By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, April 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 Atlantic.
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 50,000-ton, 880-foot entirety of the Titanic, from the sumptuous state rooms housing Astors and Guggenheims 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.
Photos: Titanic actors then and now
'Titanic's' unsinkable saga
By Stephen Hunter
December 19, 1997
After all these years, it's still the same old story:
But at least James Cameron's retelling of the haunting catastrophe of April 14 and 15, 1912, has the grace and decency to sound a few new notes even as it derives much of its power from that old mainstay: bad things happening to other people. It's rich with the secret pleasure of watching a small, posh floating city turn into a gigantic iron coffin and slide headfirst into the deep, taking with it 1,500 of the innocent and not nearly enough of the guilty.
You sit there horrified and yet an ugly worm deep in your brain whispers: Better them than me.
Titanophiles should have plenty to celebrate and plenty to complain about. On the positive side, Cameron expensively re-creates the sinking of the ship in accordance with the latest and best theory, informed by high-tech exploration of the wreck. Thus in this film, unlike "Titanic" of 1954 or "A Night to Remember" of 1958, the ship is not shudderingly gashed by the berg but merely penetrated by a stiletto of ice, spreading 12 square feet of damage over 300 feet of hull. Thus, too, the big baby, as she goes down prow first and elevates her stern to the stars -- almost as if displaying a cosmic middle finger to the God who doomed her -- does in fact break in two as her brittle, frozen steel shatters, perishing not with a whimper but a bang.
Still, in his urge to simplify, fictionalize and mythologize, Cameron ignores many of the fascinations of the doomed voyage and its gallant crew and passengers. The heroic, indefatigable Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, who emerged as the tragedy's hero, is nowhere to be seen, though he was everywhere that night and the last man plucked from the sea the next morning. No credit is given to the stalwart Capt. Arthur Henry Rostron of the Carpathia, who, by dashing through the ice to the site of the disaster, probably saved more lives than any other human agent. Nor is the dastardly rascal Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who may have bribed his way into the boats, on hand. And where is the deeply annoying Henry Sleeper Harper, who escaped with his wife, his manservant and his Pekingese while 52 children in steerage drowned? It's partially this tapestry of character weak and strong, of angels and devils in attendance, that has locked the disaster into our imaginations.
Though Cameron glimpses the actual -- heroine Molly Brown, villain J. Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line -- mostly he replaces it with a thin, nearly inane melodrama that at least feels appropriate to the era. It's as if the film were written by a scriptwriter in 1912 fresh from reading stories in Woman's Home Companion -- but completely unversed in the psychological complexities of Mr. James and Mr. Dreiser. The dialogue is so primitive it would play as well on title cards. This overlay of fiction pursues an unlikely Romeo-and-Juliet coupling in which poor starving artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio, forever blowing a hank of hair out of his eyes) falls in love with society slave Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet, alabaster yet radiant), much to her delight and the disgust and ultimate fury of her fiance, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). The Zane character -- a Pittsburgh steel heir -- inherits some of Duff Gordon's least attractive characteristics, but he's so broadly imagined a portrait of aristocratic knavery that he comes to seem almost a cartoon figure, like a William F. Buckley with hemorrhoids.
The whole framing story is a cartoon, so much so that it seems another element of doomed hubris: Cameron is a guy who thinks he can improve the story of the Titanic! He's like the producer in a famous L.A. writer's joke who knows how to make everything better. But this stroke does yield a meager benefit or two: One is a chase sequence set in the unstable bowels of the very wet ship as the witching hour of 2:20 a.m. approaches. As a device for taking a tour not only of the death of a ship but also the end of an era, it's quite efficient; as drama it's ludicrous. Moreover, Dawson is the mildest, the least threatening of rebels. He's no Wobbly or Red, not even an arty radical like Edward Steichen, just a kid who might someday sell covers to Boys' Life. Winslet's Rose is Cameron's one anachronism, a Thwarted Woman of our age thrust backward in time to represent Heroic Feminism in wild ways, such as smoking in public. Their love story is strictly for the puppies and the guppies.
It does yield a couple of amusing scenes, however: One is a kiss at the westernmost point of the ship -- its very proboscis -- as it steams toward New York. The clever camera captures their love and the hugeness of the structure behind them in one breathtaking shot. The other is an intellectual trope: Progressivized by her time in Europe, Rose has become a champion of the avant-garde; her newfound respect for the works of a fellow named Picasso and a chap named Freud signify her willingness to acknowledge the irrational in the universe. The manly men across the table from her -- not merely Zane but also Titanic designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) and Capt. E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill), head man of the ship itself, a true rogue's gallery of macho hubris -- stand for that late-19th-century belief that nature is tameable, that man is master, that a ship could be unsinkable. They scoff, unaware that they are about to get a tutorial from God in the form of 10,000 tons of ice.
It need not be added that the movie is very long, since everything is long this year, including the line at the restrooms. It is, in fact, about 40 minutes longer than the actual sinking (which lasted 2 hours 40 minutes vs. 3 hours 20 minutes) and quite possibly more expensive. It should be added that, despite a slow start, the thing still goes from first point to last faster than any movie in the marketplace. Once that big ol' thang begins her last swoon -- about an hour into it -- you ain't looking no place else and you ain't going no place else.
This is Cameron at his best. Always thin in the imagination when it comes to conceiving the tissue of character and motive (typical Cameron motive, from his first hit, "Terminator": "He kills -- that's all he does"), he's the apogee of techno-nerd filmmaker. Thus the movie's central wonder is that it puts you aboard the sinking ship, palpably and as never before.
In the early going Cameron foreshadows his narrative strategy when, in a not-so-interesting setup involving greedy high-tech grave robbers visiting the Titanic's resting place 12,500 feet beneath the waves, we see a computer-animated scenario of the sinking. The rhythms of that event will be the rhythms of the movie that follows, almost exactly: a long, seemingly dead time in the water as the first three compartments of the lower hull invisibly fill; the slow tip forward as, almost imperceptibly, the bow begins to settle, then disappear; the contrapuntal stately climb of the stern amid an increasing shrapnel of falling furniture, flying glass and tumbling bodies; and the final, cataclysmic death spasm as the triple-screwed stern juts straight up, like a white whale hellbent on showing the floundering, drowning Ahabs the futility of their puny humanity, and then roars downward toward 73 long years of undisturbed silence, leaving a sea full of frozen dead and a fleet of half-empty lifeboats.
Yet in all this spectacle, the scariest element isn't the crushing power of the water and its ability to bend, drown and twist, but its creepy insistence. Watching it trickle upward (actually the boat is trickling downward), almost a teacup at a time, a thin, clear gruel of death, almost no more than you'd leave on the bathroom floor if you forgot to tuck in the shower curtain, is somehow more unsettling than watching a bulkhead go and a dozen anonymous steerage victims being swept away.
Cameron captures the majesty, the tragedy, the fury and the futility of the event in a way that supersedes his trivial attempts to melodramatize it. I didn't give a damn about cutie-pies Leonardo and Kate, much less their vapid characters or the predictable Hollywood Ten social "issues" they represent, but I left with an ache for those lost 1,500, rich and poor alike, for the big ship in ruins, and for the inescapable meaning in it all.
It is the same old story: Pride goeth before the fall, even when the fall is through 12,500 feet of black, icy water.
'Titanic's' very slow leak
By Desson Howe
December 19, 1997
You could stay awake till the wee hours extolling the extraordinary stunts, cinematography, production design and special effects of "Titanic." James Cameron's $200 million epic about the doomed ocean liner is easily the most visually stunning experience of the year. Of course, it should be. It's the most expensive production in movie history, and it had the demonically energetic Cameron at the helm. There's little doubt "Titanic" will soak up Oscar nominations for everything from sound editing to its Edwardian-era wardrobe.
With breathtaking detail, the movie documents the 880-foot, 60,000-ton RMS Titanic's tragic fate between April 10 and April 15, 1912, on its voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. When it struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m., April 14, the most luxurious, dependable mode of transportation -- the Concorde of its time -- became a byword in disaster lore.
Beyond its impressive production values, "Titanic" is primarily a romance between 17-year-old passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a member of high society, and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), an artistic drifter who has finagled passage to America by winning a third-class ticket at a dockside poker game.
She's fated for a stultifying, leisured life with priggish fiance Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Jack lives the existence of the free spirit but has no one to share it with. When the tousled artist talks the disconsolate Rose out of leaping into the ocean, their inevitable coupling begins.
Their affair is prefaced nicely by a framing story in the present day. Eighty-four years after the tragedy, a beautiful, aged woman (Gloria Stuart) hears about a search for an expensive diamond necklace (the biggest in the world) from the wreckage of the Titanic. The clue to the gem: a drawing discovered in a locked safe of a beautiful woman, naked, with the necklace around her neck. The woman in the picture, she tells expedition leader Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), is none other than herself. As Brock and his open-mouthed crew listen, Rose takes them -- and us -- back in time ...
After this magnificent setup, the movie springs an indiscernible but steady leak. DiCaprio and Winslet make a good-hair, great-body couple. And neither is an acting slouch. But their story -- though meticulously linked with the greater disaster -- is only passably involving. (And the less said about Zane's pantomimically nefarious, gun-toting assistant, played by David Warner, the better.) The fanciful, choked-throat bliss the lovebirds are supposed to evoke dissipates in the heat of Cameron's manic passion for the Titanic itself. The director of "Aliens," "The Abyss," both "Terminator" movies and "True Lies," captures the opulence, the sense of human folly and a sort of Dante-like sense of damnation, as sweaty engineers labor in the Titanic's boiler and engine room. But Cameron, who also wrote the script, is too schematic about the romance.
When Jack steals Rose away to the economy-rate Steerage Public Room, he introduces her to a goofily lifeaffirmative world, where chiefly Irish emigrants dance, sing and jovially spill beer all over each other. (Do the working classes know how unpretentious, happy and grimily noble they're supposed to be? I don't think so.) Jack also shows Rose how to spit a good one into the ocean. Now that's liberation. Garth and Wayne, white courtesy phone please.
Jack's artsy, carefree life is too easy an alternative to the corset-tightening future offered by Cal. Who'd want the stuffiest cardboard-cutout figure ever scissored into shape by a screenwriter? Where's the romantic competition? Are we to believe Jack's an artist simply because he admires Monet? ("Look at his use of color," he says.) And was Cameron intending to make things humorous when Jack says "This is bad," upon learning of the Titanic's impending destruction?
Finally, and most tellingly, the movie's too long. Who wrote the 11th Commandment that says epics should go on forever? "Titanic" is a good, often stunning movie caught in a three-and-a-half hour drift. As we marvel at the physical spectacle of the Titanic's last few hours, we're left staggeringly untouched by the people facing their last moments. This movie should have blown us out of the water. Instead we catch ourselves occasionally thinking the unpardonable thought: "OK, sink already."