A film review by Craig J. Koban September 19, 2012


1997/ 2012, PG-13, 194 mins.

Jack Dawson: Leonardo Dicaprio / Rose Dewitt Bukater: Kate Winslet / Cal Hockley: Billy Zane / Molly Brown: Kathy Bates / Brock Lovett: Bill Paxton / Elderly Rose: Gloria Stewart

Written and directed by James Cameron


15 years since its original theatrical release I find it very difficult not to marvel at James Cameron’s TITANIC, a pioneering cinematic wonder that’s designed to wow us first and foremost, even when its somewhat inert drama holds us back at a distance.  

The director’s meticulous recreation of the sinking of the most infamous sea-going vessel in nautical history remains one of the most fearlessly ambitious and mesmerizing sequences of the movies, during which Cameron pulled every possible trick out of the visual effects playbook to make us feel like a part of the tragedy.  Like STAR WARS before it, TITANIC was a massively popular and critically acclaimed entertainment that was truly an out-of-body filmgoing experience: at times, you felt less like you were passively watching it and instead were, more or less, actively experiencing it.  

I’ve seen the film three times now: first during its initially release in 1997; a second time on home video; and now for its 15th Anniversary theatrical re-release in 3D (more on that in a bit).  The film’s astounding production design and spellbinding visual effects still hold up enormously well under modern day scrutiny.  Watching the fateful climax of the three-hour-plus historical drama – showcasing Cameron making bravura usage of a full sized mock-up of the doomed vessel and employing 150 extras, 100 stunt performers, and some of the best CGI of its time ever attempted – it’s impossible to overlook the film’s supreme achievement as a significant and accomplished piece of epic filmmaking.  At the same time, though, I find the film’s waterlogged romantic melodrama – which feels ripped out of the most prosaic of Harlequin Romance novels – more sluggish than ever upon my latest viewing.  There’s no doubt that TITANIC remains one of the defining technological achievements of recent film history, but as a sweeping and dramatically fulfilling romance picture…not so much. 

Yet, it’s the film’s central romance, I think, that made it the biggest film hit in history for its time.  The film’s core audience – made up largely of tweeners and young adult women (and many older folk, to be fair) – drove the massively over-budgeted production ($200 million in mid-90’s dollars) to box office heights that preliminary insiders thought were impossible.  Yet, Cameron’s film proved all the initial doubters wrong, and it remained the highest grossing film ever until his own AVATAR dethroned it 12 years later.  Pitched as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic,” it’s very easy to understand the allure of the film to female filmgoers.  They went back to see it…over and over and over again…making it the financial juggernaut that it became.  The film’s real-life disaster elements, no doubt, invited other viewer demographics in as well, but the film’s romantic undercurrent packed women in for its record theatrical run. 



Even though I’m still not fully enamored with the film’s tale of young love, I nonetheless still find TITANIC’s narrative approach to be unexpectedly compelling.  Instead of just monotonously employing a linear storyline set in the past, most of TITANIC is set in the present and deals with the April 15, 1912 sinking of the "unsinkable" ship in flashback form.  In the present day a salvage expedition – which includes some truly extraordinary reality-based footage of the actual Titanic wreckage in its watery grave that was shot by Cameron in 1995 – begins the film, during which a fortune hunter (Bill Paxton) searches for the "Heart of the Ocean", a 50-plus Karat diamond necklace that he believes resides at Titanic's watery grave.  Word of this reaches a 101-year-old woman (Gloria Stewart) who contacts the hunter and then reveals that she was actually a survivor of the ship's demise.  

When she arrives at the expedition HQ she then tells all around her of her experiences on the Titanic.  She’s Rose DeWitt Bukater, and in 1912 she was a young woman on Titanic when it left port in Southampton (the film then flashes back to the past).  She is set to marry a cold-hearted SOB named Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), a man that she does not really love, but marrying him provides for substantial financial security for her and her family.  While on the ship she comes in contact with a young penniless artist named Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a lad that certainly has nothing to offer her but the shirt off his back, but the more time she finds herself spending with Jack the more the two grow intimately connected.  As the voyage continues, Jack and Rose fall in love, but their budding romance is placed on hold when Titanic comes in contact with a giant iceberg and…well…for those that know history and have seen the film umpteen times…you know what happens next. 

Watching the film now I’m taken in with how young and sprightly both DiCaprio and Winslet are on screen.  They certainly had ample chemistry together, even if their respective roles were certainly not as fully formed and intriguing on paper as the juicer parts they would later play in their illustrious careers during the late 1990’s and 2000’s.  Even when their dialogue exchanges are undeniably sappy and the arc of the budding courtship seems perfunctorily lifted from hundreds of other past stories of twentysomething love, the two actors are strong enough to make Jack and Rose credible and relatable personas.  I latched on to a few other side-performances more this go-around, like Kathy Bates as the famed and tough-minded Molly Brown and Victor Garber as the ship’s modest designer; when he comes to the realization that his own engineered and seemingly indestructible ship will indeed sink, it’s kind of subtly heartbreaking and tragic in its own right. 

Dramatically, Cameron does some interesting things with class distinctions on the ship, which was radically segregated at its time: upper class people resided in upper deck luxury and the lower classes stayed in the cramped and claustrophobic lower levels.  This is central to the affluent Rose coming to grips with her inherent upper class snobbery and realizing that she’d be happier and more fulfilled with the poverty stricken Jack, even though Cameron telegraphs this theme with a bit too much blunt obviousness.  The character of Cal and Billy Zane’s snarling and over-the-top performance as Rose’s jealous husband-to-be does not help ground the themes either.  Cal, on paper, is a weakly written, moustache-swirling and gun-touting soap opera villain more than a fully realized flesh and blood persona.  Now, more than ever, Zane’s role feels like a wild caricature. 

Ultimately, though, it was Cameron’s ability to fuse the real with the unreal and provide an extraordinarily vivid and realized portal into the past that successfully stands the test of time.  There is certainly an argument to be made that upconverting a film that was not shot in 3D and re-releasing it for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy seems less inspired out of paying respect and homage to the memories of those that perished than it does serve the purpose of making more box office coin.  Having said that, TITANIC's multi-dimensional upgrade is one of the finest 3D films – upconverted or not – that I’ve seen.  This is not a hastily cobbled together rush job either: taking over 60 weeks at a massive cost of $16 million, I was frankly surprised at the way Cameron has suggested depth and volume to various scenes that otherwise were not there before.  There are no ostentatious or eye-gouging gimmick shots present here, but rather a sensationally immersive and restrained usage of 3D that compliments and oftentimes enhances Cameron’s majestic film canvas.  Compared to the lackluster and disappointing upconversion of THE PHANTOM MENACE earlier this year, TITANIC’s facelift is a rousing success. 

Yet, the 3D does emphasize the film’s breathtaking visual splendors and production values first while inadvertently suffocating the already juvenile and painfully conventional starry-eyed melodrama (Cameron has always insisted that he was dealing in romantic archetypes with his screenplay, which seems like a somewhat lazy cop-out of defending the film’s inherent and overused clichés).  TITANIC 3D clearly sides with spectacle over romance (the 3D really does little to enhance the latter), but it was Cameron’s unparalleled ability as a pure craftsman at capturing a momentous and dreadful moment in 20th Century history that sorts of supplants most of my objections to the way the film’s manipulative, hanky-drawing romance sort of disparages it.  The human-interest story in TITANIC remains its flattest and weakest element, but on a scale of visual and technological ambition, Cameron’s labor of love deserves rightful placement on a short list of larger-than-life films that truly transcended the medium.  It takes a special type of intrepidly determined filmmaker with a persistence of artistic vision to pull off a film like TITANIC; films like it are just not made in abundance anymore. 

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