Forget the fact that James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic is second only to Cameron’s 2009 Avatar as king of the box-office world (more than a billion bucks each). Forget that Titanic won a record 11 Oscars including Best Picture. Forget that Titanic catapulted Leonardo DiCaprio, then 21, into the realm of global catnip. Now that Cameron’s ship has sailed back to the multiplex, the question is: How is Titanic in 3D? The answer is pretty damn dazzling. Look, I hate retrofitted 3D as much as the next critic, though not as much as Roger Ebert, who called the loss of brightness that comes with the revamp “a shabby way to treat a masterpiece.” But Cameron and 300 determined artists from Stereo D took 60 weeks and $18 million to get Titanic ship shape, and their artistry shows. Does Titanic look as astonishing as it might have if Cameron had shot in with 3D cameras? Probably not. But Titanic 3D is revelatory, not just for scale it brings to the maritime disaster of an unsinkable ship hitting an iceberg and going down, but for the hushed closeness it brings to the interplay between the characters. The 3D intensifies Titanic. You are there. Caught up like never before in an intimate epic that earns its place in the movie time capsule.
Not that Titanic is a perfect movie in 3D or 2D. Cameron shot the film with a poet’s eye, but also with a tin ear for dialogue. It doesn’t help, either, that Cameron divides the passengers schematically into the listless rich and the lively poor, who are most often found below deck, dancing lustily or bonding with their children. Cameron is often shamelessly sappy in telling the fictional love story between Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a 17-year-old American girl traveling with her hot-tempered millionaire fiancé, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), and 20-year-old Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a struggling artist who wins his steerage ticket in a poker game. But the actors more than compensate for their clunky lines. Winslet won a deserved Oscar nomination; DiCaprio did not. Now more than ever, the snub seems wrong-headed. DiCaprio, in the full vibrancy of youth and acting vigor, is the spirit of the film. And that spirit soars.
Cameron, as director, writer, producer and editor, stuck his neck out, way out, in combining his romantic fiction with a real-life tragedy. His daring is still exhilarating. On April 15, 1912, five days after embarking on its maiden voyage, from England to New York, the unsinkable Titanic hit an iceberg and went down off the coast of Newfoundland, leaving 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers dead. Cameron aimed to astonish us with sights hitherto unseen and to fill us with pity and terror. Visually, he does both. And in 3D, the effect is not just heightened – it’s deepened. From the moment the largest floating object ever built hits that iceberg, we are confronted with images that still leave jaws dropping in wonder that, yes, movies can do this. Cameron built a replica of the Titanic 90 percent to scale in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, and reproduced the original interiors down to the silverware, wallpaper and carpeting.
It’s the words, Cameron’s own, that fail him. For example: “I’d rather be his whore than your wife,” Rose tells Cal, who oils his way around the ship like a dastardly villain out of a silent movie. Yet we are drawn in by DiCaprio and Winslet, who seem close as a whisper in the 3D retrofit. Take the scene when Rose boldly asks Jack to sketch her in the nude, wearing only a priceless blue diamond, a gift from Cal. In a Renault touring car tucked away in the ship’s storeroom, Jack trembles as he and Rose make love for the first time. No words. Just feeling. Cameron’s rep as just a hard-ass action director is belied by such tender, mostly silent scenes in Titanic and a closer look at the tender relationships in such films as Aliens and The Abyss.
The film opens and closes with present-day scenes of Bill Paxton as Brock Lovett, a treasure hunter who uses a submersible vehicle to dive two and a half miles beneath the Atlantic to shoot the rusted ruins of the Titanic. Cameron made that dive himself, using robo-cameras to shoot inside the ship. Those haunting shots of staterooms, fireplaces and chandeliers are in the film, and when Cameron dissolves from their ghostly visage to a vivid recreation, the effect is breathtaking in 3D or not.
Brock, of course, is interested in more than aesthetics. He wants to find the blue diamond that Rose wore the night Jack drew her. To that end, he enlists the aid of Rose, now 101 and played, beautifully, by Gloria Stuart. It’s fair to say that Cameron sees himself in Brock the profiteer and in Jack the artist, who knows you can’t be in it just for the money. For Cameron, Titanic is an attempt to raise pop entertainment to the level of art. The 3D version is most startling when the images are most harsh: the great ship cracking in two, its stern standing nearly straight up with passengers clinging to its sides before plunging into the sea. Most terrifying of all is that final moonless night, the sea teeming with life-jacketed passengers, faces blue and throats raw from screaming for help before hypothermia reduces them to silent, floating corpses.
Cameron is the ultimate technocrat, constantly pushing the art of the impossible. Last month, using a specially-designed submarine, he made a record solo dive 35,576 feet below the ocean’s surface, describing the seascape of Mariana Trench as “desolate” and “lunar.” Ironically, Titanic 3D speaks timelessly about the dangers of blind faith in technology. In a now-iconic early scene, Jack and Rose stand on the bow of the ship, stretching their arms out to sea, oblivious of the 47,000 tons of steel beneath them. They’re flying high on youthful optimism, unaware of the corporate greed and technological arrogance that will bring the ship down. Cameron is fully aware. The sight of the sad ruin of the Titanic got to him. It’ll get to you, too, and stick with you long after you take off those 3D glasses.