'Titanic 3-D' review
By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2012
To contemplate "Titanic 3D" - James Cameron's 1997 action-adventure-historical-romance about the 1912 sinking of the eponymous ship - is to engage in a double dose of wistfulness. Cameron’s movie takes filmgoers back not only to an era that seemed to disappear along with the 1,500 people who perished in the disaster, but to a more recent time, when an un-superstar named Leonardo DiCaprio and an unknown named Kate Winslet were barely in their 20s, as ripe and tender as a baby’s sit-down.
With Cameron having converted "Titanic" to 3-D in celebration of the film's 15th anniversary, watching the new version also points up just how unnecessary such technological gimmicks are when you have a perfectly good original in the first place.
The added visual depth neither enhances or detracts from the charm of revisiting the film's young actors in their coltish prime, as heedless of their coming fame and "Titanic's" record-breaking box office success as their characters are of that iceberg looming out in the dark North Sea.
In fact, the new bells and whistles seem at odds with "Titanic" as an admittedly lavish but somehow pure enterprise: Just as Cameron pays tribute to a Victorian civilization and culture that went down with the ship, his film pays tribute to an era when a hugely expensive movie could be made with no-name stars, just as it augurs a coming age when stars would barely be needed if a director could manipulate the right computer effects and toy tie-ins.
Of course, there are hazards in reassessing any movie, let alone the film that dominated the late 20th century so thoroughly. Cameron's bluntly expository dialogue is still wooden, his plot a hackneyed pastiche of boilerplate set pieces, caricatured villains and melodramatic hokum. But the filmmaker's main aim with "Titanic" was never spontaneous naturalism but finding ways to lead viewers through the 52-ton, 880-foot entirety of the Titanic, from the mahogany-paneled state rooms of the upper classes and grimy environs of the engine rooms to the cramped bunks of steerage, where DiCaprio's poor-but-honest Jack takes Winslet's aristocratic Rose for a wee drink and a romantic spin while Irish fiddles play.
All that navigation pays off when filmgoers find themselves confronted with "Titanic's" dazzling and emotionally affecting exercise in scale and spectacle. Is Rose just a tad bit too much of a billboard for the progressive times she's supposed to embody? (She's bringing home a Picasso from a trip to France, and she's a follower of an Austrian fellow named Freud.) Is Billy Zane missing only a waxed mustache to twirl as her shallow and controlling fiance, Cal Hockley? Does Winslet - one year younger than DiCaprio - still possess a womanly maturity that makes Rose's dependence on Jack hard to believe?
Sure, but none of that detracts from the essence of "Titanic," which is to plunge viewers into a bygone world, the better for them to witness its destruction first-hand. And when that end comes, the audience doesn't just see it but feel it, whether in the sight of an elderly couple embracing as frigid water eddies around their bed or that valiant orchestra playing "Nearer My God to Thee," or in the horror reflected in the eyes of Kathy Bates's unsinkable Molly Brown as she beholds the slow, fatal descent from one of the "Titanic's" too-few lifeboats.
Those moments - as well as the modern-day framing story featuring the late Gloria Stuart - still resonate with an elegiac sense of grief and loss, even as viewers marvel at the technical prowess and sheer chutzpah Cameron marshalled to realize it on screen. The question isn't whether "Titanic" still succeeds in its dual mandate to humanize the Titanic disaster and render it with all the grandeur and size the story demands: It does. The question is whether the film's twin values of humanism and spectacle are enhanced by Cameron's 3-D conversion, and the answer to that is: They aren't.
That isn't to say that "Titanic 3D" looks bad. All too often, movies that are converted to 3-D after the fact look murky, monochromatic and cheap. Cameron has spared no expense or expertise in making sure that his film loses none of the brightness or detail that's usually sacrificed for added depth of field. But that extra depth brings no added value by way of visual texture or narrative drive. If anything, 3-D conversion creates distance where there should be intimacy, not to mention odd moments in framing and composition: There are several distracting instances when figures in the side foreground of a shot receive equal visual billing with the actual subjects of the scene.
In other words, it's precisely the immersive, first-hand experience that 3-D is supposed to heighten that Cameron managed to create in 1997 by virtue of his own earnestness and simple passion for adventure. Rather than being shown what happened on that April night, it was as if viewers were being pulled vicariously along on the filmmaker's own breathless, gee-whiz journey of discovery and awe.
This is no more evident than in the film's famous final minutes, when the filmmaker stages the sinking with a flawless sense of detail, pacing, import and dread. There's no doubt that "Titanic" is worth rereleasing, for a new generation to discover and for the rest of us to relive the thrills, not just of old fashioned bravura filmmaking but of two stars' careers being launched. The backhanded compliment that the gratuitous 3-D conversion delivers is that "Titanic" has had the right dimensions all along.
Contains disaster-related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality and brief profanity.