It wasn’t surprising when in the spring of 1998 there was an enormous backlash against James Cameron’s Titanic. The damn thing had just been too successful.
- It was the most successful movie of all time, ranking #1 at the box office for 15 weeks in a row. Titanic was the first movie in history to earn over $1 billion worldwide.
- It had just swept the Oscars, winning 11 awards including Best Picture, after being nominated for 14.
- Speaking of the Oscars, the film had to live down the moment when writer/director James Cameron did in succession declare himself “The King of the World,” preside over a really awkward moment of silence for those killed on the Titanic, and then wrap it all by saying, “And now, let’s party ‘till dawn!
- That awful Celine Dion song was never not on the radio. It would be #1 on the Billboard chart for two and a half months and sell over 15 million copies worldwide. It would go on to win four Grammys, tarnishing that particular awards show for the rest of human history.
- Poor Leonardo DiCaprio became a shrieked-after teen idol and was on millions of magazine covers. The film’s box office was largely driven by teenage girls who saw the movie over and over again and, man, were they annoying.
- Television networks jumped on the bandwagon and Titanic-themed specials were constantly being broadcast.
By the spring of 1998, hating Titanic was the hip thing to do.
Skip forward 16 years, and we have the opportunity to revisit Titanic, to look at it again with fresher eyes. Thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Cameron, the film has been post-converted to 3D and given a big theatrical release. It turns out the hipsters were dead wrong. Titanic holds up and works beautifully.
When people b---- about this movie, there are usually two things they like to bring up. The first is Cameron’s sometimes clunky dialogue. The second is the villainous character played by Billy Zane. Let’s look at both.
It’s true. Cameron isn’t a great writer of dialogue. He would probably be well served to find a collaborator to punch up the talking scenes. But, who cares when the rest of the script is as flat out brilliant as this one is. The structure of this thing is so fantastic, it’s mind boggling. It’s an inspired idea to frame the historical story with the modern day salvaging expedition. Having old Rose tell her story to the dive team allows a natural way for the audience to learn exactly what happened to the ship, so we know what’s going on during the sinking sequence. Cameron also layers the modern day framing stuff with its own mystery (what happened to the diamond?), so it doesn’t simply exist as exposition. The framing device is helping to tell the end of Rose’s story.
The Billy Zane thing is a red herring, as well. Cameron is clearly making an old fashioned spectacle of a movie here. Having a dastardly hissable villain (if only Zane had a mustache to twirl) is right in line with this kind of filmmaking. The villain of these older movies is traditionally a character without much added shading; they’re evil and that’s about it. Credit Zane’s work with adding some depth to this guy; by the end of the movie, we do feel some sympathy to him. And, what happens to him proves there are fates worse than death.
Seriously, haters, is that all ya got? There is so much to enjoy about Titanic.
Let’s start with the leads. Holy cow, did Cameron hit a home run casting his leads. Both DiCaprio and Kate Winslet had been nominated for Oscars before doing Titanic, but neither of them was really a household name. Sixteen years on, it’s obvious these were star making performances. But, after re-watching the movie, it struck me how special Leo is in this. The movie hinges on him. If Jack doesn’t work, the whole thing doesn’t work; it’s all just sound and fury and expensive special effects. It’s fascinating how loose he is here, how young and exuberant. He seems so burdened now with the pressure of being a Serious Actor. I had forgotten how much his “winning that ticket was the best thing that ever happened to me” moment moved me. It moved me again this time.
The effects work holds up quite nicely, and kudos to Cameron for not pulling a Lucas and tinkering with aged CGI. He seems to get that you create art and you put it out in the world, and then it is what it is. There’s no need to look back and fuss over shots you didn’t like.
The film’s last hour when the ship sinks remains pretty stunning. It’s bravura action filmmaking and it’s still often breathtaking. This stuff is totally in Cameron’s wheelhouse, but he never lets the spectacle override the human tragedy that’s unfolding.
That leaves the 3D. Cameron is our most vocal proponent of the technology and the post-conversion is pretty flawless. This isn’t Clash of the Titans by any stretch of the imagination. This is the best 3D money can buy, but I’m not sure that it really adds much to the experience. Yes, some things are a bit more immersive. The shot at the end where the end of the ship is perpendicular to the sea is vertigo-inducing. I never felt like being in 3D was really enhancing the experience dramatically.