I first saw Titanic in 1998 as a child of about eleven years old. It's not exactly the kind of movie an 11 year old should be watching, but I recall liking it then. When I was a teenager I still loved it but appreciated a few things more. As an adult watching it again I can only say I'm in awe of Titanic as a film. As a spectacle and as a piece of film making this is something that I really enjoy watching. It has a lot of good to make up for the shortcomings it does have. And we'll talk about that.
But first, for the ten people who don't know much about Titanic, this movie was big in 1997 and 1998. It stayed at the top of the box office charts for fifteen weeks solid, only being removed from its perch to continue sailing along quite steadily until it finally left theaters. Until James Cameron's Avatar came out, it was the highest grossing film of all time. Grossing around $600 million at the time. Even by todays standards that is a lot of money for a film to gross. Of course, as with the popularity of the film comes the subsequent backlash. Mainly because it made a lot of money. Some of the backlash of which is actually quite unwarranted. The following review actually assumes you're familiar with the movie as it is and will treat you as such for much of it. Needless to say, I will have a lot of spoilers here. If you're one of the few who haven't seen it, then this review will not be for you.
So let's first start by saying that when I previously reviewed the film I gave it a +3. This was after I had viewed it just a couple of years ago. I saw it in the theater because, let's face it, James Cameron's Titanic is something that MUST be experienced on the big screen... 3D or not. It's like the original Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Some movies are meant to be viewed on the big screen and Titanic is no exception.
But first let's talk about some of the backlash that the film seems to unfairly garner. Let's be honest, it doesn't garner the backlash because it's somehow a bad film in scope. It's not. I don't mind people not liking the movie, but to dismiss it as a bad film is to be quite dismissive of the medium itself. That's not to say you have to love it, it is only to say that Titanic has its merits and they're fantastic merits. It's a love story and a drama, but that seems to be a terrible reason to dismiss the film. Avatar follows the same basic formula, adding in much of the action and epicness of that film in the second half. No one seemed to mind that one.
And let's address the other backlash that's important. The idea that James Cameron made a gazillion dollars off of a tragedy. And this one I have to dismiss outright because it's ONLY because he made so much money off of it that people use this as an excuse. Movies and short films are made about tragedies all the time. And even part of Cameron's motivation with his fictional characters is to express that all of us are generally interested in the tragedy itself but not in any of the people involved in said tragedy. This is partially why Cameron frames the story through a survivor's tale. Because it is the one thing about the Titanic we rarely seem to be interested in as people. The story of the people on board doesn't seem to amuse us nearly as much as the spectacle of the tragedy itself. We've made stories out of the holocaust, World War II (boy have we ever), strange disasters such as a train that sort of manages to run off on its own thanks to negligence (Unstoppable) and the like. None of these movies seem to be met with the, "They're taking advantage of a tragedy" stigma because the people in them are sometimes portrayed as heroes. And, in fact, I think I expressed before that I didn't like the movie being called Titanic because the ship itself is a backdrop rather than something of importance. Watching the film again... that assessment is wrong. The ship, in and of itself, is a breathing entity. The ship is a part of the story too, just not in the way people wanted it to be (because ships don't talk). I don't think Cameron took advantage of a tragedy and made a profit off of it at all. If anything it's one of the few films about the Titanic that tries very hard to add that personal touch and really show us just what a tragedy the sinking of the ship was and how horrific it is. The entire section where the ship is sinking definitely does this as we see horror all around. Some of which is still hard for audiences to sit through because Cameron was very in-your-face about it. Small moments such as when the Captain locks himself away to go down with the ship, or the band that plays Nearer my God to Thee add personal touches that actually make us realizes that people DID lose their lives and that it IS a tragic loss. The tragedy of the Titanic isn't glorified here, it's heart wrenching. The music even plays to only remind us that this was not a joyful event. That it WAS a tragedy. It just seems strange to me that other films made about the Titanic were seen as brave and bold... films which, while not bad, really downplayed just how bad the tragedy really was. Either because they lacked the visual scope to do it or they were made in decades where to be that harsh or violent was something that people wouldn't like. Cameron even goes so far as to remind us how third class citizens were treated. In fact, a huge theme in the story is class warfare and how it affected the actual tragedy itself. Again, there are a few Titanic films that simply don't do this.
That's not to say the film in and of itself is genius, but it is to say that Cameron, "Milking a tragedy for money," seems to be quite wrong. Cameron himself was actually pretty sure he'd lose money on it, for one thing, but continued to make the film anyway. When his movie made a lot of money and became a worldwide phenomenon he was fairly surprised and speechless. And it's also no secret that Cameron himself spent a lot of time researching the Titanic. So it doesn't seem as though Cameron made the movie for glory or fame, but mainly because he's just as interested in the tragedy as the rest of us. In fact, history buffs (or those who like researching the Titanic) will notice that Cameron tried his hardest to get as many historical details right as he could. Some things he simply couldn't do (he's making a film not a documentary) because as far as film goes... he still has to find a way to keep his audience engaged and some historical things would've taken away.
Now, the other thing that seems to strike people (and even I made a joke or two about it) is that "We all know how it ends... the boat sinks." Hence the fictional characters and love story. Whenever you make a historical film we often know the outcome because we know the history. So instead, James Cameron had to do something else for the audience. Make the story actually about fictional characters. The choice should be obvious... it gives us in the audience someone to relate to and root for and actually gives the film some actual focus. In the end, Cameron is still telling a story. This is probably why Cameron uses a survivor of the tragedy as a framing device rather than not. Because it is Rose's story. And many people who actually were obtained and interviewed about the tragedy of the Titanic told many of their own personal tales. Because, like Rose, it's impossible for HER story to be EVERYONE'S story. By having "Old Rose" tell a story she gets to tell about her personal account... as many survivors in just about any A&E Documentary, Discovery Channel Documentary or History Channel Special did. It seems downright unfair to criticize Cameron for not focusing on too much more outside of Rose when many of the survivors who were interviewed in the past didn't either. In part because they couldn't. They could not be every at once and neither can Rose. Again, it is a historical drama and not a documentary. If you're watching this for actual educational purposes I think you should probably knock your head on a wall until you acquire some sense.
With that aside let's talk about the actual story and it's strengths first off. The story is a simple one: Rose is telling her story of the Titanic as she knows it. She's engaged to a man named Cal Hockley. He's the one of a rich steel mill man. Her mother describes this as a smart match because he's rich and that can settle their debt woes. But the life of a rich woman feels suffocating to her because as a rich woman she MUST act a certain way and, of course, her soon to be husband is complete and total jerk. When she tries to kill herself she meets Jack Dawson. A man who sees her as more than just a pretty face and sees there's something in her that even she doesn't realize. He's poor, but seems to have exactly what Cal lacks. As you already know, they fall in love when Rose realizes that she DOESN'T have to be suffocated by this kind of life. Jack may be poor but it means he rarely has to be concerned with how he presents himself or to even care as strongly about what people think.
Of course, tragedy strikes when they hit the Ice Berg and the ship begins to sink. For many this is where the film hits the high point. Where there is something at stake. That being the survival of our characters. But we know Rose survives as it is. She's the one telling the story. But as with most films it is generally about the journey and not the destination. Because Titanic is so much of a character driven experience our empathy and love of the characters and how we like and get attached to them is, in the end, what compels us to watch. And this is part of why Titanic works and one of the few flaws that also sticks out, and we'll get to that.
Likewise, Cameron's skills as a director and visonary TRULY come to life. When you see the ship and look at the inside the attention to detail is unmistakable. To fault Cameron for art direction, costume design, cinematography and just about any other technical aspects of the film you can think of would be showcasing a grave misunderstanding of film in and of itself. The cinematography, for instance, gives even the audience the feeling they're on a ship. During the voyage it's a calm and steady cam. Inviting. We sometimes get the feeling we are walking the ship ourselves. When the ship hits the iceberg the camera suddenly becomes shaky and intense. Watching the engineers try to get out before the bulkhead doors close is some pretty amazing cinematography because it's a handheld camera. It gives the audience a sense of just how frantic this moment is for them. So much so that when a character gets trapped... we actually feel bad for him despite not knowing ANYTHING about him. Cameron and his crew also did a great job realizing the historical backdrop of things. Many of the sets are done so well that just looking at the film is something glorious in and of itself. And as a visual medium film SHOULD do this. Nothing here is dull or dreary. The sets are dripping with detail.
But the thing we have to talk about most, of course, are the visual effects in and of themselves. Especially during the sinking. They are intense. Incredibly intense and they hold up really well today. When the ship splits in half it genuinely looks authentic. There are obvious moments when you can tell it's CGI, but at least the CGI is used to good effect. It's not used to "fill space" or anything like that. It is used for things that would've otherwise been impossible for the movie to do. And they make sure it's convincing enough that you believe it's real. It's actual remarkable that fifteen years later the film still manages to dazzle us visually.
And, of course, the acting, in most cases, is quite good. In particular Kate Winslet really brings rose to life. But other characters such as the Captain, Bruce Ismay, Mr. Andrews, Roses mother and Molly Brown are fantastic. In fact, you actually wish you saw MORE of them because they're done so well (especially Kathy Bates as Molly Brown). The acting, for all intents and purposes, is good all around. Leo and Billy Zane (who plays Cal) are all exceptionally good in their roles. But Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates are the real attractions here. More so than Leonardo as Jack or Billy Zane as Cal.
That's not to say that James Cameron is perfect. And we have to get the most obvious thing out of the way first. James Cameron just isn't that great of a writer. Period. Even the movies before this were terribly written. This includes Aliens, Terminator, Terminator 2 and True Lies. In particular, the dialog is what really keeps some of these movies down. The difference between those films and Titanic, however is that you're not watching them for the dialog. The dialog isn't what really sells those stories. It's primarily the action. Terminator 2 in particular has some of Cameron's worst writing. It's cheesy and has a lot of one-liners. But for an ACTION film this is what you expect. Not just from Cameron... but from everybody who directs action films.
Titanic, however, is a drama. And while it's not horribly written, Cameron doesn't seem to realize that cheesy lines don't always fly quite as well. Most of the cast who delivers them are actually not bad at least. But it doesn't change the fact that they still had to say some of these lines. The line that stands out in particular is when Jack describes his affections for Rose as a flame. "They've got you trapped Rose and you're gonna die if you don't break free. Maybe not right away because you're strong; but that flame that I love about you. That flames gonna burn out." The line stinks of cheese. DiCaprio delivers it well but that doesn't suddenly make it a GOOD line.
That's not to say everything Cameron does as a writer fails. As for his setups and payoffs... they're really good. But this is also because of some extremely good direction. The way he sets up the ship trying to keep from hitting the iceberg is a great scene. A really good scene. You know it's going to hit, but James Cameron is really good at setting up the anticipation and really good at hammering in the intensity. Someone had to write that moment as well as direct it. Basically what I'm saying is that the moments written that don't focus on the dialog are actually really well done. But it isn't just that, it's also that James Cameron is just a REALLY good director.
On the other hand that leads to Cameron's second writing problem with Titanic. Some of the characters themselves are not quite that well written. Jack Dawson and Cal Hockley are among them. They're not exactly boring... but they're caricatures more than characters. Jack, despite making a few mistakes and being a little flawed, is portrayed as the white knight who can do no wrong. We the audience see him as just about perfect in every way. He's made up to be so likable (and he really is likable because he's VERY charming) that we simply don't find ourselves allowed to hate him. And if we did we'd feel bad.
But Cal is far far worse in this regard. He's the complete opposite. Almost being seen as something inhuman. Everything he does in the film is just there to keep hammering into the audiences head that you're SUPPOSED to hate this guy. And each time he does something bad you don't think it could get any worse... and then at each and every turn it continues to. Pretty much to the point that he'd rather kill Rose than see her with another man. But not because he cares about Rose, no... because if he doesn't matter her he doesn't inherit his millions. About the only thing Cameron didn't do was give him a cackling voice and have him give a speech about taking over the world. Granted not every movie has to make every character three dimensional, but Cameron tries a little too hard (and overshoots his boundaries) to make Cal as despicable as possible.
On the other hand, Rose is a near perfect character. And I'm not talking perfect as in, "She can do no wrong." I'm talking perfect as in that is the kind of character you want to see in film. She doesn't exactly behave as all of us do, but she's the most relatable in the cast. Even to the men watching because she yearns for more in her life. We've all, at one point, felt suffocated or like we don't belong. And she struggles with this. Genuinely struggles. In fact a small, but very memorable scene is when Cal knocks the table over and we see as an audience how she begins to change. The moment Cal is gone she scrambles to clean up the mess only for the maid to tell her it's alright and that she doesn't have to do so. It's a change from the stuck up Rose who held her hand out of a car at the beginning to be escorted out of her car. And once the end of the movie hits she realizes she doesn't need anyone to take care of her... and that she can perfectly do it herself. She actually grows as the film progresses, coming out of the tragedy a changed woman who has learned something from her tragic experience.
A lot of this is, in all honesty, because Cameron always writes her female characters rather well. They're often more than just a pretty face. And sometimes they're not even dolled up barbies (Sarah Conner certainly wasn't). You don't get the feeling that Cameron's female characters are there for the sake of a teenage boys hormones. You get the feeling they're there and doing what they do for a reason. This isn't a Megan Fox character where you scoff and say, "Why the hell are THINKING about things?" This is actually genuinely a human character who, for the most part is an independent woman. And James Cameron writes these characters really well. It's just strange that he can't seem to write most of his male characters quite as well. There are times when Cameron can get a little heavy handed with some of his feminism but it's never so much you wish he'd just shut up. You don't. In fact it makes you wonder why more women in film are written this way.
It's not just Rose either. In contrast to Cal, Rose's mother is actually nearly sympathetic. In fact, you even feel for her when you realize just why she wants Rose to marry Cal to begin with. It's a smart match that will settle their debt. And she actually shows more emotion than simply vanity or hatred. We actually come to understand that Rose's mother actually has a REAL reason not to want Rose to be with Jack. Where as with Cal... you JUST need to know he hates Jack for stealing his girl that he cares nothing about. Even when he presents her with the Hope Diamond it is only so that Cameron can reinforce to the audience that Cal is superficial because he thinks he can literally buy Roses affections... and then later tell her how she can and cannot behave the way she did at a party Jack took her to. And she is only not to behave that way because that's now how "their kind" behave (get it, because third class is beneath them). Rose's mother, on the other hand, actually DOES care about Rose. That little aspect gives her dimension. It makes her an understandable character. It doesn't make us like her, but we see her as more than just the Saturday morning cartoon villain. Her reasons for why she believes Rose should marry Cal aren't exactly great... but they're BELIEVABLE.
Again, not every movie has to do this. There's no need, for instance, to actually "develop" Cal, but there is a need to make the audience see that he is human instead of just the man in the top hat who ties the girl to the train tracks. And there is certainly a need to show the audience that Jack is not perfect. In fact, the mistakes that Jack makes are so miniscule that you wonder if they were really mistakes. And the biggest mistake that Jack ACTUALLY makes just happens to be knowing Cal--who at one point frames him for a crime just to get out of the picture and then expresses that he is only out to get what he wants and that he "always wins." If the Oscars had a Douchebag award they'd rename it after this character. And yes, he's SUPPOSED to be a jerk, but again... it's that Cameron doesn't at least provide him with dimension.
The good of the film actually outweighs the bad, though. Cheesy dialog and all. You don't actually mind much of the cheesy dialog too much and because the actors are good you even manage to find a way to overlook the fact that Jack is too perfect and Cal is too flawed. Again, because the actors are good at what they do. It's not their fault their characters are flat... James Cameron wrote them that way. But, at the very least, even watching Cal in all his jerkheadedness is actually quite fun.
As for the 3D... it's not exactly bad, but it's simply not warranted. Like most 2D films, a conversion isn't going to make the 3D really stand out. There are some moments when it's actually not bad, but they aren't in the moments that would actually aid the film. It's mostly things like seeing pillars in 3D space where you can actually see them pop out but at no point does the 3D ever add anything. This is actually INCREDIBLY strange given that so much of Titanic's cinematography is set up for good 3D. Moments such as seeing the ship sailing are prime for it. Moments where the water burst through a door or even that famous "I'm flying scene," are all perfect for 3D but these are the moments you simply won't notice it. Instead you notice a window is on a different plane. It's not that the 3D conversion is bad it's that it is done in that gimmicky way where things really pop out rather than enhancing the world we're in. And this is actually sad for two reason. The first is that it's Titanic where the cinematography actually lends itself to this. The second is that.... IT'S JAMES CAMERON! The guide who utilized 3D so well in Avatar and actually showed what the point of 3D was in the first place.
Titanic is, overall, a pretty stellar film. It does have its problems. Ones that really stand out. But that is no excuse to actually downplay it's enormous strengths. If anything, Cameron's biggest weakness with the film is really the writing. It's the one thing that often reminds us we're watching a film. On the other hand, it's still a well done film overall that surprisingly holds up. I wouldn't recommend seeing it in 3D, however, as the experience doesn't add anything... but one thing is for sure, Titanic is still better than ever on the big screen. Watching it at home simply doesn't do the scope and ambition of the film justice. But neither does paying the extra ticket price for 3D... especially with the DVD (and soon the Blu-Ray) floating around.
Star Rating: The recent trend of converting old films to 3D and rereleasing them theatrically has kept me in an almost constant state of recollection. The experience of seeing James Cameron’s Titanic 3D has put me back into that state, and for the time being, it ranks as the most vivid, the most powerful, and the most personal of any 3D rerelease I’ve seen. It called to mind my days as a teenage Titanic historian (very much of the amateur division) … more
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more