movie review

Titanic Is Still the Purest Expression of Who James Cameron Is

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.
Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. Photo: Paramount Pictures

As you might have heard, James Cameron’s Titanic reopened in theaters this past weekend. It even made some more money. This is a 3-D rerelease of the Oscar-winning 1997 epic, and what sets it apart from the previous 3-D rerelease (back in 2017) is that this time the film has been retooled with fancy new variable-frame-rate and high-frame-rate technology — the same “motion grading” that was utilized in Avatar: The Way of Water and the Avatar rerelease last September.

So how is Titanic with the 3-D and the variable frame rates? I couldn’t tell you. Titanic is one of my all-time-favorite films, but I’d rather remember it the way it was — the way it was produced and the way it looked when it made $1.8 billion, won 11 Oscars, and [cue the swelling strings] captured the hearts of millions, including myself.

At the same time, I don’t begrudge Cameron’s nerdy noodling with his greatest picture because this constant need to innovate has proven to be one of his great strengths as a director. Some filmmakers fall in love with the limitless possibilities of technology after some initial successes and disappear down deep, dark career holes (Robert Zemeckis and Ang Lee come to mind), but Cameron seems uniquely able to fuse his visionary side with his artistic one. We might say that Titanic is the purest expression of this.


At the time it came out, the knock on the film was that it was one-half corny love story and one-half stunning disaster flick. (Peter Travers of Rolling Stone famously put it on both his top-ten and worst-ten lists.) Many critics dinged Cameron for the clunky dialogue and (what they felt were) unconvincing performances — but they usually praised the second half, in which the ship goes down. The division did seem stark: The first half of Titanic feels at times like it was written by a lovesick teenager, while the second half feels like it was conceived by a sadistic engineer designing an ornate torture device.

While I understand these criticisms, I’ve never shared them. Because the structure of Titanic is the point of Titanic: It’s all about the collision between the snarky, tough-guy, tech-head ethos and the soft, the vulnerable, the emotional. We can sense this in the film’s opening scenes as Bill Paxton’s undersea explorer, Brock Lovett, utters flowery narration while holding a video camera up to a monitor display of the Titanic wreck. “It still gets me every time,” Lovett intones as Paxton’s resonant, grown-up-surfer-boy voice makes us wonder if he’s being remotely sincere, “to see the sad ruin of the great ship sitting here, where she landed at 2:30 in the morning, April 15, 1912, after her long fall from the world above.” Then his assistant breaks the spell, chuckling: “You’re so full of shit, boss,” he says, and the two men crack up.

Paxton’s character isn’t discussed much when it comes to Titanic, but he’s clearly a stand-in for Cameron himself, the cynical, high-tech treasure hunter who is about to have his heart broken by the story of an old shipwreck. We see the flip side of this just a couple of scenes later, when Cameron cuts away from the cool, steely hues of the salvage ship to find the aged Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart) in her cluttered, warmly lit, flower-filled home, where she’s working a potter’s wheel when she sees the TV report of Lovett revealing the discovery of a sketch of the young Rose. Here, then, are the two extremes of the picture, presented in pointed visual contrast, almost as if two completely different films have begun to bleed into each other.

This duality within Cameron of the hard-ass and the softy — which I already wrote about a couple of times last year — had always been evident in his work, but it really wasn’t until Titanic that the two sides seemed to take equal hold. In the director’s earlier films, the emotional and personal is often a powerful grace note beneath the action — whether it’s Ripley’s maternal instincts for Newt kicking in during Aliens (1985) or the sentimental turn the relationship between Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 and Edward Furlong’s John Connor takes in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Cameron did try to alter the mix in The Abyss (1989), which is a tough-as-nails action-thriller that transforms in its final act into an earnest tale of marital reconciliation (and then dorky, wide-eyed, underwater alien wonderment, but that’s a different story). The Abyss is an imperfect masterpiece, but the way that picture uses the tale of an estranged husband and wife’s renewed love for each other to undercut its own macho theatrics holds the seeds of Titanic, a movie that embodies the rift in Cameron’s soul as well as its reconciliation.

The director returns to this clash of sensibilities over and over again in Titanic. Hearing Rose’s story, Lovett and his men respond like engineers, obsessed with the mechanics of what’s happening. (“He figures anything big enough to sink the ship they’re going to see in time to turn. But the ship’s too big with too small a rudder. It can’t corner worth shit!”) Rose, meanwhile, focuses not on what objects do but what they evoke — the way she might look in a hand mirror she last handled 84 years ago or at an Art Nouveau comb she ran through her hair as a girl.

What does technology have to do with any of this? Obviously, the story of the RMS Titanic is, on a narrative level, a story of man-made grandiosity and hubris, a vision of progress and industry consumed by the ancient icebergs of the great ocean. And Cameron, in making a movie out of it with all the state-of-the-art visual effects that the money of two major studios could buy, knows that he’s working in the same tradition of deluded ambition and extravagance, ready to be undone by forces beyond his control. But he’s built that idea into the aesthetic of his film. The ship is destroyed by the forces of nature, of course, but also, the smart-aleck dudes who find the wreck are emotionally undone by the story of a doomed love affair. In Cameron’s world, these are essentially the same things: The Avatar movies, for example, are all about humans with superior machinery and firepower being defeated by Na’vi warriors who are in direct touch with the natural world — which includes not just oceans and forests and animals but also forces like love, constancy, patience, and family.

And Cameron knows to use technology for both sensation and emotion. For all the great effects in Titanic — all those impressive shots of the ship charging through the sea, not to mention the harrowing images of the vessel’s stern hanging in the air as CGI people drop off it — the one that always blows me away is far more intimate. In what is perhaps the film’s most transporting and romantic moment, our lovers stand tightly against each other at the bow of the ship. Jack tells Rose to close her eyes, and when she opens them, she feels like she’s flying through the waves. Framed by the light of an orange sunset, they look out at the blue expanse, their hands gently a-tangle, and kiss. But then, slowly, the shiny new ship around them transforms into a bleak, barnacled wreck, and blue darkness consumes them. The blending of the images is so gradual that young Rose’s shawl is left fluttering phantomlike in the depths for an instant before it, too, fades away. The camera then pulls back to reveal that we’re back in the present, looking at an image of that submerged, decaying bow on a monitor. It then pulls back further to reveal the aged Rose’s face, watching and remembering.

Here’s a scene that gains power as the image morphs before our eyes — a tender reminder that nothing lasts forever and that it all can pass in the blink of an eye. A young girl with her whole life ahead of her suddenly becomes an elderly woman with her whole life behind her. Cameron is rightly regarded as a showman who uses visual effects and cinematic technique to blow us away with action and spectacle. But it’s in his ability to also use such tools to quieter, expressive ends that is where he shows his true artistry. And I don’t think he’ll ever top Titanic.

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Titanic Is the Purest Expression of Who James Cameron Is