The recent trend of converting old films to 3D and rereleasing them theatrically has kept me in an almost constant state of recollection. The experience of seeing James Cameron’s Titanic 3D has put me back into that state, and for the time being, it ranks as the most vivid, the most powerful, and the most personal of any 3D rerelease I’ve seen. It called to mind my days as a teenage Titanic historian (very much of the amateur division) and, to an even stronger degree, my talent for drawing, which I sadly gave up on. Most of all, it called to mind memories of seeing the film for the first time in December of 1997 and watching it win the Oscar for Best Picture and become the most financially successful movie ever made – only to be surpassed twelve years later by Avatar, again directed by James Cameron.
Fifteen years have passed, and my interest in the ship itself has dimmed. For the purposes of watching the 3D rerelease, this is actually a good thing; I was now better able to appreciate the film on narrative and emotional levels. As a fourteen-year-old, I responded mainly to its technical aspects, not the least of which was the work that went into recreating the ship. Cameron strove for excruciating detail, and it paid off. With a combination of full-sized set replicas, various scale models, and computer generated imagery, he brought the ship back to life. I still respond to all this as a twenty-eight-year-old, but now I see so much more, namely how the film is a beautiful and engrossing romantic melodrama. Each character fits so neatly into an archetype that they all seem to belong within the pages of a beloved storybook.
This is one of the few films I’ve seen in which so many individual shots resonate with power. A few are sweeping and majestic, as when the camera pulls back from Leonardo DiCaprio standing on the railing at the prow of the ship; it rises up, zooming above the bridge and the sun deck, cuts through a plume of smoke billowing from one of the funnels, and continues until it passes the stern, at which point we watch it momentarily sailing off onto the horizon. Most are haunting, as when the ship has already sank and Kate Winslet surfaces for air; the camera pulls back from her, gradually revealing a sea of hapless passengers screaming and fighting to stay afloat in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
The list goes on. There’s the moment when the camera quickly zooms backwards down a hallway as water rushes in, casing doors to fly off their hinges. There’s the first shot of the massive rudder and propellers emerging from the water as the ship sinks bow-first. There’s the scene where torrents of water finally break through the glass dome over the Grand Staircase. There’s the shot of a steerage passenger comforting her children with a religious fable as they lie in bed, for she knows that they never had a chance at making it off the sinking ship alive. There are the ship’s final death throes, beginning when it dramatically breaks in two and ending with the stern briefly floating on the water vertically, the passengers falling and bumping against railings. And then there’s the scene in which a lifeboat rows through a sea of frozen bodies. We immediately take notice of a mother clutching her infant to her chest.
That the film is a triumph of sheer spectacle, there can be no question. I knew that back in 1997. What I gradually picked up on over years of home viewings, and what I finally realized upon seeing it once again on the big screen, is just how good this movie is at being a love story. Titanic is high romance in the best possible sense – a tale of star-crossed lovers and secrets that stay buried in time, only to be uncovered by outside forces. I’ve been critical of Cameron’s screenwriting skills, specifically in regards to dialogue, for which he has a tin ear; in the case of Titanic, part of the charm is that the dialogue is as overtly theatrical as the plot. You listen to the characters talk and know you’re being immersed in a style that’s intended to be heightened and old-fashioned.
Apart from the fact that we’ve now reached the centennial of the ship’s sinking, the main selling point of this rerelease is, of course, the 3D. The process has its moments of effectiveness; the best-looking scenes are the ones with rows of people standing at various distances from the camera. But in general, the new 3D effects don’t generate a significant sense of depth, and the brightness is noticeably reduced. The most disappointing scenes, in terms of dimension, are the sinking and the present-day expedition of the wreck. I understand Cameron’s enthusiasm for 3D, which he has been vocal about, although I wonder if he realizes that he already had a masterpiece and that the conversion was unnecessary. I didn’t need an extra dimension to appreciate Titanic 3D. The story, the characters, and the technical authenticity are more than enough.