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Non-Review Review: Titanic (3D)

James Cameron’s Titanic is still a breath-taking production, even sixteen years after the fact. Sure, its huge budget and even bigger box office returns, coupled with its enormous pop culture impact, have all combined to make it a bit of a target for movie critics in the years following its initial release. To be honest, while I wouldn’t rank it as anywhere near Cameron’s finest accomplishment, I’ve always admired it for what it was: a romantic historical epic, perhaps the most recent film like that which Hollywood has produced. Even a decade and a half later, Titanic remains one hell of spectacle and a well-constructed piece of cinema, with Cameron displaying a mastery of form and an innate skill for story-telling. Couple with the best post-conversion 3D that I have ever seen, there’s no reason for anybody with a genuine interest in the film to stay away from the big re-release.

Her heart will... go on, finish it...

Let’s begin by discussing the 3D conversion. After all, almost everybody has already seen the film, and has formed an opinion. It’s no secret that I was somewhat unimpressed with George Lucas’ 3D conversion of The Phantom Menace, finding the end result surprisingly flat. However, Cameron’s conversion is, in pretty much every technical sense, brilliant. While it can’t quite compare with Cameron’s 3D-defining work on Avatar, it is certainly on of the best 3D experiences I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. If Lucas insists on converting the remaining Star Wars films, he could do well to take notes.

As with a lot of Cameron’s technique, the beauty here lies in blending those immaculate finer details with the larger picture. Titanic’s storytelling works because it’s a grand love story in broad strokes, with the detail filled in with great care, and it seems fitting that the 3D conversion feels somewhat similar. It’s the little details we notice – the discarded symbols of wealth and class floating at the bottom of the ocean floating just a little out from the background, or the way that Cameron has taken the time to render the reflections on glass on the helicopter taking Rose to the boat.

Cameron hasn't gone overboard with the conversion...

At the same time, Cameron provides a lush texture, and uses the technology to grant a great deal of depth to the frame. I’ve always argued that there are two approaches that can be taken to 3D, and both are equally valid. The first is to treat 3D as a gimmick, taking the opportunity to shamelessly “throw” stuff at the audience, while treating the rest of the film as a fairly standard piece of cinema. I thought Fright Night, for example, did that quite well.

The other approach is to use 3D as a genuinely artistic tool, extending the screen and giving the viewer a sense of scale and depth, with every frame feeling almost like its own little world. Cameron obviously set the standard for this artistic approach, and it has been rarely met. I think Tron: Legacy and Hugo were the only two films to come close. Being entirely honest, I didn’t think that this sort of approach was feasible with post-production conversion, and its to Cameron’s immense credit that it works so very well. There’s always a distinction between the foreground and the background, but not in a gimmicky sort of “cardboard cutout”way.

A familiar dance...

Cameron treats his 3D as an artistic tool. While the director has a tendency to seem a little too serious about his art form in interviews and discussions, I’ll concede that it generally denotes a professional perfectionism rarely matched in the film industry.  I’m still not convinced about the 3D format, to be entirely honest, but this film is the example that audiences need to convince them – to show them that 3D can be used as more than a cheap excuse to bump up ticket prices. Watching the film, no matter how cynical the viewer might be, there’s never a sense that Cameron is merely doing this for financial return or to promote his brand. The conversion is a labour of love, and I think that the results are absolutely superb.

So, enough about the conversion. What about the film? Like everybody else, I’ve seen it more than once. Which, to be honest, is quite something for a three-hour film that I’m not madly in love with. Like everybody else, I think the constant exposure really wore me down after the movie’s release. Remember when My Heart Will Go On was playing everywhere? Or when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet seemed like they’d be forever associated with the project?

Rose is all at sea...

Revisiting the film, years later and separated from the hype and hubbub, I’ll confess that it’s probably a stronger film. I appreciated the space in returning to Cameron’s romantic historical epic. And, to be frank, that is what it is. I’d argue it’s the last truly large-scale romantic epic that Hollywood has produced – the last grand and sweeping story of love told against a historical backdrop with an unprecedented historical scale. Being entirely honest, it’s hard to argue that cinema has pushed itself that much further since Cameron first released the film, or that any of the director’s technical accomplishments have been diminished by time or left in the dust by movies following.

All the technical beauty of the film, however, is aided by a very simple plot. Cameron seems to be channelling Gone With the Windand other historical romantic epics, setting a story of romance against the backdrop of real-world events. The result is to offer a tale both intimate and vast, while somehow romantically suggesting that the love between two people can be just as important as world-altering events. Cameron doesn’t use the American Civil War as the backdrop for his tale of young lovers, but the sinking of the H.M.S. Titanic, perhaps the most famous maritime disaster ever.

InZane in the membrane...

And, like many of those classic films exploring intimate perspectives on massive events, Cameron knows that we know the outcome before sitting down in the cinema. While a variety of older films might have brought those less historically aware audience members up to speed with a title card or scrolling text, Cameron instead creates a modern-day framing sequence, where one character even outlines exactly how the Titanic is going to sink:

Okay here we go. She hits the ‘berg on the starboard side, right? She kind of bumps along punching holes like Morse code, dit dit dit, along the side, below the water line. Then the forward compartments start to flood. Now as the water level rises, it spills over the watertight bulkheads, which unfortunately don’t go any higher than E deck. So now as the bow goes down, the stern rises up. Slow at first, then faster and faster until finally she’s got her whole ass sticking up in the air – and that’s a big ass, we’re talking 20-30,000 tons. Okay? And the hull’s not designed to deal with that pressure, so what happens?

“KRRRRRRKKK!” She splits. Right down to the keel. And the stern falls back level. Then as the bow sinks it pulls the stern vertical and then finally detaches. Now the stern section just kind of bobs there like a cork for a couple of minutes, floods and finally goes under about 2:20am two hours and forty minutes after the collision. The bow section planes away, landing about half a mile away going about 20-30 knots when it hits the ocean floor. “BOOM, PLCCCCCGGG!”

Never mind that the theories about the actual sinking of the ship have moved on from that point, you can’t really blame Cameron for adhering to the scientific consensus of the time. Watching the movie again, all these years later, I actually have a great deal of appreciation for the framing sequence. Indeed, that lecture explains – over two hours before it happens – everything that’s going to unfold, so the audience isn’t distracted by it during the climax. Rather than trying to figure out the physics of the contortions that the boat goes through, it allows us to focus on Rose and Jack trying to escape.

I'm sorry... I couldn't take my eyes off her enormous... diamond...

In fact, we’re even told – pretty much – how Jack and Rose’s love affair will resolve itself before the actual love story starts, thanks to research undertaken by a member of the expedition:

Look, I’ve already done the background on this woman all the way back to the twenties, when she was working as an actress. An actress! There’s your first clue, Sherlock! Her name was Rose Dawson back then. Then she marries this guy named Calvert, they move to Cedar Rapids and she punches out a couple of kids. Now Calvert’s dead, and from what I hear Cedar Rapids is dead!

Coupled with the whole “I never told anyone” aspect of this story, we can deduce that the romance won’t end well. We know that Rose survives, obviously. We don’t explicitly know whether Jack survives, but we know the relationship doesn’t. While it arguably removes a great deal of suspense from the climax of the film, it also lends Cameron’s story a great sense of tragedy. The moments Jack and Rose spend together carry extra weight because we know – from the outset – this is their only time together. It isn’t the start of something – this is it. All that it will ever be. Making every moment that bit heavier than it would be otherwise.

Deck chairs on the Titanic...

And that gives the whirlwind romance a sense of urgency and passion, which I think is pretty much the heart of the movie’s appeal to old and young. James Cameron is crafting a love story – a simple and accessible love story. It’s notable that we learn relatively little of Jack, save that he’s poor and he grew up on the edge of a lake that didn’t exist at the time – even when strolling with Jack and Rose, we join the end of the dialogue about his history.What little we do learn of him – he drew nudes in Paris, for example – is only to set up intimate moments later on.

Instead, the story is about how Jack affects Rose, how he inspires her and about how a very brief love affair can last a life time. “Love can touch us one time and last for a lifetime,” to quote the theme. Cameron composes a film around that most basic and obvious of romantic clichés, but what’s remarkable is just how carefully he crafts it. The iconography is perfect, as Cameron draws on all manner of conventions. There’s class drama – literally expressed through the sleeping arrangements on the ship, as she is “first class” and he is “third class.” There’s a fumble in the backseat of a car – albeit a Ford Model T. There’s even a moment of absolute trust as he takes her “flying.”

That sinking feeling...

And it’s to Cameron’s credit that it works so well. Yes, there are a whole host of smaller problems to be found. The movie does seem rather unfair to Rose’s husband, who doesn’t even merit a picture on her bedside locker, and never even found out that his wife’s heart belonged to a corpse at the bottom of the Atlantic. Rose’s symbolic decision to cast Le Cœur de la Mer into the ocean might feel like closure, but it seems quite selfish. That money could help her granddaughter, or even be donated to charity. One of the guys on the salvage crew mentions that there’s no record of Jack Dawson ever existing – presumably Rose took his name to honour him, so she could have set up an art school or anything with that diamond?

Of course, such cynical thoughts have no place in a sweeping romance like this. Despite being based on a historical event, Rose and Jack are fictional characters, little more than archetypes being used to tell Cameron’s epic romantic drama. Everything else is set dressing, even the ship itself, and so it seems rash to expect the inter-personal drama of Rose and Jack to conform to the rules of reality. Sure, it would have been possible for Jack to climb that piece of wood with her, had the two not tried to mount the same side, but the story wouldn’t be nearly as moving had Jack survived.

Don't worry, she was pretty cold to her husband too...

There is also a faint hint of cynicism in the way that James Cameron frames the story. He essentially casts himself in the role of Brock, the head of the salvage crew. There’s a bit of wry self-deprecation in the somewhat pretentious way that Brock documents his journey to the ship. “Seeing her coming out of the darkness like a ghost ship,” he monologues into his camera, “it still gets me every time.” Of course, his friends call him on his somewhat arrogant self-indulgence. In order to avoid painting Brock, the treasure hunter sifting through the remains at the bottom of the Titanic, as an overly cynical and exploitive charlatan, Cameron gives him something of an epiphany towards the end of the film.

“Three years and I’ve thought about nothing but Titanic,” he remarks. “But I never really got it. I never let it in.”One gets the sense that Cameron is almost speaking through Brock – there’s no doubt that the film consumed Cameron in the same way the hunt for the diamond consumed Brock. And Cameron and Brock both decided to focus on the small human lives at the centre of this  epic tragedy in order to bring it into scale. In a way, it seems almost like Cameron is trying to pre-emptively defend himself against allegations of exploitation.

A lifeline...

While he does use fictional central characters to tell his story, it feels a little strange for Cameron to chide Brock for hoping to recover the blue Le Cœur de la Mer, given Cameron’s plot is influenced (or inspired) by a real blue diamond that was on the cruise and played a part in a romance. (And, incidentally, can be seen in many Titanic exhibitions.) While most of Cameron’s script is painstaking researched, his usage of certain characters is quite questionable. Especially William Murdoch, a real person who is conflated with an unverified urban myth involving the shooting of passengers and the suicide of an officer on the ship. (Studio executives actually visited his descendents to apologise for the portrayal.)

That said, the sinking of the ship is still harrowing. It is a genuinely unnerving sequence, and Cameron executes it with considerable skill. It’s not easy to pull off that sort of disorganised panic so clearly and fluidly on screen. It is an unsettling sequence, and it should be. It reminds the audience that there was a very human element to this incredible catastrophe, and Cameron manages to effortlessly pull back from his central love story to give us this mammoth horror. There’s no denying that James Cameron is one of the best directors working today (whatever qualms I may have about his writing), and the last hour of Titanic is still powerful stuff – no matter how many times you have seen it.

Jack gets cleaned up good...

As usual in Cameron films, his cast is superb. I do think that DiCaprio is considerably stronger than Winslet as far as the leads go, although Jack is meant to be charming while Rose is far more grounded and conventional. Billy Zane makes a wonderfully creepy fiance, and David Warner is fantastic as Lovejoy. I actually, despite everything that happens, really like Lovejoy. As far as villainous henchmen go, Warner gives the bodyguard a very efficient demeanor, and it’s interesting that the script (and Warner) seem to present Lovejoy as on a relatively even footing to his master – he also has a way off the boat, rather than leaving it to his boss to sort it out. Given how preoccupied the movie is with class, it actually makes the character seem more badass.

Technically, the film is still hugely impressive. The lavish production design evokes the sweeping epics of yesteryear, and it’s Cameron’s skilled technique that really allows everything to work as well as it does. Titanic doesn’t necessarily hold together if subjected to too much objective criticism – how can Rose account for things she didn’t see involving people who died? – Cameron keeps all but the most skeptical of viewers swept up in his old-fashioned blockbuster. James Horner’s score has been played to death in the years since, but that’s only a testament to how massively iconic it was on initial release.

Some of the plotting is sketchy at best...

I’m not going to convince those who really dislike the film, a legion that seems to have multiplied since the original release. I’ll freely concede that it is not a masterpiece, and does have significant flaws. (Although I’d argue it’s far superior to Avatar.) However, if you can look past those flaws and engage with the broad and sweeping romance that Cameron is telling in the most accessible manner possible, I think you’ll be impressed with the conversion.

4 Responses

  1. Think I’ll let this one pass by in the night, something about a lost appeal for me seeing as it’s on ITV 3 every other weekend!

    Unless the “draw me like one of your french girls” scene is still there, uncut and in glorious 3D? Hubba hubba!

    • I don’t want to insert a tasteless 3D joke, but it is there. I hear the ITV adaptation is woeful, through. As Stephen Fry asked, Drownton Abbey or Upstairs Drownstairs?

  2. Awesome review on Titanic! This is a favorite movie of mine and I’ve continued to watch this movie using my DISH online feature. This works awesome on my iPad, where I can watch thousands of movies TV shows and right off the DVR. I’m happy my coworker from DISH mentioned this feature to get some of the best movie’s on TV. I can’t wait to go see this movie in 3D and see if it’s better the second time around.

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