I was like you once… for I, too, hated Titanic (now available on 3D Blu-ray, blah-blah-blah).
It was not always thus. Some of us no doubt remember the pre-release buzz for James Cameron’s epic drama about history’s biggest metaphor. It was the most expensive movie ever made. The release date was pushed back. There were no major stars. The director of Terminator and Aliens was doing a girly love story. These things foretold of a disaster on par, perhaps, with the actual Titanic. I saw the film on opening weekend, not because I was terribly excited about it, but because I loved Cameron’s other films and wanted to support his passion project, in the hopes that my $6.50 (movies were cheap back then) would help get him work after Titanic inevitably flopped. Then I saw the movie, and I thought… “Eh, that was alright.”
No serious reaction, just teenaged malaise. The production design was sumptuous, the acting largely good, the dialogue atrocious, and the final act – a recreation of the ship’s final hours and the deaths of hundreds – impressively realized. I left the theater thinking, and I remember this clearly, “One day, we’ll look back on Titanic as James Cameron’s ‘other’ film.” The opening box office numbers seemed to support my theory: $28 million, for a film with a $200 million budget? That’s a flop, right there. And then next weekend it made the same amount of money. And the next weekend. And the next, with no signs of stopping. Four months later, it was the #1 movie of all time, had won eleven Oscars and I, along with a lot of other people, suddenly hated its guts.
We were very immature.
Titanic is not without its flaws, as the new Blu-ray release confirms. The embarrassing dialogue is only part of it. It’s a blunt film, a long-winded film in the middle, and the ultimate fate of the MacGuffin, a giant diamond called “The Heart of the Ocean,” is offensively selfish. But these very reasonable problems with James Cameron’s film were swiftly magnified by my argumentative generation of film geeks. Our attempts to temper the gushing love of the masses with honest criticism became frustrating, and our observations fell (as it seemed) on deaf ears. “It’s not quite as good as you think” quickly gave way to “Titanic sucks.” It’s an understandable progression – or perhaps “devolution” is more accurate – but not a fair one. Watching the film again, over a decade later, reveals that Titanic does not suck. It’s actually the classic everyone told us it was in the first place.
But dear god in heaven, is it simplistic. Cameron’s hackneyed conception of teen romance – stifled rich girl meets impoverished free spirit – was old hat when Lady and the Tramp indulged in the cliché’s charms. It’s a testament to the enduring nature of innocent romanticism, and the unbridled charisma of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, that the routine remains effective. The portrayal of class warfare aboard “the ship of dreams” contributes to the oppressive-turned-liberating atmosphere, and it’s a sledgehammer of a theme, as blunt as it is cumbersome. But when you ignore the subtleties, or more accurately complete lack thereof, you’re left with a storytelling clarity that has an unmistakable impact, provided you’re willing to accept its degree (certainly the nth) of sincerity.
Film criticism often flies in the face of popularity, often proudly so, but while popularity is not a defining element of artistic quality (if it was, all good films would be box office blockbusters) it’s also too often ignored by the supposed intelligentsia. Surely, if Titanic inspired millions to see the movie multiple times in theaters, James Cameron did “something” right. You can reduce such complimentary observations to the oversimplified love story, and the luscious sweep of Titanic’s opulent setting, and you may be half right. But that iconic narrative falls beautifully apart in the film’s chaotic finale, in which every detail of the production design is elegantly ripped asunder, and the deaths of hundreds are depicted without fear of depressing the multitudes in the audience. The depression is the point, and the sacrifice of romantic innocence plays a vital component in that message. The loss of uniquely individualized characters would diminish the scope of Titanic’s destruction, but a massacre of clear analogues for character archetypes – elevated by an overachieving cast – clearly illustrates breadth of the casualties. Pity about the dialogue, but oh well.
Titanic sails onto Blu-ray with a seemingly perfect high definition transfer and a stunning surround sound mix that captures the epic’s positive qualities. Even the post-converted 3D – often the bane of my existence – excels, with only a handful of shots betraying the effect with intentionally out of focus foreground effects. The disc also includes a cacophony of special features – many of them previously available – for Titanic enthusiasts young, old and repentant. Two new special features are self-congratulatory to the extreme, but also illustrate the passion that went into the production.
Reflections on Titanic is a lengthy and comprehensive documentary on the production from the development stage to the 3D conversion, insights from the entire cast (except, notably, Leonardo DiCaprio) and even contains moments of rare humility from James Cameron, who confesses, “If you ever win an Oscar, don’t quote your own movie.” The second documentary, Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron, plays like a Discovery Channel special, with Cameron leading a team of experts attempting to determine exactly what happened to the ship “after” it sank beneath the waves. It’s a pretty scholarly conversation, with no shortage of intellectual one-upmanship and, again, self-congratulation, and the subject itself lacks the human interest that makes the story of Titanic so compelling in the first place. If the minutia of the tragedy interests you, however, it should be an intriguing hour of your time.
The older I get, the more I recognize that pessimism is the opposite of maturity. Accepting the quality of Titanic is an unexpected side-effect of growing up, even if I refuse to forgive the problematic climax (where’s Rose’s American family in that dream sequence, anyway?) and can’t quite overcome all the stodgy lingo, “Oh-ho-ho.” If you rejected Titanic upon the original release, or refused to see it at all due to its overhyped reputation, this impressive Blu-ray collection is a great excuse to test your resolve, and possibly your ability to reassess an art form with the wisdom of years.
And if you already loved Titanic, you probably should have ignored this entire review. You’ve got your copy already, haven't you?