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Titanic

If I had a time machine, my first destination would be sometime in 1998. Why? Well, I’d obviously want to kill George Lucas with a shovel. But before doing that, I’d want to take hundreds of copies of this picture and put them into every teen magazine I could find.

Though I did eventually see the film on VHS a couple of years later (and never again in the time since), I was a bit too young to catch Titanic when it first came out in theaters. That said, I was still the perfect age to see its effect on my peers. Every pre-teen girl back then was obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio, and every pubescent boy was drooling over Kate Winslet’s iconic nude scene. At that age, who could possibly have guessed at the prestigious careers that awaited both in the intervening 15 years?

Leo DiCaprio may not have gotten an Oscar nod for Titanic (in fact, that may have been the only category Titanic wasn’t nominated in), and his career did take a bit of a tumble in the late ’90s. Still, DiCaprio turned his filmography around in a big way over the last decade. With a string of acclaimed performances directed by such luminaries as Spielberg, Scorsese, Nolan, Eastwood, and Tarantino (look for Django Unchained later this year), DiCaprio has very effectively become an awards-worthy powerhouse.

Meanwhile, Kate Winslet has been riding high on the A-list ever since her 1998 Oscar nod. Winslet went on to be the leading lady of several prestige pictures, eventually winning an Oscar of her own in 2009. Though admittedly, some of her more recent films have been better than others (All the King’s Men vs. Eternal Sunshine; her character in Contagion vs. her character in Carnage; etc.). Finally, it’s worth mentioning that she and DiCaprio eventually reunited under Winslet’s then-husband, Sam Mendes, for Revolutionary Road in 2008.

As for James Cameron, he took a decade-long hiatus before returning to screens with Avatar. Though the latter film may not have outdone its predecessor in terms of Oscars won, it somehow managed to outperform Titanic in ticket sales, taking its crown as the #1 box-office earner (unadjusted) of all time. Though perhaps not for much longer.

Fifteen years after its initial release, Titanic was upgraded to 3D under the personal supervision of James Cameron himself. Newly formatted, the film was released into theaters today, ready to make a second ton of box office bank just in time for the 100th anniversary of the actual Titanic disaster.

So let’s open with the first question that anyone of my generation or younger might ask: Is it better than Avatar? In my mind, that isn’t even a contest. Avatar may have led a special effects revolution, but Titanic was no less groundbreaking a decade earlier. Both may have been predictable, but there’s less reason to blame Titanic for that — of course the boat fucking sinks. Both stories may have had their cliched moments, but Titanic is still a better story better told. Perhaps most importantly, Avatar was essentially a shallow environmental parable. The purpose of Titanic is much more heartfelt and every bit as noble.

From the very first frame to the last, it’s patently obvious that Titanic was meant as a tribute. Cameron doesn’t just depict what the Titanic became, but what it once was and what it might have been. Hell, even when he shows the Titanic as a wreck at the bottom of the sea, there’s a great reverence in how he shoots it.

In Cameron’s hands, the Titanic is depicted as a modern marvel. It’s a triumph of mankind’s intelligence and industry, one of the largest and most beautiful things ever built by human hands. Cameron takes great pains in showing that people from all walks of life boarded its decks for a brief amount of time, together yet divided by class. Yes, Cameron also devotes a great deal of time and dialogue toward explaining exactly why the Titanic sunk and why so many died that night. It wasn’t just the iceberg, but because the ship was made to show off how fast it could go. Because too many lifeboats made the ship look cluttered. Because a ship that big couldn’t steer very quickly, especially with such a small rudder.

Basically, Cameron uses the Titanic as a means of showing what great and beautiful things humanity can create, as well as what mankind can destroy through pride, ignorance, and paranoia. In the boat’s sinking, Cameron depicts humanity’s great persistence to survive, as well as our capacities to help each other or to fight one another. In short, the boat represents the best and the worst of the human race.

Of course, it must be remembered that no matter how much attention to detail Cameron might have paid, this is still a work of historical fiction. Yet paradoxically, that doesn’t make the movie any less true. Even though Jack Dawson never existed, he very nicely represents those who fought for their lives on the ship and ultimately lost. There’s no such person as Rose Calvert, though I’m sure that real-life survivors of the Titanic might have looked back on the incident with the same sad mix of horror and starry-eyed wonder until the end of their days. The Heart of the Ocean necklace may not be real, but who knows what other treasure might still be waiting in that shipwreck? And of course, even if the tragic tale of romance is fictional, a ton of people most assuredly did lose their loved ones on that ship, and their loss was very real.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that even though the film has a ton of excess, this is a subject that merits excess if ever there was one. This is, after all, the biggest and grandest ship ever made in history up to that point, as well as one of the largest and most famous catastrophes in modern history. There’s no way to adequately show just how huge the ship is without a ton of money for sets. There’s no way to adequately show that level of destruction without another ton of money for special effects. There’s no way to show all the activity of the ship — both before and during the wreck — without a lot of screen time, not to mention even more money to pay for the extras, their costumes, their catering, etc. To repeat, every dollar in the enormous budget went toward making a sincere tribute to the Titanic, and it shows.

I could comment on the 3D reformatting, but there’s really no point. Not that the 3D is bad or pointless, mind you, it’s just icing on the cake. All it does is make the film more immersive, and that job was already done well enough by the magnificent production design. Coupled with James Horner’s fantastic score (even if the Love Theme was a touch overused), the film nails every emotional high. It’s no wonder “I’m the king of the world!” became such a famous quotation — at that moment, I felt the exact same sense of awe and joy that Jack did. I was practically right there with him, for Neptune’s sake.

Speaking of which, I’d also like to address the film’s other famous moment at that same location. The scene in which Jack and Rose are “flying” is probably the most iconic in the whole movie, and for good reason. After all, it marks the exact point in time when Rose effectively crosses the Rubicon and burns the bridge behind her. From that moment on, she’s completely discarded her bourgeoisie lifestyle and devoted herself to Jack in mind, body, and soul. So the scene ends passionately with their first-ever kiss… before transitioning to the modern day. One moment, that deck is where Jack and Rose are discovering true love. The next, the deck is coated with barnacles two-and-a-half miles underwater, eight decades after the two lovers were separated by death. Rose herself caps the scene with the statement “That was the last time that Titanic saw sunlight.” No joke, everything about that scene was absolutely perfect.

But before I move on to the central romance, I’d like to say that “My Heart Will Go On” is awful. It just is. That song is tolerable enough when it’s being played on flute, but the lyrics are worthless and Celine Dion’s voice is terrible. To be fair, maybe this is just because I can remember when the radio stations kept playing that song until the tapes wore out five times over. And of course, I also remember all the inevitable parodies, which quickly became every bit as played out. In any case, Oscar or no Oscar, that song sucked then and it sucks now.

That aside, let’s get to our star-cross’d lovers. I personally got a kick out of Jack. He was a very well-written character, with a witty line of dialogue for any occasion. Coupled with a very charming performance from DiCaprio, it’s easy to see why the whole world fell in love with Jack Dawson. Rose, on the other hand, spoke almost entirely in cliches. In her dialogue and in her character arc, Rose was like a badly-written Disney princess, explicitly moaning about her gilded cage and her loveless engagement. Of course, it didn’t help that her mother (Frances Fisher) and her fiancee (Billy Zane) were both such cartoonishly evil douchebags that Rose had nothing else to work with.

How over-the-top evil were they? Well, Rose’s mother reveals that Rose’s father left the family in crippling debt before he died, which is why Rose needs to marry her rich fiancee. So Rose’s mother makes a point of mocking Jack’s poverty… though she herself is essentially penniless. As for Billy Zane, one second of his scenery-chewing performance in this film should make my point for me.

Anyway, the central romance still worked, mostly due to the scorching chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet. It also helped that Rose showed a lot more strength during the ship’s flooding, suddenly turning into a character worthy of Cameron’s legacy of strong female heroines.

Also, as much crap as I give the romance arc for being cliched, we can’t forget that it doesn’t end in the usual way. And honestly, I support that decision. This is, after all, a tragic film that tries to re-enact the Titanic’s sinking with the utmost authenticity and realism. In fact, I’m pretty sure the Titanic’s sinking is shown in real time, judging from how it’s described in the film. It wouldn’t really seem right to show fifteen hundred people dying for entirely avoidable reasons, only to say that it’s all okay because our couple lived happily ever after. Plus, Cameron was good enough to throw us that ending, in which Jack and Rose happily get together in Rose’s dreams (or in the afterlife, depending on your interpretation).

And besides, great romances don’t necessarily have to end with “happily ever after.” Isn’t that right, Leo?

Speaking of the ending, I’d like to share this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2tYHcXNwAk. Sorry I can’t find a better quality. I honestly prefer that ending, since it provides some amount of resolution to the diving crew that set this whole movie in motion to begin with.

I have absolutely no idea how Titanic is going to age. Maybe the special effects will look terrible in comparison to the future’s technology. Maybe the next generation will think that the runtime was padded or that the love story was intolerably lazy. Maybe “My Heart Will Go On” will be considered a great song. But not right now. Today, the movie is still a phenomenal attempt to take its audience back a hundred years, so that we may remember the agony and the ecstasy of the Titanic. Even if the romance story is a touch cliched and some of the characters are woefully two-dimensional, a ton of talent went into this movie and every ounce of it shows.

This is still a great work of cinema fifteen years later, and I’m glad to have seen it on the big screen.

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