You can be blasé about some things, Rose, but not about Titanic.
—Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane)
Titanic is not your average blockbuster. It requires you to forgo specifics and to be swept along in its grandeur. At once an homage to cinematic epics of yore and a fantastic spectacle in its own right, it remains the last word on the subject of filmmaking as extravaganza, the meeting of the world’s once-upon-a-time largest and most luxurious ship with a famously megalomaniacal director who wanted to make the most elaborate and expensive motion picture ever made. The film is passionate, too, illustrating what James Cameron a successful filmmaker, namely, his ability to inspire in his audiences a rare sensation, a sense of wonderment, an awe at the power of the moving image.
It’s a shame that, in recent years, it became fashionable to hate Titanic, but its 3D re-release reaffirms its greatness (and its box office supremacy: the film has now passed the $2 billion mark). Granted, the story frame—an old lady recounts her time on the ship for a couple of treasure hunters looking for a diamond in the wreck—is trite. But Gloria Stuart has remarkable presence, and grants weight to the device. And if turning Billy Zane’s Caledon Hockley into a crazed homicidal villain was a bad idea, Kathy Bates’ fiery and vivacious turn as Molly Brown gives the lie to the claim that Cameron neglected his supporting characters.
These characters are key to the film’s evocation of a memorable event. And Cameron brought his signature panache to the project, using details to draw a clear through-line through the density of history. While one of the most persistent criticisms of Titanic has been that it exemplifies Cameron’s technocentricity, the opposite is true. He notoriously spent much of Titanic’s astronomical budget on building a nearly to-scale replica of the ship and sinking it, along with hiring the original companies that provided the furnishings and crockery on the Titanic to replicate them exactly.
These details provide extraordinary context for an extraordinary drama, augmented by James Horner’s mournful and evocative score. The re-release provides the opportunity to drink in Titanic’s spectacular mise-en-scène, to admire its graceful, imposing, and majestic camerawork, particularly in several magnificent sweeps across the bow of the ship. The prologue of the film, which takes place in the underwater wreck of the Titanic, is enhanced by 3D. This is a movie made with assurance and an unparalleled eye for detail, large and small (an effect that’s only underscored by the adjusted star field).
As such, it’s an odd target for charges that it lacks human feeling. There are few scenes in a movie as horrifyingly involving, as successful in giving the audience a vicarious sensation of being there, and, yes, as skillfully recreated, as the extended climactic sequence. If you fail to be moved by the sinking of the ship, by the appalling loss of life -– clarified for us by Stuart in a voiceover—and by the near-mythic force with which Cameron stages it, then perhaps cinema is not for you.
There is some truth to the complaint that the central romance is shallow. This is not the actors’ fault, as both Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are fresh-faced and immediately likable here, in ways they have not been since, despite their development as serious and revered performers. It’s the dialogue that lets them down; two people madly in love do not call each other’s names with the intensity and frequency of these two. But do the occasional clunky lines and slides into anachronism really matter so much? Nearly every scene of the movie is memorable. And few epics have been acclaimed for their dialogue.
The love story between Jack and Rose uses the old star-crossed lovers plot, but it’s incorporated into the film’s clever structure. The pair spends at most a few days together, but their romance evolves and interacts with the chain of historical events. They meet just after the ship departs from Queenstown, she rejects him, but then changes her mind and returns to him at sunset, on the last night of the ship’s journey. Cameron creates a poignant love story that is swept up by fate. In Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa’s reunion takes on extra significance because of the war around them. Likewise, Gone with the Wind acquires its epic tug because of its grandly realized historical backdrop. Just so, Jack lifting Rose above the railing of the ship—“I’m flying, Jack!”—is a tremendous moment in its own right.
It is perhaps odd to acknowledge in a review that you need to allow Titanic to sweep you along to appreciate it fully—in other words, it’s critic-proof. But that’s the rare power of this film. Identifying and picking apart its flaws are fruitless endeavors, because it transcends those criticisms. The accusation routinely leveled at Cameron—that in pursuit of the overarching spectacle, he loses sight of his human characters—is the inverse of the reason he makes more truly beloved and medium-redefining blockbusters than any late-20th century filmmaker, with the possible exception of Steven Spielberg.
Cameron has an astounding ability to connect on an elemental level with his storytelling, to invite us to sympathize with archetypal characters, and to help us experience an innocent enchantment. Cameron’s hubris long ago became part of the movie, and part of the reason why it is great.
Fifteen years on from its original release, Titanic isn’t dated at all. It is one of those movies that demands to be seen on the big screen to appreciate its vision, virtuosity, and beauty. The 3D only makes these aspects clearer. It is a classic well worth revisiting.