It’s easy to be cynical when it comes to Titanic, a film that reached such dizzying heights of success and cultural prominence that, eventually, the only thing left for it to become was a punchline. Watching its two most famous and parodied moments, both of which take place on the bow of the ship, one almost feels required to snicker. But 15 years later, stretched across the big screen, Kate Winslet’s “I’m flying” bit and Leonardo DiCaprio’s “I’m the king of the world” declaration also feel moving and momentous, two scenes as deeply iconic as any to have played in theaters since. While recent interviews have suggested that James Cameron is interested in giving the middle finger to films and filmmakers beholden to post-converted 3D, he insists the chief motivation and benefit of Titanic 3D is to let folks witness the film theatrically, quite possibly for the first time. Seeing the result, with eyes aged a decade and a half, the project seems fully warranted, as does that lofty 3D ticket price. Worlds away from the gray-draped dismalness of garbage like Wrath of the Titans, Cameron’s meticulously remastered baby is bright, crisp, and beautiful, its newfound depth readily apparent from shots of luxe interiors to ogling scans of the ship itself. It’s not your typical 3D film, whose format is forgotten after the first reel. It remains immersive through most all of that whopping 194-minute running time.
And those minutes still pass as nimbly as ever. Titanic has always been a movie that puts the brakes on channel surfing, its high stakes and propulsive power too compelling to look away from. Cameron has long taken heat for his dialogue, and it’s true that the modern-day framing device is something you must suffer, with all its unwieldy exposition and lines like, “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” But he’s less often hailed for the narrative elements he gets right, like, say, a spirited chase that lets you witness all levels of the ship, or a devastating montage of doomed souls scored to the music of the famed violinists. The love story, which conveniently allows the viewer to witness the disaster right down to the last frozen whisper, is also remarkably strong, impervious to charges of mismatched actors and ridicule over choice moments like promising to “never let go” while doing precisely that. Both Winslet and DiCaprio’s work improves with distance, as one can now better appreciate the ace talent that she was from the start and the leading man that he was fast becoming. And with the exception of Frances Fisher and her one-note iciness as an unflagging social climber, the supporting cast spills over with well-chosen players, namely Kathy Bates as the markedly human Molly Brown and Victor Garber as the soulful ship architect.
The massive vessel has been appropriately tagged as a giant, hulking metaphor, one Rose (Winslet) herself acknowledges in a discussion about Freud, the first of many boilerplate names employed to make her character seem culturally astute. But Titanic is rife with symbolism beyond that of the swelling male ego, its abundance of stuff tailor-made for assigned meaning. It can be as simple as Rose’s breath-stealing corset, a direct embodiment of the high-society shackles she must escape, or as vast as water, which has rarely been presented as such a stark depiction of death, stared down by many characters in their final moments. The great irony of Titanic is that for all it took to create it, and all the rewards it wrought and reaped, it’s an entropy film, degenerating from the moment the ship sets sail. It’s a decadent movie about the futility of decadence, the fabulous regalia that excited so many finally rendered moot by nature. It is, relatedly, the ultimate isolated depiction of big-budget Hollywood practices, which so often involve the creation of breathtaking things that’ll only be breathtakingly destroyed. There’s something pure about the fact that the real ship was brand new: the production design also had to have the gleam and aromas of fresh paint and custom-milled wood, which would also be snapped, ravaged, and, at last, sunk.
The re-release is keenly timed with the 100th anniversary of the actual sinking of the RMS Titanic, yet another factor to validate the 3D film’s existence. Often dwarfed in fans’ heads by the shadow of the swoony romance, the historic element works wonders in legitimizing the movie, and while Avatar may have shattered Titanic‘s records, it will never have the same pop-culture clout. On screen today, the movie feels timeless, its one dusty visual an overhead shot of what are clearly CG agents walking about the poop deck. And, in the end, maybe this new twist on an old blockbuster is just a way for the world’s richest filmmaker to rake in yet more money for Hollywood studios. But you’re not going to find a grander spectacle in theaters right now, and the truth is, you haven’t found too many in the last 15 years.