To commemorate the one hundred year
anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, director James
Cameron is rereleasing his blockbuster film in 3D, including IMAX 3D.
The film begins in modern times when a group of treasure hunters,
including Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), are using technology to try and
extract objects from the wreckage of the Titanic. Luck stumbles upon
them when they are contacted by an elderly woman named Rose (Gloria
Stuart) who says she is the woman in one of the drawings they found.
When they ask her about the whereabouts of
a diamond called the 'Heart of the Ocean', she recalls her time on the
ship to them. Boarding the Titanic as a young woman, Rose (Kate Winslet)
feels smothered by her family, including her dogmatic fiancé Cal (Billy
Zane) and her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher). Staying on the lower decks
is Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), an artist who won his ticket in a poker
game. One night Jack saves Rose from throwing herself off the back of
the ship and they start to fall in love with each other. Their affair is
disrupted by Cal and his bodyguard and the collapse of the ship after it
strikes the iceberg.
How did he do it? When James Cameron's film was first released in 1997
it was regarded as one of the most lavish and expensive films of all
time. Yet despite winning a record number of awards its reputation as a
great American film has been tarnished. Titanic's most iconic moments
have been imitated and mindlessly parodied so frequently that it is easy
to forget that the film is not only a great love story but also one
deeply critical of capitalism, self-interest and ambition. Watching the
film today and it has not aged in the slightest. There are sequences so
extraordinary that they continue to defy our comprehension for what is
possible in modern cinema.
Unlike Cameron's Avatar (2009), this film
was not shot for 3D, which means that the scenes don't standout as the
aforementioned film. The limited use of 3D means that it is easy to be
cynical about Cameron rereleasing the film as a cash grab, rather than a
tribute to the century marking the ship's collapse. However, Titanic
warrants another viewing, not only because it is spectacular on the big
screen but also because the film's powerful moral core has been
sustained, elevating it above the conventions of its love story and into
a timeless critique of human indecency.
The film documents how there were so few
lifeboats available on the Titanic that only half the ship's passengers
could be saved because there was little thought of aiding the
lower-class decks. Watching the film again after the GFC, where the
wealthy showed equally little compassion and it is apparent that nothing
between 1912 and 2012 has changed. The way the film damns the wealthy
upper-class, harking back to the Capra-era of filmmaking, means that
Cameron could quite rightly be accused of being hypocritical. He is a
director deeply embedded in the Hollywood system and has made two of the
highest grossing films of all time, one of which is Titanic itself. Yet
when people rewatch this film they will be reminded of just how much
anger and guilt Cameron shares between himself and the screen.
Consider for example the way that Cameron has chosen to frame the
narrative to project his own self-refection. Brock and his team are
treasure hunters, who initially seem only interested in the valuables
and the technology, exploiting the ruins of the vessel. When he
demonstrates the dismantling of the ship on the computer one of the men
says to Rose: "Pretty cool huh?" Yet by the end of the film Brock and
his crew are unexpectedly moved by Rose's story because they have a
greater sense firsthand of what a terrible experience this was for her.
Assumedly, this is a mirror of Cameron's
own experiences in researching and creating this film, appreciating it
as far more than just a commodity. Overcoming blind idealism is
therefore one of the film's central themes and is visualised
spectacularly through Cameron's sophisticated formalism. Before stepping
onto the ship, the low angle shots looking up at the Titanic heighten
its grandeur. This is to show how people foolishly believed that it was
indestructible because of its size and its power. The fluency of the
camera as it sweeps across the decks is also significant because it
leads one into a false sense of liberty, believing that there is great
freedom and spatiality to be found onboard. This is contrasted with the
interior rooms, where cabins, dining rooms and corridors are tightly
framed and shot.
The delicacy and elegance of the camera
movement on the upper decks is used to show how controlled and
suppressed Rose's life is as a woman. Her mother even mentions that she
doesn't need to go to university because she is already engaged. There
is also a clever moment where slow motion is briefly employed to further
show the contained, mechanical nature of her upper-class lifestyle.
Smartly, Cameron's best films have subverted the female role, where
women exude more masculine qualities over the course of the narrative.
It's visible in Aliens (1986), the Terminator films and here too. As
Rose defies her family's orders the formal elements change, like in a
scene where she is dancing on the lower decks with Jack. The rapid
panning of the camera asserts her freedom and her independence, which
she will later use for her own survival.
As pure entertainment, the first two hours of the film are close to
perfection. My favourite moments are shared between the scenes at
dinner, the exterior shots and those extraordinary early moments where
Cameron films the actual wreckage of the Titanic. Fulfilling many of
these classic scenes are touches of wit and humour and two charismatic,
star-making performances from DiCaprio and Winslet, both of whom have
gone on to have distinguished careers. It is surprising that Billy Zane
never had bigger opportunities because he makes his character so
deliciously wicked. Cal is a man who lives solely through money.
Everything can be bought for him, except love.
The other side characters are well cast
with actors who give their small roles noticeable weight too. The most
poignant is the ship's architect Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber). There's
a chilling scene where he is reduced to a zombie, watching a clock as
his dream collapses around him, weighed down by helplessness and guilt
for designing the ship. Frances Fisher as Rose's mother is also
fascinating because although her character postures as being wealthy,
and excludes others for not being in the same league, she is aware of
own family's struggling financial situation and is determined to force
her daughter to marry into wealth to save herself. Although Cameron
retains a masterful grip on the action, the film falters marginally as
the ship begins to collapse.
The scenes of Rose running down long white
corridors are so isolating they could be straight from a horror movie.
But these sequences could have been leaner and there are contrivances
that see the narrative veer unnecessarily close to melodrama. Did Rose
really need to jump back onboard the ship? The film recovers strongly
because the final moments alone in the cold black water are deeply
moving. With nothing to save these people, the sense of loss and despair
is palpable and haunting. The film favours moral complexity over
simplistic emotions of physical suffering too. Cameron unflinchingly
shows us the cowardice, the arrogance and self-interest of people who
opt only to save themselves, while the others are left to freeze to
death in the icy water.
Although the 3D was underwhelming in the
regular cinema release, IMAX 3D is a totally different story. Seeing the
film on one of the world's largest screens brings a whole new experience
to Titanic that almost makes these subtleties come to life. Other than being visually stunning, it is
compulsive viewing because of its intelligence and willingness to
explore class, ambition and gender politics. However Cameron did it,
this is a great American blockbuster.