James Cameron, in Avatar, is the one American filmmaker — at least to my eyes — who has truly knocked the 3-D ball out of the park. (Sorry, but I wasn’t on board with Scorsese or Spielberg for their overly fussy and busy 3-D experiments, Hugo and The Adventures of Tintin.) So perhaps it’s no surprise that with Titanic 3D, Cameron has once again engineered the rare effective — and even tasteful! — use of 3-D technology. In the early underwater scenes, when a robot-cam pokes around the wreck of the Titanic, with Bill Paxton and his team of hipster techies hovering in anticipation, the ocean debris flies right out at the audience. That, however, is the only time in the movie that Cameron uses 3-D to conjure a comin’-at-ya View-Master effect. For the rest of Titanic 3D, he employs the technology in a ”subtle” way: to heighten the images and lend them a bold sculptural clarity. For once, the visuals in a 3-D movie don’t look darkened or distracting. They look sensationally crisp and alive.
Of course, that might also be because no movie ever needed 3-D less than Titanic. It was already a heightened spectacle, with images grand enough to sear themselves into your cinematic memory bank. As scrupulous a job as Cameron has done, I can’t really say that I recommend Titanic 3D in order to experience this landmark movie with an added dimension. I recommend it, rather, for the opportunity to see, once again on the big screen, the only disaster film in history that can truly be called a work of art. It is also, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made.
We hardly have the vocabulary to describe a cornball love story, built around images of catastrophe startling enough to make your eyes pop, that isn’t just swoony or awesome but, in fact, profound. One that hits us on a primal level. That’s Titanic. Seeing it now, for the first time since 1997, I was slack-jawed at what an enthralling experience it still is.
There are two ways that it now looks different — and, if anything, they’re both examples of how a movie can age almost karmically well. Fifteen years ago, the movie’s class-war theme — the swells in their tuxedoes lounging amid the Titanic’s creamy classical splendor, versus the lugs in steerage, led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s penniless rapscallion bohemian Jack — seemed a fairly standard old-movie trope. Hollywood, after all, has never stopped fingering the rich as villains, and Cameron’s portrayal of a gilded class seemed (intentionally) locked in its time. What a difference one global economic meltdown and the rise of our own gilded one percent makes! To me, Billy Zane’s unctuous performance as Rose’s jerk-of-high-finance fiancé looks more resonant and less cartoonish than it did then. It now speaks to a sense of entitlement that’s on the rise in our world.
The other way that Titanic has gained with the years is that it’s all but impossible to watch the sinking of the Titanic itself — an instant human abyss almost beyond imagining — without thinking of 9/11. And by that I don’t mean to imply that Cameron, in some mystical way, anticipated the 21st century’s most infamous day. I mean that it’s more potently clear than ever that the levels of dread and tragedy he packed into this movie cannot be consigned to some iconic historical event from 1912. That kind of mass death and horror is something that technology, in different forms (a gargantuan ocean liner; a gargantuan building and a speeding airplane), makes possible, and always will.
Then there’s that love story. Some have called it callow, but I implore you to go back and see Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in this movie and watch how dazzlingly spontaneous and multi-faceted their chemistry is. DiCaprio seemed so much lighter then — not because he was ganglier and less filled out, but because he didn’t have the weight of superstardom hanging on him. His Jack, who has nothing and therefore nothing to lose, lives every moment in a state of cat-eyed discovery. And Winslet, as the adventurous rich girl Rose, is heartbreakingly lovely and determined: an angel on fire. In recent years, a hint of off-putting harshness has crept into Winslet’s work (in Revolutionary Road and Mildred Pierce, she did too much gloomy suffering for our sins), but in Titanic she plays Rose as a spiky princess, trapped by privilege, who allows herself to melt like a girl and, in doing so, melts her own prison and finds herself as a woman.
A starry-eyed youth romance that collides with history and disaster: That’s the ”concept” of Titanic. Yet there’s so much more going on in this movie, with its deftly structured mythological framework, its heart-of-the-ocean timelessness, and — yes, I’ll say it — its hauntingly gorgeous Gaelic-pop theme music. The Titanic, that splendid vessel, is like the 20th century itself, launching forth in all its looming luxe and promise, with Jack as the symbolic new man on the rise — the aristocrat of the spirit who uses his charm and talent to enter realms from which he would previously have been barred. Rose, with her hint of a Jane Austen dilemma (if she follows her bliss and goes off with Jack, it will leave her family in ruins), is the young feminist who now has the peril, as well as pleasure, of choice. And once the ship scrapes up against that iceberg, Cameron’s filmmaking turns humanly brilliant, as the prospect of sudden death unmasks — in the most touching and shocking ways — who each and everyone on board really is. Jack’s death scene in the water has the shuddery majesty of the greatest silent films, because it’s a moment that touches how vulnerable and precious life really is. To watch Titanic again is to do nothing less than enter a movie and come out the other side, with one’s spirit feeling just a little bit larger. A