Last week, James Cameron's Titanic was re-released in theatres sporting a new 3D look. This makes sense, because it's the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking and because it's a great way for a studio to make gobs and gobs of money off a movie that's already been produced. I can't argue that this strategy isn't cynical and opportunistic, and I can't argue that watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet making moony faces at each other for three hours is any more compelling in three dimensions than it was in two.
But I can, and will, make an argument for the movie itself.
That it's necessary to mount a defence for a film that hauled in an armful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has grossed more than $1.8 billion worldwide (second only to Cameron's more recent blockbuster, Avatar), is a little curious. Yet it feels necessary, given that the critical praise and audience adulation that greeted Titanic gave way rather quickly to a vocal and vicious backlash. In the course of 15 years, the movie has come to be seen as one of Oscar's biggest mistakes and, to put it bluntly, a bit of a joke.
There are some good reasons why some very smart people have such disdain for Titanic. For the snarkily inclined, it is an irresistible feast of low-hanging fruit. Like most of Cameron's films, Titanic is a case study in the filmmaker's tin ear for dialogue, clunky characterization and adolescent approach to romance. DiCaprio's Jack and Winslet's Rose are impossibly pure, as are the steerage-class background characters, while the rich snobs personified by Billy Zane and Frances Fisher are comically oversimplified black hats. Throw in the wraparound story featuring Bill Paxton's cool-guy deep-sea treasure hunter and you've got the Titanic universe imagined by guy who's eternally 12 years old.
There is admittedly also something silly about reducing a massive tragedy like the sinking of the Titanic down to a star-crossed romance between two photogenic lovers. I get that. I honestly do. But when I think back to the first time I saw Titanic (I ended up seeing it three times in its first theatrical release), I don't think about its many flaws. What I remember most is the sense of awe it inspired. That stomach-rush feeling is at the heart of what I still believe is a tremendous accomplishment by Cameron---and a testament to the fact that certain kinds of movies really should be directed by nerdy 12-year-old kids.
That mentality allows Cameron to get much of the big picture right even when he gets the details wrong, sometimes laughably so. Take the relationship between Jack and Rose. As written, they're symbols more than they are characters, and their interplay is full of corny dialogue and an instant devotion that goes even beyond most teenaged crushes. But Cameron's devotion to their devotion, his passionate insistence on the strength of their bond, is ultimately convincing. DiCaprio and Winslet also do an excellent job of rendering the script's most ridiculous moments with utter conviction. As clumsy as Cameron is in assembling their love story, you still want it to work out for them in the end. Considering you go in knowing how it ends, that's an impressive trick to pull off.
Likewise, Cameron slams his point home on class warfare through force of will, rather than grace and subtlety. It's not pretty or particularly insightful, but at very least it gives the viewer some context for the time and place in which the film is set.
It's all just preamble, of course, but Cameron puts a commendable amount of effort into setting the scene for the climactic sinking. Once ship hits iceberg, Cameron the technological fetishist is in his element, and Titanic's redemptive qualities truly kick in.
Generally speaking, special effects bonanzas don't age well. Each advance in movie magic technology is quickly eclipsed by another, such that simply looking at a CGI rendering of a cruise ship isn't especially spectacular 15 years later. Though Cameron is obsessed with the technical aspects of filmmaking, it's to his credit as a storyteller that his films don't depend entirely on being dazzled by effects. Titanic, like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, stands up through the years because the visual innovation was grafted onto a sturdy story platform.
Nevertheless, Titanic certainly delivered the "wow" factor in its 1997 release. The splitting apart and sinking of the ship was more vivid and realistic than audiences could have expected at the time. It wouldn't be anything special now, of course, but when the bow of the ship groaned and rose out of the water in front of the camera, it was genuine big-movie moment.
Cameron is better at creating these moments than most. Consider the frenetic incoherence of Michael Bay's action flicks and contrast that with the Titanic director, who has the good sense to clearly show what's happening and give the audience the contextual underpinnings to understand why it matters. These moments add up as the ship falls apart.
There are a lot of problems with Titanic and many legitimate reasons to criticize it. My feeling, though, is that it's been attacked for too many indirect and irrelevant reasons. Celine Dion, for example. It's difficult to think of Titanic without associating it with her godawful theme song. Then there's the fact that the film beat out LA Confidential, a better film by any artistic measure, for the Best Picture Oscar, thus ensuring that Titanic would become a victim of its own success. Finally, there's Cameron himself, whose "king of the world" acceptance speech---one imagines that he started practicing it in front of the mirror the moment he wrote the line into the Titanic script---confirmed the widespread notion that the director was a smug, arrogant prick.
But those are issues that lie outside of the movie itself. They don't change my view of Titanic as the prototypical Hollywood blockbuster, a movie that offers good-enough characterization and plot along with memorable eye candy.
Whatever anyone else says about it, Titanic knocked my jaw to the floor. I expect it will again.
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