. (See: Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Twister, Wayne Knight in Jurassic Park, or Chris Farley’s entire ouvre.) Seeing this guy in 3D is even worse.
But besides him, Titanic is still awesome. Other great movies like L.A. Confidential and Boogie Nights were released in 1997, but anyone who thinks they deserved a Best Picture Oscar instead of Titanic is kind of a moron. Movies like Titanic don’t come around even once a decade — no piece of cinema has been such a phenom since — and there’s no sense in ignoring that at the Academy Awards. Titanic‘s screenplay was shunned, but as a whole? It’s is a masterpiece, an exemplar of supremely effective blockbuster filmmaking, plays as well in 2012 as I imagine it will in 2022, 2052, and soforth.
In other words, my heart will go on, and on, and on loving Titanic. And I don’t even care who knows it.*