Having denounced all the movies that were shot flat and converted to less than-eye-popping 3-D in the wake of Avatar’s colossal success, James Cameron has now done a 3-D retrofit of his own 1997 Titanic. Which means he’s not just king of the world but king of the double standard. I admit to approaching his 3-D Titanic in a pissy mood, thinking, This better be good.
Well, it’s better than good. It’s smashing.
That’s not to say you’ll be wowed by every frame, the way you’re wowed by Avatar with its depth of field and layer upon layer of motion, every pixel humming. The best thing about Cameron and company’s work in Titanic is that aside from the damn plastic glasses, you might forget you’re watching 3-D — yet be drawn into the story as never before. The early stuff, believe it or not, works even better than the tumult and spectacle.
Back in 1997, it was that early Edwardian soap opera dialogue that threw me out of the movie. I thought Titanic was awesomely shot but hopelessly waterlogged, its two leads its only non-CGI assets. My snotty review opened:
“Nearly two hours into James Cameron's Titanic, two lovers (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio) embrace passionately on the deck under the stars, while, high above, two of the ship's lookouts regard them with amusement and envy: young, beautiful, smitten, their whole lives ahead of them. You can practically hear the boatmen sigh: Ah, well. That's their lot in life. Ours is to stand up here and shiver and scan the North Atlantic for iceb— AHHH!!! ICEBERG!!! DEAD AHEAD!!! REVERSE ENGINES!!! Now it can be told: The Titanic went down because of two distracting smoochers ... ”
Fifteen years later, I still cringed when I saw that smooch-and-ICEBERG!!!, but by that point in the movie I was in so deep that I forgave it almost everything.
Two things account for Titanic’s power in its new form. The first is that Cameron thinks BIG, opting for size and splendor over kinetic charge. It’s a fat, square, stolid technique, but 3-D works better when the action isn’t fast and blurry. (Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder — my favorite 3-D picture — is fluid and stately, managing to build a sense of menace out of the angles of the furniture.) Cameron’s foregrounds are strong, his compositions multi-tiered, Russell Carpenter’s camerawork limpid. When that camera travels through a ghostly, rusted underwater corridor that magically transforms into the warm, opulent corridor of 1912, you feel as if you’re in your own underwater submersible — this one also a time machine. The shots of the vast boiler room with its furnaces and hissing pipes and coal-dusted men — the ship’s boiling viscera — almost make you break into a sweat. In a scene in which Rose (Winslet) sits with her anxious mother (Frances Fisher) and rich, smug, bullying fiancé (Billy Zane), quaking with indecision over whether to run off with Jack (DiCaprio), Cameron blurs the background, and in 3-D she’s on her own plane of existence, so close that we can practically hear her thoughts. Only the icebergs disappoint, looking more than ever like second-rate CGI.
The other reason for the movie’s power is, of course, Leo. Cameron got him at his peak, at the peak of his peak, midway through his metamorphosis from juvenile to grown-up. His face is lean but with enough of a jaw line to evoke both Brando and Presley, while his eyes are brighter than both combined. With his hair blown back in the breeze and his face bathed in a perpetual sunset glow, he is absolutely beautiful. He doesn’t fuss over the bad lines (“Sooner or later that fire I love about you is going to burn out”) — or over anything, since his attention is fully trained on his co-star. He can read her every thought. Winslet is rather vinegary in the early scenes, but she still shows traces of the tremulous, neurasthenic ingenue of Sense and Sensibility. (In later roles, she is more self-possessed.) When she and DiCaprio lock eyes, we watch her watching him watching her watching him … and back and forth in the infinite empathy that is true love.
It’s hard not to gaze on these two in their physical prime and think with satisfaction about their subsequent careers. No, they’re not as young and gorgeous and accessible as they are in Titanic. But DiCaprio, for a time the most swooned-over juvenile in the world, didn’t pick up a .44 Magnum and play cops or superheroes and land himself a franchise. He took big risks — some of which he wasn’t, frankly, up to. He’s still taking them, still daring to fail big. He was especially brave to reteam with Winslet for Revolutionary Road, in which he hit notes of rage and anguish that I never thought him capable of — he burned through his own glibness. Winslet, meanwhile, has emerged as a major actress despite appearing in two of the worst movies of the last decade, The Life of David Gale and All the King's Men. She won her Oscar for a movie almost as bad, The Reader. But she’s vivid and real in films as different as Quills, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Revolutionary Road, and Contagion. Both DiCaprio and Winslet are still under 40. There are miracles to come.
The 3-D imagery is a welcome distraction from the present-day wraparound story featuring Bill Paxton as a treasure hunter prowling the wreckage in a high-tech submersible, Gloria Stuart as Rose at age 101, and Suzy Amis as Rose’s granddaughter. Stuart’s bone structure and bright eyes (she was 87) are even more uncanny in this incarnation, but Paxton’s lines still congeal in the air as soon as they leave his mouth. (“Are you ready to go back to Titanic?”) Apart from Victor Garber as the ship’s architect, the 1912 cast is uniformly cringe-worthy, with David Warner doing a Boris Karloff turn as a hulking manservant and Billy Zane as obvious as his rich-jerk role. (On a Picasso painting Rose has forced him to purchase: “He won’t amount to a thing. He won’t, trust me.”) These actors have no subtext, no grace notes, nothing. Cameron can’t, alas, convert the characters from flat to 3-D.
But the 3-D, HD, and giant screen bring Cameron’s themes to the fore in ways your TV monitor can’t. The fall of bodies as Titanic rises in the air like a skyscraper, the field of blue-gray, bobbing corpses — all testament to the fatal arrogance of inventors and scientists who have no respect for the immensity and unpredictability of the natural world. (“God himself could not sink this ship!”) At the same time, Cameron is in the thrall of gigantism, fanatically bent on making the biggest and most expensive and most technologically advanced movies of all time. How can you account for the contradiction? Perhaps we should let Rose, who wonders aloud if Titanic’s boastful creators have read Freud’s theories about why men build things that are big and long and frequently try to outdo one another in the realm of bigness and longness. I’m betting Cameron didn’t make the connection between Rose’s lines and his own ambitions, but if he did he’d probably say that his ability to erect such awesome structures and at the same time critique them makes him the biggest man of all.