Titanic [3D Re-release]
Director : James Cameron
Screenplay : James Cameron
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1997 (original theatrical release) / 2012 (3D re-release)
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack Dawson), Kate Winslet (Rose DeWitt Bukater), Billy Zane (Cal Hockley), Kathy Bates (Molly Brown), Frances Fisher (Ruth DeWitt Bukater), Gloria Stuart (Old Rose), Bill Paxton (Brock Lovett), David Warner (Spicer Lovejoy), Bernard Hill (Captain E.J. Smith), Jonathan Hyde (Bruce Ismay)
Fifteen years ago, James Cameron’s Titanic sailed into theaters five months delayed and burdened with gossip-fueled expectation that it would become the cinematic equivalent of its maritime disaster, but instead became one of Hollywood’s biggest critical and commercial hits. In the ensuing years and despite the inevitable backlash that attends any cultural event of its magnitude, the film has lost none of its power, and it remains a phenomenally moving experience, one of the rare films that merges the intimate and the epic with such dexterity that they feel inseparable. Cameron and his team have given the film an $18 million digital 3D facelift, but the effects of its three-dimensionality are largely negligible (albeit clearly the best work done to date in 3D conversion). Rather, Titanic remains a marvel because it was a marvel to begin with.
It is, of course, in no way intellectually fashionable to hold Titanic in high esteem; after all, any film that could be so broadly popular that it earned a billion dollars at the box office and won 11 Oscars must be in some way corrupt. Sneering at Titanic is for some a quick means of proving high-cultural bona fides or at least hipster resilience to anything smacking of romanticism. For some, Titanic’s old-fashioned virtues are its downfall, and there is no way around it. In molding his film, Cameron dug deep into the Hollywood playbook, pulling out everything short of actual three-strip Technicolor. Yet, that is precisely what makes Titanic such a glorious achievement: Cameron took the old and made it new, fashioning an old-style romance set against a vast historical backdrop with all the new tools and effects of the modern age.
Yet, as he had done in his previous films, particularly The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Cameron never loses sight of the fundamental humanity of his story. For all the emphasis on the film’s massive, then-unheard-of $200 million production, which utilized both state-of-the-art digital effects and a nearly full-size, obsessively detailed replica of the ship itself that he could raise and lower into the ocean, Titanic sails or sinks entirely on the shoulders of its characters and its story. The actual sinking of the ship, which takes up nearly an hour and a half of the film’s brisk three-hour-plus runtime, is astonishing in its intensity and suspense and horror, but only because we care about more than just the spectacle, however stunning it may be on its own.
In fact, the spectacle of the infamous maritime disaster becomes not an end in itself (as it was in Roy Ward Baker’s admirable A Night to Remember), but rather an extension of the film’s emotional core: the doomed romance between Jack Dawson (Leonard DiCaprio), a young, penniless artist riding in steerage with a ticket he won in a lucky game of poker moments before the ship departed, and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), the miserable teenage fiancé of the wealthy heir Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). There is a simple perfection to Jack and Rose’s romance, and both DiCaprio and Winslet invest their characters with a youthful intensity that elevates it into a kind of tragic purity. When Jack tells Rose that she’s going to die if she doesn’t get away from Cal and the superficial world of money and power he represents, or when Rose tells Jack that she’s getting off the ship with him not because it makes sense, but rather because it doesn’t and that’s why she trusts it, they transcend the prosaic dialogue and make it come alive.
DiCaprio was already a rising teen heartthrob with his role in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), although he was a heartthrob with true acting chops (not only could he sell Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, but he had already held his own against Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life and had been nominated for an Oscar in 1993 for his role as Johnny Depp’s mentally challenged younger brother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Winslet, on the other hand, was almost entirely unknown to American audiences outside of the art-house circuit, where she had already made an indelible impression playing an obsessive teen murderer in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) and the doomed Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s daring film version of Hamlet (1996). Of course, Titanic made both of them stars, and they spent much of their subsequent careers running away from it with roles that ensured they would not be type-cast as dreamy star-crossed lovers.
Seeing the film again for the first time in probably five years (and on the big screen for the first time since the spring of 1998), I was, of course, consumed by the enormity of the production and how well it has held up over the years, but I was also struck by some of the smaller characterological details that are often given short shrift. For example, Billy Zane’s Cal proves to be much more than the moustache-twirling villain he is often accused of being. Rather, he emerges as a fascinatingly complex figure with a tragically overinflated ego. He certainly plays the role of the heavy (and, when he’s not on screen, his manservant Lovejoy, played with grim authority by David Warner, fills in), but his villainy is not one-note evil, but rather the logical outcome of his complete immersion in his social class, a topic the film repeatedly emphasizes via the ship’s literal and metaphorical separation of first class and steerage. For example, when Cal tells Jack that he could “almost pass for a gentlemen” when wearing a tuxedo, Zane’s delivery of the line suggests that he genuinely means it as a compliment, even though it comes out as a sneering insult. And later, when he and Jack are standing on the sinking ship watching Rose being lowered in a lifeboat and he tells Jack that he “always wins,” there is a slight twinge of desperation in the boast, as if he doesn’t entirely believe it and, deep down, realizes that Jack is the actual “better” man. After all, much of Cal’s behavior is driven by his jealousy, not because he loves Rose, but because he wants to possess her like everything else. His inability to see the people in his life as anything other than objects is his tragedy.
However, it is ultimately the story of Jack and Rose that centers and grounds Titanic. There is nothing new or original about their love across class boundaries, but it works because Cameron understands both the fundamental purity of their illicit attraction and the way in which it ties into all the themes that have kept the story of the Titanic’s sinking so fascinating for the past century. Just as the ship sank because of humanity’s hubris—the Industrial Age idea that we could build something literally “unsinkable”—Jack and Rose are constantly threatened by their society’s misplaced emphasis on class boundaries and the taboo of crossing them. Cameron allows for the old conceit that the working class is the realm of authentic culture (embodied in the raucous party in steerage that truly opens Rose up to the possibility of another life) while the wealthy are devoid of anything but their love of money, but he weaves it so neatly into the central romance that they feel all of a piece (Cameron took a lot of lumps for his screenplay, but it is actually a rather ingenious mixture of clear-headed storytelling and social observation). Yet, in the final moments, those class divisions give way to a sense of shared humanity in the tragedy, most powerfully captured in a shot of an elderly couple holding onto each other and weeping as water rushes under their bed and the otherwise unmotivated locking of eyes between Rose and a nameless young woman at the bow of the ship as it rises into the air.
Ultimately, what I loved when I first saw Titanic and what I continue to love now about it is its earnestness and idealism. At a time when so many films—even good and great ones—trade heavily in irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and despair, Titanic unabashedly embraces the idea of purity. In the wrong hands, such idealism can become simple syrup, oozing an unearned sticky sentimentalism. Titanic, on the other hand, earns its romanticism by placing it within the context of industrial hubris and its resultant disaster. There is a beautiful simplicity to the film’s ideals, most of which derive from an earlier era that we have supposedly “outgrown”: that love at first sight is a genuine phenomenon, that there is nobility in poverty, that sincerity trumps power, that people can keep promises their entire lives, and, most of all, that true love transcends life and death. We know that these things aren’t always true, but that is what makes them ideals. Titanic, buoyed by James Horner’s beatific score, cut through every vestige of my cynicism when I first saw it, and it continues to do so today. It is a film that I try to avoid for long periods of time because I don’t want it to become too familiar. There is something about the experience of getting lost in it that I continue to treasure, from the sepia-toned opening images of the ship’s departure to that magnificent final shot, which I contend is the greatest visual closure to a tragic romance I have ever seen.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Pictures