The unparalleled success of James Cameron’s Titanic – initially derided as a major disaster before every teenage girl in the universe crammed it back down the prognosticators’ throats – continues to baffle and bewilder those of us who lived through it. A three-hour historical drama starring a pair of art house darlings, re-tasked as the definitive tween romance of our time? A less-than-sterling $28 million opening weekend that refused to dip for months? A female lead who didn’t take her cache of fame and blow it on a dumb-as-rocks cop thriller? I want to see the odds in Vegas on that.
The new 3D re-release – fifteen years after the original release and 100 years after the actual ship sunk – gives us a chance to take a closer look at the film itself. It’s easy to snark on, and its inevitable Oscar win came at the expense of the superior L.A. Confidential – the best film of any kind made in the past twenty years. Yet despite that, it remains a powerful filmgoing experience. Divorced from its against-all-odds success story and the obsessive repeat viewings that allowed it to scale such financial heights, its enthralling strengths continue to shine.
Cameron applies a brazenly old-fashioned earnestness to the story, devoid of modern cynicism and hearkening back to an older school of filmmaking. That proves a double-edged sword, and creates a fair number of ridiculous moments (“I’ll never let go Jack!”), but without it, neither the epic scope nor the centerpiece romance can work. Titanic thrives on both elements, and Cameron’s usual go-for-broke attitude means that it never succumbs to half measures.
The romance actually forms the weaker half of the film’s double-barreled approach, and suffers the most from excessive hype surrounding it. Undue simplicity serves as the primary culprit, complete with a nasty suitor (Billy Zane) who might as well be tying girls to railroad tracks. Rich girl Rose (Kate Winslet) and her penniless beau Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) stand in as obvious cyphers for the class divisions of the day, and their whirlwind attraction focuses on the innocent first blush rather than the deeper, more profound bonds that link cinema’s greatest couples.
And yet despite that, it still works – far from immortal, but functional and engaging at the very least. We believe that these two fall for each other and we accept that they go to the lengths that they do to keep each other safe. DiCaprio and Winslet are both terrific actors, adding weight and depth to their characters that the screenplay never quite conjures. As historical short-hand, their star-crossed tryst conveys the nature of society at the time with a minimum of exposition. Had Titanic offered nothing else, it still might have skated on these assets alone.
Thankfully, it doesn’t need to. Cameron’s penchant for spectacle and fastidious attention to detail bring strength to the film’s grandiosity. In that sense, it belongs on the big screen where it can simply engulf us in its sumptuous environment. The 3D upgrade is almost irrelevant in that regard, and while a precious few effects shots show their age, the bulk of the film fully justifies the “timeless” label.
Like the best effects movies, it succeeds because the CG serves a specific purpose rather than existing for its own sake. Cameron plants our feet firmly on the ship’s deck, then allows us to experience what it must have been like on that cold April night. We feel the growing panic of the mob, the dark certainty of the ship’s higher-ups and the choices that defined each passenger’s final moments. The money shots establish the setting, but the human drama sells us on the tragedy, and ironically, the best of it comes from supporting characters. An unnamed Irish woman (Cameron stalwart Jenette Goldstein) who tells her child a bedtime story as the waters close in, the musicians who would rather play than die like trapped rats, even the cowards who seize precious space on the lifeboats… all of the speak to the scope and tragedy of the event in achingly personal terms. Above them, the named cast does their best with sometimes mediocre material, but the little moments from little figures add up to a whole lot.
And they wouldn’t have had the chance with a more cynical director, nor one more aware of his shortcomings. Cameron charges ahead like a cannonball, fixated on his goals with a singular focus and determined to take us along for the ride. Titanic succeeds by sheer force of will sometimes; almost daring us to defy it but reaping due rewards for its persistence. At the end of the day, it remains an enduring film if not quite a great one. Buoyed by its director’s obsessiveness and a cultural zeitgeist eager for its exact type of scope, it sailed past the legitimate criticisms to take a one-of-a-kind place in cinematic history. It was never the masterpiece its staunchest defenders claims, but the movies are still a better place for it.