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Movie Review: The Divisions Inside James Cameron's Epic TITANIC


James Cameron’s multiple-GDP-grossing/costing Titanic has long proved itself a divisive film amongst cinephiles; maybe it’s that old thing of, “Hey, this movie’s super-successful, so let’s jump forward to blast/praise it with the windows down,” but people feel this movie in their bones.  Whether they love it or hate it is almost beside the point: they need to talk about it, and nothing can stand in their way.

And at 197 minutes long, there’s a lot one can say.  “It’s too long.”  “It’s too sappy.”  “What is Kathy Bates doing here?”  “Billy Zane should be in more movies.”  I’ve played that game; for years, I’ve tried to figure out where I stand on all things Titanic.  At first, I liked it, as most do.  It’s big; it’s destructive; it snuck R-rated nudity into a PG-13 film.  I wouldn’t have called myself a Titanicite (definition I just made up for a word I just invented: one who adores Titanic), but I’d show up for the Titanicite rally every now and again, and sometimes, I’d even bring balloons.  With age, I began to harden towards it, and you movie hipsters out there can probably predict why.  I found it too cloying, too histrionic, and too much (plus, it, like, totally stole the Best Picture Oscar away from L.A. Confidential.  God, I wish I could go back in time and shoot my eighteen-year-old self in the face to keep him from turning into a cliché).  That attitude lasted a couple of years, and then I started to soften in my feelings.  Then harden again.  Then soft, then hard, then soft again, and were I a thing of ice cream, you’d have long grown frustrated at my shifting consistency.

Well, the debate is over (I hope).  After rewatching the new Titanic Blu-ray, I had a revelation: Titanic is nothing less than the fulfillment of its strengths and weaknesses.  The reason I couldn’t decide – the reason so many people feel so strongly about the film – is because the bad is inextricable from the good, and vice versa.  Everything that works about Titanic is also everything that doesn’t work.

To wit:

It’s too long.  Absolutely.  Titanic definitely finds James Cameron in need of an editor not himself (dig it: he cut the movie alongside Conrad Buff and Richard A. Harris).  The indulgences on display are legion – we don’t need the present-day wraparound story, we don’t need a lot of the local color Cameron tries to pass off as “character development” (the stuff with the non-Leonardo DiCaprio steerage passengers is particularly galling), and God love her, but we certainly don’t need Kathy Bates’ unsinkable Molly Brown.  Common wisdom says focus on DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and how their love unfolds against the ship’s catastrophic sinking.  Yet without the wraparound, we wouldn’t have the historical research that best explains how and why the ship sinks.  Without the excursions into the lower classes, we wouldn’t have the brutal injustices that occur when the wealthy passengers decide their safety means more that the safety of those “beneath” them.  And without Titanic‘s sprawling supporting cast – and I include Bates’ brassy, obvious Molly Brown – we wouldn’t have the human scope to back up the technical scope.  Speaking of which…

It’s too big.  Again, another valid point.  Not only did Titanic validate the hateful Hollywood maxim stating “more money=better movie,” but it has a tendency, especially in the first half, to load up on empty spectacle.  Every other shot is a dramatic pan against the Titanic‘s flawlessly appointed deck, or a bustling, expansive recreation of the ship’s various compartments (the engine rooms are particularly impressive), and these scenes don’t advance the plot in any meaningful fashion; they represent James Cameron and his team of craftsmen stopping the film cold to wave at the audience and brag, “Look at all the toys we got to play with!”  The thing is, just when you start to write Titanic off as spectacle-for-spectacle’s sake, the ship crashes into that dammed iceberg, and the vessel’s opulence and grandeur begin to seem like a fabulously decorated electric chair.  Like the characters, we end up wanting to escape the luxury and elegance because we have 20/20 hindsight: when the Titanic does finally sink, it’s dragging most of the passengers and all the fineries straight down to Hell.  Plus, on an aesthetic level, so much of the destruction Cameron has wrought is practically achieved – he built a scale replica of the ship and had massive dump tanks constructed that he could flood within seconds – and the sensation of real bodies struggling with real sets gives Titanic the same visceral charge that Cameron brought to Terminator or Aliens or True Lies or his massively underrated The Abyss.

It’s too sappy.  Titanic wasn’t the first movie to do the whole “Love in the Time of Horrendous Destruction” trick (that would be 1915’s Birth of a Nation), and it certainly wouldn’t be the last (2001’s Pearl Harbor could be Titanic with “Japanese Zeroes” standing in for “Sinking Ship”), but it was one of the most patently unbelievable ones.  I mean, come on – 1,500 people are dying, and I’m supposed to care about the two fresh-faced American kids in love?  Never mind the fact that, in real life, DiCaprio and Winslet’s socially diametric lovers would probably never meet, and if they did, it’d be just long enough for her to call him a street rat and then forget he ever existed; the biggest issue I have is that the movie takes a pause, in the midst of grand-scale sinking and drowning, so that Winslet’s evil fiancé (a delightfully hammy Billy Zane) can chase Jack around with a .45 automatic ‘cause Jack stole his gal.  On the page, none of this makes sense, but dammed if DiCaprio and Winslet don’t sell the hell out of this nonsense.  Cameron has pulled this trick before – he gets you to excuse his own bad writing by using effortless star performances as distractions (Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, Ed Harris in The Abyss, Arnold Schwarzenegger in everything he and Cameron have ever made together) – but it’s never worked as well as it does with DiCaprio and Winslet.  These two are so charismatic and attractive and passionate and driven, and they sell you on the whole shebang.

In the end, that good/bad (love/hate?) dichotomy speaks to Titanic‘s most admirable quality.  It is fully and resolutely its own animal; it wants nothing more than what it is.  As such, the film has a totemic quality, one where all the component parts – good, bad, and otherwise – are essential to making the machine work.  It is a landmark, and its flaws help make it so.

Paramount has given the film a perfect HD transfer; the fifteen-year-old feature looks as good as Cameron’s more recent Avatar, with loads of fine, sharp details.  The disc’s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is a thing of beauty, immersive and robust.

This four-disc set is stacked.  We get three audio commentaries; the feature-length “Reflections on Titanic” and “Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron” documentaries; just under an hour of deleted scenes; twenty behind-the-scenes production vignettes; a time-lapse video showing the construction of the scale Titanic model; Cameron’s “Deep Dive Presentation” video; a gag reel; six “Videomatics” on the film’s special effects; an archive with music videos, trailers, and promotional artwork; an additional still gallery archive; and a series of Titanic parodies.  It’s a feast, and that’s not even counting the DVD and UV digital copies.

For better and worse, Titanic endures, and this Blu-ray set gives it a deluxe HD rollout.  Highly recommended.

Titanic streets on September 10th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.