Titanic is an easy movie to hate -- but only if you haven’t seen it since 1997. James Cameron’s (first) pet project seemed doomed from the outset thanks to reports of skyrocketing budgets and production delays, but it’s since become an epic that ranks among the most ambitious and impressive undertakings in movie history, and not just because it’s the Number Two highest-grossing film of all time. Rather, it evidences the secret of his longtime success, a talent more impressive even than Cameron’s technical prowess: his ability to find stories that tap into greater truths and deeper feelings. Expect surprisingly long legs for this re-release thanks to material that still feels timeless even if its seeming raison d’etre is to highlight the current phenomenon of 3D conversion.
While detailing the plot seems superfluous, what immediately stands out about the film now, some 15 years after its initial release, is how basic its conflicts are. The Titanic itself is an embodiment of endless possibility – the hopes and dreams of its passengers, the ambitions of its architects, the expansive future of mankind itself. While that may seem grandiose, it all feels like a part of Cameron’s grand design to connect with as many different kinds of people as possible, in as many ways. He is aiming to use the entire canvas, not just fill in a corner with idiosyncratic detail, which is a large part of why his movies are so successful: many moviegoers only see one or two movies per year, but his are among them. They’re phenomena – zeitgeist-busting experiences to be shared – and his stories operate on such a tableau-like level that they’re immediately relatable on an undeniable, if often simplistic, human level.
The upstairs-downstairs star-crossed romance between Jack (Leonardo Di Caprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) works primarily because both the actors and their characters are just so damn likeable. But their relationship inhabits a space where any number of recognizable conflicts pivot: privilege versus struggle, nobility versus corruption, generosity versus greed, and perhaps most fundamentally, empowerment versus control. Smothered by the expectations of her mother and stifled by the patriarchal attitudes of her would-be fiancé, Rose isn’t merely one of Cameron’s greatest leading ladies but a truly universal heroine, whose struggle for self-actualization is meaningful and sympathetic. It certainly helps that Jack demonstrates a decidedly contemporary attitude towards gender equality, but she becomes her own person via his respect and affection, not his instruction or permission.
That said, the framing device still feels unnecessary except to highlight Cameron’s actual visits to the wreckage of Titanic, and could easily be removed without sacrificing any of the drama at the heart of the story. (It’s also where Cameron’s occasionally tin-eared dialogue rings corniest: “a woman’s heart is a dark ocean of secrets.”) But the brilliance with which the filmmaker assembles his film, in terms of technique, pacing and tone, remains undeniable; where in the same year Steven Spielberg flubbed the payoff to Saving Private Ryan with a horrible CGI transition from Matt Damon’s face to an older version of his character, Cameron pulls them off effortlessly, communicating a broadly appealing romanticism that manages to avoid drowning the viewer in pure melodrama.
In terms of the 3D, Titanic is incredibly well-executed, and deserves to become the standard-bearer by which all other conversions are judged. Cameron’s understanding of dimensional filmmaking seems to have preceded his actual use of it in that all of the compositions are smooth and fluid, and he creates a spatial depth that’s immersive, not obtrusive. But ultimately, audiences will find themselves absorbed not by its technological bona fides, but the substance and power of its characters and story. Critics may dismiss its sentimentality as cheap manipulation and its virtuosity as a filmmaker’s plaything, but Titanic is a truly great movie precisely because of those qualities, not in spite of them.
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, Billy Zane, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton
Director: James Cameron
Writers: James Cameron
Producers: James Cameron, Jon Landau
Genre: Drama, Historical Epic
Rating: PG-13 for a scene of sexual assault and other violent areas
Running Time: 194 min.
Release Date: April 4, 2012