Directed by James Cameron
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Gloria Stuart
Based primarily on our fondness for nice, round numbers, 2012 seems a logical year for James Cameron’s “Titanic” to resurface (let’s hope that’s my last nautical pun). April marked the 100th anniversary of the eponymous ship’s sinking and yesterday, Dec. 19, happened to be the 15th anniversary of the film’s release. Ostensibly in honor of the former, Cameron and company saw fit to re-release “Titanic” this past spring, in 3-D no less. That remastered version of the film then made its way to gorgeous Blu-ray in September. Since nothing official seems to have been planned for yesterday’s anniversary, I’ve taken it upon myself to honor the date with a review.
“Titanic” is the movie James Cameron was born to make. The filmmaker’s skills and limitations as a director and screenwriter work together here like the instruments of a grand symphony. His technological mastery, obsession with detail, proclivity for grandiosity, devotion to accuracy, simplistic morality, clumsy dialogue and general over-indulgence—each characteristic finds itself on full display in Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster and each is vital to the film’s success as an overpowering work of art.
In crafting “Titanic,” Cameron could have taken what one might call the History Channel approach, wherein historical accuracy and anecdotes reign. That method would have undoubtedly sufficed for many, given the drama inherent in Titanic’s sinking. In a sense, Cameron did craft that film. With a few liberties taken here and there, “Titanic” contains a recreation of the events of April 1912 stunning in its precision. That, however, comprises only a thematic backdrop for “Titanic,” an active set piece fraught with metaphor.
“Titanic’s” primary storytelling concern lies not with a ship, but with Rose (Gloria Stuart and Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). Their story is a love story, but to leave that phrase unqualified is both negligent and deceptive. “Titanic” is, more exactly, a teenage love story at once specific in detail and universal in theme.
The film opens as a group of men explores Titanic’s underwater remains with the hope of locating a valuable diamond necklace (“The Heart of the Ocean”) understood to have “gone down with the ship.” This expedition, though unattractive in its financial orientation, is portrayed with only minor criticism embedded. Rather, the scenes aboard the team’s exploratory vessels capture the inevitable detachment characteristic of contemporary perspectives of tragedies past. It’s a phenomenon already observable in our treatment of the 9/11 attacks. The rawness dissipates, topics initially taboo work their way into conversation, and the tragic events are eventually mined artistically and commercially. In the case of “Titanic,” the ship’s artifacts are at first treated with a respect that’s clinical rather than emotional. Expedition leader Brock Lovett, portrayed as an everyman with just the right amount of sleaze by Bill Paxton, isn’t a monster, but his interest in Titanic, unlike Cameron’s, is pragmatic.
The story’s pathos arrives, then, in the form of 100 year-old Titanic survivor Rose Calvert (Stuart). Rose flies to Lovett’s mid-Atlantic salvage ship after disclosing that she was once in possession of the necklace Lovett seeks. In narrating Rose’s story, Stuart’s performance offers a blend of spryness and seasoned melancholy. Her character has lived with the trauma and tragedy of Titanic for enough time that only in a few key moments is she caught off-guard by the memory. She has a spark and wit consistent with the 17 year-old Rose (Winslet) we’ll soon meet, but with an added wisdom and assurance. The performance conveys decades worth of information regarding the character’s evolution in minutes of screen time.
Through extended flashbacks we meet Rose when she was Rose DeWitt Bukater, a beautiful high-society teen engaged to marry Caledon “Cal” Hockley (Billy Zane), the wealthy son of a steel tycoon. The engagement is forced–Rose’s late father left Rose and her mother (Frances Fisher) with only “a legacy of bad debts hidden by a good name.” The root of Rose’s melancholy, however, extends beyond her impending marriage. She’s repulsed by the luxury surrounding her, yet smart enough to recognize her own reliance on it. Jack, on the other hand, is introduced winning third class tickets to board Titanic in a game of poker, just minutes before the ship is to leave its Southampton port. He’s a handsome, carefree nomad. His travels and varied experiences have granted him the worldliness to which Rose aspires. Jack’s not necessarily flawless, but Cameron isn’t at all concerned if you, like Rose, view him as such. The two meet in a most fitting scenario: Jack finds Rose attempting suicide on Titanic’s stern and talks her down, so to speak.
There are many reasons why these broad strokes work in “Titanic” and not, say, “Avatar” (Cameron’s follow-up film). I noted earlier that “Titanic” is not just a love story but a teenage love story–one that takes place on an enormous, sinking metaphor. There’s nuance to be found in teen romance, but nuance isn’t what teen romance, or “Titanic,” is about. Cameron takes the extremes inherent in his subject matter and makes them tangible. To Rose and Jack, each other is the source of all things good, any obstacles to their romance are villains, and the prospect of love’s end is not just sad, but tragic.
It’s a portrayal that could veer into condescension, but Cameron steers his film far in the opposite direction. Perhaps obvious in his decision to craft a three-hour epic about teenage romance is Cameron’s deep respect for the subject matter. In many ways, “Titanic” exists as an ode to the earnestness and raw strength of youthful emotion. Despite its refreshing lack of cynicism, however, the film is hardly naive. The implication is clear throughout that Rose and Jack, as a couple, were never meant for land. As viewers, we aren’t to feel sad that Rose Calvert, not Rose Dawson, narrates.
This is old-fashioned storytelling akin to “Gone with the Wind” and Cameron takes a cue from the classics in transforming types into characters. He offers Rose and Jack as the stereotypes described above, but fills them out with a necessary specificity. The young lovers may have roots in centuries-old stock characters, but their gender roles, for instance, are hardly traditional and it’s no accident that they occasionally come across as modern American teenagers. These and other touches are why those fabled mobs of teenage girls, said to have been the reason for “Titanic’s” box office success, fell in love specifically with Rose and Jack.
Similarly, Cal fills the villain’s role to the extent required of Cameron’s vision without actually being a villain. Rather, he’s portrayed as a product of his upbringing, a man with every reason to assume his fiancé will play by society’s rules. That he’s violently undone by Rose’s insubordination isn’t attractive, but it’s understandable. Cameron follows the basic rule for any compelling soap opera. He can have Cal scoff that Pablo Picasso “won’t amount to a thing” and chase Rose and Jack through the bowels of a sinking ship if beneath the exaggerations lies something recognizably human. It’s what makes “Titanic’s” universe at once larger-than-life and organic.
As the film’s leads, Winslet and DiCaprio, both fresh faced and beautiful, fully embrace the earnest intelligence of Cameron’s screenplay. If either of them hoped for edgier material (as their future career choices would suggest), you can’t tell it from their spirited performances here. Winslet conveys vulnerability and rambunctiousness. One gets the sense that she doesn’t care how a romantic female lead is supposed to carry herself, making her “Titanic’s” most distinctive asset. DiCaprio, on the other hand, displays a levity in “Titanic” sorely missing from his more recent work. Watching the film today, DiCaprio’s Oscar snub seems all the more misguided. He thoroughly inhabits Jack Dawson without a crutch in sight. Playing the character straight, so to speak, was as daring an acting decision as any, yet it’s also the reason the performance has been overlooked. The supporting cast is equally deserving of praise. Stuart is the standout, but there’s not a weak link in the bunch.
I’ve discussed the thematic purpose served by Cameron’s heavy-handedness, but purpose doesn’t make his dialogue any easier to sell. Take these gems for instance:
Lines like these are corny by design–the work of an artist acknowledging his limitations and using them to his benefit–and Winslet, DiCaprio and company seem entirely at ease with this. They take Cameron’s dialogue and infuse it with emotion as authentic as the lines are cheesy. The “I’m the king of the world!” moment really shouldn’t work, but DiCaprio conjured the requisite amount of gleeful sincerity and made the line iconic.
While on the topic of Cameron’s writing, attention should be paid to the ingenuity at work in “Titanic’s” structure. In placing his leads in opposite social classes, Cameron introduces us to an expanse of secondary characters–making their reappearances in the film feel natural rather than contrived to fulfill structural purposes. This also allows Cameron to fill the background of his movie with historical anecdotes, making “Titanic’s” universe feel fully-formed.
Additionally, Cameron’s screenplay is an exemplar of pacing done well. He devotes the exact amount of time to the protagonists’ courtship necessary to solidify their relationship by the time the movie turns into a veritable action film. Cameron strategically distributes his characters across the ship as it begins to founder and devises organic reasons for keeping them aboard for as long as possible, allowing us to fully experience the ins and outs of the disaster in what feels like real time. Lest the action become monotonous, the screenplay calls for appropriately timed moments of intimacy, be they on the ship or in a return to the present day. Additionally, the chaos of the sinking is made more comprehensible through the modern-day framing device: Lovett’s crew presents elderly Rose with a computer simulation of the ship’s demise. The scene, which takes place before the flashbacks begin, is both a wry acknowledgement that the audience knows roughly how the film will end and a means of allowing us to focus on the characters (rather than mechanics) during the eventual sinking sequence.
This brings me to the film’s visual effects. Watching “Titanic” on Blu-ray, it’s bizarre how well the effects hold up today. The sinking is the standout in this regard–a flawless rendering that’s truly immersive. The sequence looks as though Cameron physically rebuilt the ship then crashed it into an iceberg with his characters aboard. Watching it unfold is an overwhelming, visceral experience. Subtler but no less masterful is the use of effects in the film’s first half. You never question the notion that this is taking place on an enormous ship streaming across the Atlantic. (That being said, the Blu-ray does expose a few seams here and there, most noticeably the use of computer animated passengers in wide shots of the ship, if you keep an eye out for them.)
Russell Carpenter’s cinematography is comparably stunning. The broad range of skills necessary for a film this varied in tone and pacing seems to have been mastered by Carpenter; he nails everything from sweeping views to intimate close-ups. His compositions are thought-provoking and rarely expected. A personal favorite is an extreme long shot of an infinite navy sea, empty but for a tiny row of yellow lights tilting into the water as a small flare bursts overhead. James Horner’s score similarly serves Cameron’s vision while standing on its own as a successful piece by capturing sounds deeply personal and specific to the characters’ experiences. His fusion of vocals with instruments haunts throughout “Titanic.”
Under Cameron’s direction, every aspect of the film works toward a shared goal. Nothing feels superfluous; this is as carefully controlled and economical as three-hour films get. Yet the terms “controlled” and “economical” don’t do justice to “Titanic’s” emotional core–none of this would work if the right feelings weren’t present. The final scene serves as a testament to this. Having established his credibility and then some, Cameron abandons logic and offers viewers a necessary aesthetic closure. It’s a moment of beautiful emotional insight incumbent of Cameron as an artist if not a storyteller.
Fifteen years since it was released, “Titanic” has only improved with age. The themes Cameron tackles are as potent, if not more so, today. His observations about the economy (it’s hard not to think of the Occupy movement when watching third-class passengers rail against steel gates blocking them from survival) and our society’s treatment of tragedy are eerily prescient in a pre-recession, pre-9/11 film. “Titanic” will continue to endure as a work of art for as long as its contents hold true for audiences; at the 15-year mark, Cameron’s epic is surviving marvelously.