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Titanic: A 3D IMAX Experience (2012)

| April 6, 2012 | 0 Comments

Ever since James Cameron’s Titanic left theaters in mid-1998 – and subsequently made its way onto home video – I have purposely avoided it. I love this film, but I found that even briefly attempting to watch it on television is an agonizing experience. This is a film of such magnitude, size and scope that seeing it on anything smaller than a theater screen degrades its vision. Now thankfully, the film is right back where it belongs, in theaters not only as a remembrance of this month’s 100th anniversary of the real-life tragedy, but also to jump (unnecessarily) on the 3D bandwagon. I can grouse about that all day, but just having the film in theaters is good enough for me. There is just no other venue quite adequate enough for the ship of dreams.

Titanic does what all great movies do; it creates a sense of time and place, of purpose and history in a way that no other medium is able to do.  Stories and songs can be written but the movies encompass the best parts of all artistic mediums and give us a front row seat.  Cameron takes an event that we’ve all heard about and puts his filmmaking craft to work, utilizing the latest in computer effects, editing, sound, music and sets, he puts his hands around the event and brings it close enough for us to understand with unblinking clarity. As a storyteller he is a master.  He understands that our minds are likely to get lost in the chaos of the sinking of the ship, so his remedy is to stage a computer simulation at the beginning of the film (in the present day) that explains exactly how the ship was damaged, how the bulkheads took on water, and how the ship broke apart.  By the time we get to the scenes of the actual sinking, our minds are already oriented to what is happening.  In that way, we can then focus on the human element.

This human element is the most surprising aspect of Titanic.  It would have been simple enough to manufacture the story on the technical level without a human connection, or simply to have a multi-character Grand Hotel with the various passengers and their problems, but Cameron is mindful that in order to grasp our emotional investment, there needs to be a central story that leads us through the disaster.  That’s vitally important.  The emotional toll of this event was, for people of the early 20th century, what September 11th is for us today.  Without remembering the human toll, it simply becomes a historical curiosity and the event loses its importance.

To get there Cameron gives us a modern foothold, framing the film with an expedition to the doomed ship still sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic, still pointed westward, forever halted in its maiden voyage to America.  The expedition is led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), whose chief interest in Titanic is procuring a 17th century diamond that supposedly belonged to Louis XIV. His expedition turns up nothing, but what he does find – a nude pencil sketch – leads him to a 100 year-old woman named Rose (Gloria Stuart) who turns out to be one of the last living survivors of the Titanic disaster.

The story that she lays out for the expedition crew is a startling reminder that Titanic wasn’t just a curiosity, it was a reality for those who were there, nearly all of whom are now gone.   Rose’s story, of how she sailed home to American aboard Titanic with her snobbish millionaire fiancé Caldon Hockley (Billy Zane) in an arranged marriage set up by her destitute mother (Frances Fisher), is a window into the painful struggle of being a young woman in the early 20th century.  For Rose, she is sailing home to a life of marital imprisonment.  Initially describing the ship as “The Ship of Dreams”, she laments that “It was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me it was a slave ship, taking me back to America in chains. Outwardly, I was everything a well brought up girl should be. Inside, I was screaming.”

Lamenting that “I saw my life as if I had already lived it”, we see the young Rose becoming so depressed that she considers suicide. She is saved by Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a traveler who made his way onto the ship through a poker game.  For Rose, Jack is everything she wishes to be and as they get to know one another, they realize that they both have the same vision of a happy life.  Jack opens Rose’s mind to what life has to offer (her robust life after the Titanic tragedy is laid out in a quick piece of dialogue at the beginning).  The love affair – which is challenged by Cal, and his nosey manservant Lovejoy (David Warner) – builds slowly and never feels phony.  Jack and Rose have a deep passion for one another that builds as they get to know each other.  Ironically, it is at the moment that their passion reaches its peak that the tragedy strikes Titanic.  With that, we understand their motivations as they try and save each other as the mighty ship goes down. The performances are key.  They not fraught with great depth, but just enough that the film allows us to care about them.  Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have such a lovely chemistry together that we want them to be together.  He lifts her up, and brings out the fire in her soul that has been surpressed by her mannered upbringing.  The strength and passion that Rose develops through the tragedy is still present in modern times.  Her fire and spirit are still there even as she has crossed the century mark in age.

Seeing the film again after a decade and a half is to revisit two talents that we have followed with great joy. Here were Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, young and beautiful, both at the start of brilliant careers. Titanic featured only a small sampling of what they could do as actors. Winslet’s list of credits since Titanic are impressive, never seated in the comfortable spot of playing victims, her list of credits includes a long roster of strong women – some good, some bad, culminating with an Oscar for playing (against type) a former Nazi in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. DiCaprio would avoid the traps of using his good looks to cash an easy paycheck. By the time of Titanic, he was already known for his Oscar nominated work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and now has a roster that includes playing everything from J. Edgar Hoover to Howard Hughes and working under the direction of great directors like Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. He and Winslet would work again, playing husband and wife in Sam Medes brilliant 2009 marital melodrama Revolutionary Road.

The best performance in Titanic, for me, comes from Gloria Stuart as the elder Rose. Stuart was a veteran of the golden age of Hollywood, who was 84 when Titanic was made, and 100 when she died two years ago – plus, just as a piece of trivia, she was 2 years-old when the Titanic sank in 1912.  Stuart plays the elder Rose, a centenarian who becomes the modern link with the tragic events of that night.  It is in her eye-witness testimony that Titanic’s tragic story is brought to life. Under wrinkled skin shine eyes that have borne witness to history, and her soft, ancient voice that humanizes the story.

If the human elements bring us closer to the characters, then Cameron’s special effects team does a masterful job of bringing the disaster to life. The tension of the last hour of the film is as agonizing for us as it must have been for those involved.  The passengers slowly begin to realize what is happening and only come to the full realization when it is too late.  Cameron’s staging of the event is a master craft of special effects but also of pacing and of tension.  We know early on that the ship doesn’t have enough lifeboats for all of the 2,200 passengers (it had a mahogany-paneled smoking room, a swimming pool and a squash court, but not have enough lifeboats) and that makes the calamity all the more senseless.

As I said, Titanic gives us a front-row perspective on this tragedy.  We can stand back and look at it clearly from a 21st century perspective and understand the time and the place. A key scene explains the arrogance that probably aided in dooming the voyage. It takes place at lunch between the ship’s owner Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) and the ship’s captain E.G. Smith (Bernard Hill), wherein Ismay strongly advises Smith to push the ship faster so that the headlines can read that the ship arrived early. Despite iceberg warnings, the ship was rocketing blindly through the frigid night. Perhaps because nearly everyone on board took seriously the media’s assertion that the ship was unsinkable, fueled the arrogance that left those on board completely unprepared. Even when the Thomas Andrews (Thomas Andrews) lays out the inevitability that the ship is doomed, Ismay is agast “But this ship can’t sink!” The architect is very clear in reminding him: “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can, and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.” Ismay’s thinking represents the view of the times. Titanic was a marvel of the early 20th century industrial age, a ship so glorious that it was mistakenly thought to have been unsinkable.  The tragedy was a grim reminder of the dark century to come.  Within two years of this tragedy, the same industrial might that built the ship would be used to build machines that would fuel the slaughter of the First World War. In that way, Titanic’s sinking represents the end of the 19th century, and the First World War represents the beginning of the 20th.

But that’s history. Let’s get back to the movie. Revisiting Titanic is to find that it is still a grand case of time and place, a view of history seen through the vision of a cinema artist at the top of his craft. That craft hasn’t aged one single bit, but now the intrusion of the 3D process brings about the inevitability that it would never would have gotten a major rerelease without the conversion.  Cameron has created the best use of the 3D to date with Avatar three years ago, but here has the daunting task of pasting 3D onto a film that wasn’t designed for it.  The result is spotty at best.  As with all 3D presentations, the picture is too dark and the images are often not in 3D (lift up your glasses if you don’t believe me).  There were times when I forgot my 3D glasses, except for a few occasions where I could see the depth of the 3D image.  That happened maybe six times – six times in a three hour picture.  That’s not worth the upcharge, but I will say that the experience of seeing the film again in a theater is worth the inconvenience.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2012) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Drama, Thriller