Day 121: Titanic in 3-D

"Are you ready to go back to Titanic?"

I can't adequately express in words the dread that filled every inch of my being when James Cameron's 1997 epic Titanic began on my most recent viewing. It's such a long movie, I could feel myself getting bored before it even began. It doesn't help that the movie begins with over twenty minutes of modern day gobbledygook involving one of the worst actors in cinema history (Bill Paxton), and while I hate to say this, the movie would be infinitely better without this framing device. James Cameron has a well-documented hard-on for both deep sea diving and Paxton, so the sequence's existence is never really called into question. The movie is over fifteen years old though, so a bunch of Monday Morning Quarterbacking isn't going to do anyone any good, so let's talk about what works in Titanic, and why it endures.
James Cameron knows his way around a camera, that much is undeniable, but it's funny how many iconic images there are in this film. He frames shots in such a way that they engrain themselves in your memory and they're instantly recognizable, even if you're seeing them for the first time: Rose emerging from the carriage and seeing Titanic for the first time, the "King of the World" shot, Jack sketching Rose, "I'm Flying, Jack," there's lots of them. The film is also renowned, as are most of Cameron's films, for its ground-breaking special effects.
For as many great effects shots as there are in the film, there are also some laughably bad effects in the film, like the tiny pontoon boat that nearly gets run over by Titanic as it leaves port, and time has not been kind to the poor sap who hits the propellor when the ship breaks apart, but now I'm just nit-picking.
More than anything else, the biggest thing Titanic has going for it is the charisma of its two leads. Leonardo DiCaprio & Kate Winslet are ridiculously talented, and sell every aspect of their love story that you truly believe in it. Many people have unfairly compared Twilight to Titanic, and this distinction should signal the instantaneous death of any such comparisons. Rose is an independent woman, the kind that young girls can actually look up to, as opposed to some wilting teenage flower who needs various monsters fawning over her to make herself feel good.
All that being said, both actors would go on to do better work in much better films separately (The Departed & Eternal Sunshine, respectively, for just one example), and even together once more in Revolutionary Road, but their talent is extremely evident here. Cameron's writing has always been his Achilles heal, and its weaknesses really show in the character of Cal, Rose's fiancee, played by Billy Zane. He's the epitome of a one-dimensional, mustache twirling villain, the kind that sticks out in the worst way possible. Zane is a decent enough actor, and it's not entirely his fault his character is so ridiculously unlikable, but he's another in a long line of James Cameron villain that serves no purpose other than to give us no choice but to root for the protagonists.
There are also tons of great actors in smaller roles, from Victor Garber, best known as Mr. Bristow from Alias, as the ship's builder Mr. Andrews, Kathy Bates as (The Unsinkable) Molly Brown, Bernard Hill, Theoden from Lord of the Rings, as Captain Smith & David Warner from Tron & Time Bandits, as Cal's bodyguard. There are also some woefully miscast roles, like the Harry Knowles look-a-like on Bill Paxton's crew & Danny Nucci as Fabrizio, doing the most horrendously stereotypical accent this side of the Star Wars prequels.
The technical elements are all sound however. Russell Carpenter's cinematography is elegant & very classically realized, holding up in the best way possible, and even though I'd rather stab myself in the throat than hear that damn Celine Dion song again, James Horner's score is still very accomplished & compliments every scene incredibly well.
So, what about the 3-D? Well, it's used beautifully, particularly in the sinking sequence. The 3-D gives incredible depth of field to the ocean. It makes the vastness of the ocean feel dangerous, giving the direness of the survivors' plight an immediacy it did not have in two dimensions. Unfortunately, it's not essential to the storytelling, and I would question the necessity of it. Of course there's no way to go back and shoot the film for maximum 3-D effect, so it loses some of the incredibleness that Avatar or Hugo had, while still feeling breathtaking when it needs to. I found myself getting fatigued at points, like the dinner that Jack crashes, and the sheer length of the film makes the 3-D a bit taxing, but it does give the last hour and excitement it was lacking both on television and, to a lesser extent, in 2-D.
I remember seeing the musical of Titanic on Broadway in early 1998, not long after the film was released, and I connected with it to a much larger extent because it gave you multiple characters to care about. Here, if you don't care about Jack & Rose, you're sunk, but the Maury Yeston & Peter Stone musical gave the story a wide range of characters to care about across all three classes of passengers. I feel this is where the film falls short, is that the most emotional moments in the film for me are images of characters you don't really know, like the elderly couple, huddling close in bed as the water rises around them, the mother tucking her children into bed with a story, or the band playing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship is going down. Those are moments I wanted more of, and they're few and far between here. In fact, they're all take place in the span of about two minutes.
I do hold a personal grudge against Titanic as it won the Best Picture Oscar over the infinitely better LA Confidential, and I think it rode a tidal wave of support to its 11 Oscars more for its accomplishment as a critical and commercial hit than on its own merits as a film. It's not a bad movie, but it's not a great movie either. There are people who idolize this film and I can understand that in the way that people idolize tawdry romance novels. They're not great art, but they get to the core of our emotions, and that's why they stick with us. James Cameron didn't earn his place in film history for his ability to tell great stories, but for his ability to tell stories in a great way.
There's nothing I can do or say that will convince people who don't like the movie that it's better than they think it is, just like I'm certainly not out to change the minds of anyone who loves the film. I just think that there are much better films that have been made in the fifteen years since this was released, and this is hardly a career high for anyone involved. There's a reason that the film's screenplay was not among its fourteen Oscar nominations, and it's the main element holding the film back from being a great film. I've seen great films which had a great cast, great script and a lousy director (Open Range, The Long Kiss Goodnight). I've seen great films which had a great director, great script and a lousy cast (Barry Lyndon, I Am Cuba, Touch of Evil). But a great film cannot be made without a great script. There's only so much a great director & great actors can compensate for. Unfortunately Titanic falls victim to its terrible script, but even still, it's got some great moments. It's just never better than the sum of its parts, even in 3-D.