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In this Centennial year of the historic maritime disaster James Cameron and Paramount have turned back to their 1997 mega-hit version of Titanic, one of the most successful movies ever made. An exacting perfectionist who plans his movie projects in anticipation of technical advances (as with the phenomenal technical achievement of 2009's Avatar), Cameron's only difficulty is finding enough time to re-issue his earlier films to his high standards of quality. But earlier this year he arranged to convert Titanic to 3D for theatrical presentation. The practice of 'depth-icizing' flat movies has so far been a drag on 3D exhibition, but we'd expect that if anybody does it right, Cameron will. Although investors in home 3D equipment have yet to see a big volume of product to play, Titanic is here right on schedule with no icebergs getting in the way.
It's difficult to believe that fifteen years have passed since this show was the rage. It can only be agreed that Titanic fulfilled the specific fantasy the public wanted to see that particular year. Time has softened some of my original objections toward the picture but others still gripe me. Titanic is an undeniably impressive technical achievement. Dramatically, it's almost inert, a safe-bet picture peopled by anachronistic cardboard characters. That mattered not a nit to untold millions of viewers back in 1997, when I remember people telling me their wives had returned to see it four, five, six times...
The story picks up the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic just as the giant new passenger liner departs from its last UK stop. Socialite Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet) hates being the trophy fiancée of arrogant millionaire Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) and takes up with penniless steerage passenger Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). When the ship keeps its historic appointment with an iceberg, Rose and Jack defy the insanely jealous Cal, not to mention Rose's demanding mother Ruth (France Fisher). As the ship founders and chaos grips the terrified passengers, Cal's bodyguard Spicer (David Warner) makes sure that Jack is handcuffed to a large pipe, deep down in the bowels of the ship.
An incredible gamble in 1997, Titanic paid off handsomely for the investors that allowed James Cameron to "sink" 200 million dollars into a single feature film. The show is a keenly designed commercial vessel, carefully tweaked to remove anything that might irritate or disturb the lowest common denominator in the audience. The stock characters are performed as if there were no difference between 1912 and the present. Class barriers are easily circumvented; all rich people are frauds and scoundrels desperately lacking a 'common touch.' By contrast, the steerage passengers are without exception noble, good natured and fair-minded optimists. The film's most depressing insult occurs when naughty fornicating runaway princess Rose flips the bird to David Warner's nasty bodyguard. I'm sure that the gesture did indeed exist in 1912 (the English do it with two fingers, I believe) but the point is why does the demure Rose perform the gesture like an aggressive Valley Girl? We're given to understand that Rose's brief life has been as sheltered as the little girl at the next table over, learning to fold a napkin.
The movie caters to the romantic fantasies of its audience. Dreamboat actor DiCaprio is given a sterling set of qualities. His Jack is a roving free spirit just back from the continent, where he's been doing terrible sketches of Parisian prostitutes. He has an absolute trust in his own instincts, not to mention naturally suave manners that erase all social lines and restrictions. The dashing Jack also dances a great jig. Everything he says drips with wisdom and noble common sense.
Beautiful Winslet looks properly stifled by her 1912 wardrobe but she's a fantasy character as well. Having just realized she's a caged bird living an artificial life of luxury, Rose simultaneously discovers true love and rebellion against convention, and in a matter of hours transforms into an emancipated, liberated '70s woman. Rose ditches her impossibly arrogant jerk of a fiancée to enrapture and seduce her new Prince Charming. No hot romantic supermarket novel can hope to compete with this setup.
Since this is a late-'90s picture the sexual part of the fantasy is female-dominated. Jack is a gentleman charmer but Rose calls the shots, deciding when to get naked and where to do the deed. Rose's dastardly boyfriend Cal, by contrast, already considers her his property and becomes violent that Rose might have a thought in her head that he has not pre-approved. He browbeats her and then pouts that she hasn't come to his bed after lights-out.
Of course, the answer is that everybody else is a constipated square and our lovers need to break free of the restraints of oppressive affluence. No matter that Rose has never as much as cooked for herself, the vagabond life is for her. We learn that Rose later becomes a movie star and a pioneering female pilot. She's quite a gal ... even at age 100 she's the sharpest cookie in the room.
This lazy fantasy might have been acceptable if Titanic had a good script. Cameron's main characters are either goody-good or hiss-able villains, with nothing in between. Dialogue that squeaks by in outer space and underwater techno-fantasies is inadequate to float a period romantic drama. Practically every line in the film comes from the prefigured exposition playbook, is baldly unbelievable, or is trite with a capital T. Accomplished actors DiCaprio and Winslet come off as shallow teenagers acting like adults. They look good but that's it. As far as the main characters are concerned, absolutely zero attention is given to anything even resembling authentic period attitudes.
The supporting cast ranges from good to truly terrible. Kathy Bates and Frances Fisher are reasonable within the narrow confines allowed them; Billy Zane's villain is badly written and abominably directed. Victor Garber plays the ship's designer in almost a shot-for-shot and line-for-line copy of the role as conceived for the 1958 Roy Ward Baker version of the sinking, the fascinating A Night to Remember. Supporting characters exist only to feed us needed information; excellent actress Bates is put into service holding the football for Jack and Rose.
Enough! Enough. One could go on sniping for hours. Titanic is too fat a target for even Savant's easily satisfied dramatic demands. Besides that, although the ship wasn't too big to sink, Cameron's movie seems to have been Too Big To Fail. When one disengages from the lame story the film is thoroughly engrossing as an epic spectacle. I've found favor with many a stilted epic as long as there was sufficient star-power to stave off boredom while waiting for a battle or a giant set piece with a thousand extras. Taken as an action movie, Titanic's grandiose scale and technical wizardry compensates for the mediocre dramaturgy. In other words, if we take the director's main goal as creating a gripping you-are-there account of a famous disaster, this is a success. The only way Titanic could be improved in that respect, would be if audiences were required to watch the conclusion with their feet in buckets of ice water.
All the factual particulars of the sinking are handled far better in A Night to Remember, but James Cameron does not have the same semi-documentary goal. Politically Titanic falls somewhere between Night and an eye-opening 1943 Nazi version created as bitter anti-British propaganda. Cameron's script is somewhat contemptuous of the ship's captain and crew. Second Officer Lightoller is the compassionate hero of the 1958 film but here is characterized as a hysteric who threatens to shoot passengers. Cameron also purloins a key plot twist from the Nazi version - which sees one likeable character locked up in the brig far below decks just as the ship begins to founder. I guess Paramount's legal department figured Joseph Goebbels' agent was in no position to object. (That's no joke; ship model shots from the Nazi Titanic found their way into earlier B&W versions.)
The runaway production Titanic was extremely expensive even though the giant boat sets were accomplished in Mexico. Director Cameron may have missed his calling -- his complex production so rivals D-Day in planning, logistics & execution that he could easily have been a great military General. Cameron must also have the stamina of an ox. While organizing everything he also had to work behind the camera for twelve hours a day filming the darn thing. We see every filming trick in the book used in conjunction with what were at the time a lot of experimental digital techniques. Interestingly, in this 2012 release, the action of the tiny animated figures on the ship's deck no longer seems as mechanical and fake as it once did. Did Cameron revise those shots when he did the 3D conversion?
Establishing shots of the ship suffer from the tendency of early CGI to favor impossible digital helicopter swoops down its entire length -- even Cameron found a more 'what could a real camera do and see' style for his later Avatar. On the other hand, almost every shot of the nighttime sinking is a dazzling wonder. The views of water filling corridors (some of which were surprisingly tiny miniatures) and whooshing through breaking windows are terrifying. Even with more unnecessary bad history (a running gun battle in the main salon? Ship's officer's shooting rioting passengers?) we feel the horrible entrapment as the ship begins to descend into the ice water like a runaway escalator.
We're also assured that this is the first Titanic film to get the sinking correct. The ship splits in two as its stern cantilevers hundreds of feet into the air. Conflicting stories from witnesses helped to blur this fact in the history books, until confirmation came with the actual sight of the wreckage on the ocean floor.
Reflecting the director's enthusiasm and commitment to underwater exploration, the film offers a wraparound bookend structure in the present day. Bill Paxton plays a hi-tech salvage expert and Gloria Stuart (The Invisible Man) is Rose. The spry 100 year-old has a sentimental secret concerning a particular jewel, which gives the film an anchor in the present day.
Paramount's spectacular Limited 3D Edition Blu-ray of Titanic is a four-disc set. The first two discs contain the 3D copy split in two for maximum quality. The third disc carries the 2D Blu-ray copy and the fourth BD has the special features. Many of the extras from the 2009 special edition DVD are repeated, including the 30 deleted scenes and the 60 (!) BTS featurettes.
Classy menus also take us quickly to two new docus. Reflections on Titanic begins by showing how a projected Hollywood disaster became an enormous success. James Cameron begins by explaining that he was directly inspired to do the film based on a viewing of A Night to Remember. The show hits a note of questionable taste when the narration asserts that the 'theme' of big plans going wrong was reflected in the 9/11 attack and disaster. The lesson of the Titanic definitely has something to do with the hubris of men, but the connection with a perceived downfall of America is offensive.
The second new docu Titanic The Final Word is 87 minutes long and hosted by James Cameron, who goes through the entire story of the actual sinking, all the way to the exploration of the wreck on the ocean floor.
All of the BTS material from early releases appears to be here as well, including "Videomatics", construction time-lapse videos, the music video with Celine Dion, Trailers, TV spots, image galleries, parodies, etc. Investors in this new 3D Blu-ray won't have to accept a feature-only presentation.
So, how's the 3D version? The 3D scenes now look hyper-real: almost jarring in their composition, color saturation, and depth of field. The depth effect is excellent, yet now we realize how many scenes on the ship were digital composites. The engine room almost looks unreal -- to make the 3D work, every giant piston is in focus and well lit at the same time.)
The 3D is pretty clean. One overhead "helicopter" shot of DiCaprio standing on the ship's bow is somewhat strange. An odd blue compositing artifact around the live-action bit of DiCaprio apparently became more pronounced in the conversion to depth. The robotic undersea exploration shots in the modern scenes are particularly impressive. With the camera moves so slowly, the floating particles in the water provide a 'depth medium' that draws us into the setting. If there's a complaint to be made here, it's the use of 3D in the CRT monitors the actors hover over on the boat and inside the submersibles. Are these underwater cameras meant to be 3D, without glasses? The 3D breaks the 4th wall like this only when the frame of the screen is 100% taken up by the CRT image, but getting a stereoscopic perspective from a blurry color-corrected CRT image seems completely wrong.
By the way, unlike the 2D version, the 3D encoding is full-frame 1:78. As has been his mode since the 1980s, Cameron shoots in Super-35 and crops to fit various formats. This means that the special effects were actually composited with more north/south information than was seen on theater screens. Obviously, filling home theater widescreens is a major aid to 3D.
The improvement of Blu-ray on the 2D version is substantial, allowing us to soak up the full extent of the detail of the massive boat sets, and to better appreciate the impressive early CGI work. Purchasers of this pricey box will get the desired massive dose of quality 3D they crave; as expected, Cameron has done far more than a fast 3D cut & paste job.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Titanic Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.