Review: Titanic (1997)

I saw James Cameron’s Titanic for the first time when I was seven years old. I was at my friend’s house and his mother and sisters were sitting down to watch it on pan-and-scan VHS for the umpteenth time. I had avoided seeing the movie in theatres, mostly because even as a seven year old I was sickened by the Leo-fever every girl in school had. However, this time I acquiesced and actually sat down and watched the film, mostly out of curiosity.

I was mildly impressed, mostly by the final hour of the movie when the ship sinks. Everything else remained a blur to me. Being a small boy I didn’t buy into the romance. I thought it was too mushy. Strangely, my seven-year-old assessment seems to have become an accepted critical take on the film all these years later.

With the 3D re-release of Titanic this past week, the conversation regarding its status as a great film has reignited. There are the few critics who unabashedly loved the film then and still love it now. However, it seems the majority of critics view the film as very good, but mostly in a technical sense. They see it as important because of its cultural impact and the undeniably spectacular scenes of the ship going down. They see the love story as clichéd and hackneyed. They think the dialogue is atrocious.

I feel bad for these critics. I can accept their preferences of taste and their quibbles about the film’s dialogue (its one true weak point), but for the most part, I feel bad that these critics can’t surrender themselves to the emotional spell of a film as monumental and spectacular as Titanic.

Few films are as universally engaging. I didn't realize this until revisiting the film in 3D in theatres a few days ago. It takes scale, technical bravado, and an emotional, universally relatable story to mesmerize audiences like Titanic does.

Technically, the film is an unqualified triumph. Not only are the production design, costuming, sound design, visual effects, score, editing, lighting, and pacing nearly flawless, the film is perhaps the most heavily researched film ever made. The thousands of hours of researching the ship’s survivors, of simulating its sinking through computer models, of diving to the bottom of the Atlantic to record the wreck, of building the almost to-scale model of the ship based off the original shipbuilding plans, complete with the correct wallpaper — this is staggering pre-production work.

No one can say that Titanic is a lazy movie. It awes you with its attention to detail. By having such flawless production, the viewer has no doubt as to the authenticity of what is being displayed onscreen. It is only because we believe we are in 1912 on the deck of the grandest ship ever built that we are so devastated by its inevitable sinking.

The ship also works as a microcosm of the pre-war world. Cameron invests in details of minor characters representing the upper and lower classes. The dynamic between these classes is on full display, although painted in broad strokes. Cameron also taps into how the kind of unchecked optimism and ambition of this generation combined with unheralded technical ability to produce disaster. This kind of blind optimism in technology’s capacity to do things combined with incapacity to control it foreshadows the devastation of a generation and a paradigm that would come with the First World War.

The film’s cinematography is also marvelous. One shot that frames the lifeboats in the foreground and the ship’s rudder and propellers in the background rising up out of the water captures the scale of the ship better than any in the film. It is awesome in the truest sense of the word.

But none of this technical showmanship would affect you the way it does if it wasn’t for the love story. Some people complain that the love story is clichéd. I would call it archetypal.

There is something elemental to it. The poor boy falls in love with the rich girl. It’s true, we’ve seen this story before, but such a story’s continued appeal has to indicate its essential truths about romance. Such tragic stories have been around as long as we have been telling stories. From the tales of mortal men falling in love with goddesses, to Renaissance plays of star-crossed lovers, this is a universal story about inevitable tragedy that speaks to everyone. It distills the romance down to a basic level where only passion, emotion, and sensuality remain.

Since Titanic is the universal disaster, it makes sense that we experience it through the lens of a universal love story. It also helps that such fantastic actors as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet played the parts. Looking back with the benefit of retrospect, their performances remain electric and some of the best of their careers.

A film like Titanic works a spell on the viewer. It has weak points (Billy Zane’s villain is a cartoon), but none of these issues can spoil the overall effect of the film. A film like this is more than the sum of its parts.

Each aspect — the spontaneous acting of the romantic leads, the meticulous set and costume design, the magnificent moments of suspense when the ship is sinking — comes together to profoundly affect the audience.

In a post 9/11 world, it is hard not to see elements of our own historic disaster in the sinking of the Titanic. Perhaps this is part of the power of the film. We posit our own experiences of catastrophe and disaster onto the film. Thus, the sinking of the Titanic and the emotional release it provokes is doubly affecting. No one watching Titanic was there to experience the sinking, but through the film, we experience it, we sympathize with the people suffering through it, we emotionalize the experience and it becomes one of our own. We make the disaster our own and the process of watching the film our emotional release.

Thus, in essence, Titanic is the blockbuster as group catharsis.

Titanic (1997)

3D re-release (2012)

Written and directed by James Cameron; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, and Bernard Hill.

10 out of 10

The 3D is subtle, but a nice touch. I’ve been quite open in my championing of 3D, and while I don’t much approve of post-converted 3D, James Cameron was meticulous in his processing of it and knows how to use 3D better than anyone in Hollywood. I love the added depth it brings to the film’s images. In particular, the scenes of the ship sinking and breaking in half are a touch more vivid in 3D. If you don’t care for 3D, my plea to you is not to let the 3D discourage you from revisiting the film. It is better to suffer the slight dimness and clunky glasses than to miss out on watching Titanic again on the big screen, the way it was meant to be seen.