DIRECTED BY James Cameron
STARS Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet
In retrospect, it's easy to be cynical and stuffy about James Cameron's 1997 Titanic. It surpassed previous champs Star Wars and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial as the top moneymaking film of all time (itself eventually surpassed by Cameron's Avatar), a personal affront to countless moviegoers over a certain age. With its record-tying 14 nominations and record-tying 11 wins, it turned members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into a bunch of teenage fangirls (it wasn't until six years later, with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, that AMPAS members turned into a bunch of teenage fanboys). It allowed Cameron, a genius as a filmmaker but an SOB as a human being (his ego's at least twice the size of the big boat itself), to become the self-proclaimed "king of the world." And it led to a lengthy period when it seemed as if Celine Dion's ubiquitous "My Heart Will Go On" was the only song ever recorded in American music history.
But now it's time to go back to Titanic, which has been re-released to theaters not only in celebration of its 15th anniversary but, more soberly, only a few days removed from the precise 100th anniversary (April 15, 1912) of the disaster that snuffed out 1,500 lives. Cameron spared no expense for this re-launch, spending millions to convert the film into 3-D. Admittedly, most pictures that weren't originally filmed in that process but were only converted later as an excuse to boost ticket prices have failed to provide much extra oomph to the 2-D imagery (e.g. Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland), but if there's one thing to be said about Cameron, the man knows how to derive the most technological bang for his buck. Titanic in 3-D looks fantastic, employing the format in a way that makes viewers feel as if they're the ones rounding a corridor corner or fighting to stay afloat in that icy Atlantic water.
Fifteen years later, the highs and the lows still remain; luckily, what's good about the movie continues to easily outweigh its flaws. The fictional storyline is hoary in the extreme, relying on a "wrong side of the tracks" romance: Shortly after boarding the ship as it prepares to embark on its maiden voyage, poverty-stricken artist Jack Dawson spots socialite Rose DeWitt Bukater and instantly falls for her. In these career-propelling roles, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are excellent, delivering warm, winsome performances that provide their romance with an epic grandeur it certainly wouldn't have attained in less capable hands. The trouble, for both the young lovers and the audience members, is the presence of Rose's fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), a supercilious millionaire who would just as soon push the lower classes off the face of the earth as give them the time of day. As I watched Cal constantly berate the poor, expose his ignorance in wince-worthy dialogue (criticizing a painting by Picasso, he opines that the artist will never amount to anything), smack Rose around, and try to kill Jack by taking shots at him, I kept wondering why Cameron had elected to leave off a mustache that Zane could twirl at regular intervals — the character is even more cartoonish than actual cartoon character Snidely Whiplash.
Yet despite the pesky presence of Cal, it's a credit to Cameron's hot-and-cold screenplay that even as the ship goes down, taking Zane's career with it, we're utterly committed to the plight of Jack and Rose. Their characterizations personalize the second half of the film, which is basically one sustained "money shot." Overlooking a couple of shaky CGI snatches, the effects are superb, and the final submergence of the "unsinkable" craft is absolutely dazzling. (While top Oscar honors should have gone to L.A. Confidential, which had swept all the major critics' groups, most of Titanic's technical awards were well-deserved, particularly those for the visual effects crew, composer James Horner and production designers Peter Lamont and Michael Ford.)
While Titanic can't touch Cameron's true classics, The Terminator and Aliens, it's nevertheless better than Avatar, a surface treat that, for all its box office muscle, can't match the emotional pull of this alternately tragic, alternately triumphant tale of two star-crossed lovers doing their best to create their own fate. If you've only watched this movie on DVD or television, you owe it to yourself to catch it in a theater. And even if you saw the picture during its original run, you don't want to miss the boat on what might be its final big-screen voyage.