Revisiting James Cameron’s Titanic After 25 Years

No decade was more important to the shaping of who I am possibly than the 1990s, which I began as a child and left as a young teenager. Those were the years when I first discovered and explored my love of movies. While most of my formative young viewing experiences were in my parents’ basement courtesy of a VHS player, the trips I took to the theater were always the most fun and exciting. I remember two of these theatrical viewings blowing me away and absolutely changing my perception of what movies could be. The first was Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) which scared and thrilled me, and I can still remember ducking behind a seat and peeking over during the T-rex attack. The second was James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) which has now been re-released in theaters for its 25th anniversary.

It is difficult to explain exactly why Titanic cast such a spell over me. The table was actually set many years before as a toddler when I found a children’s picture book at the library about the sinking of the Titanic. I was fascinated and scared by the story and its outcome. One of the best things I can say about Cameron’s film is that his visuals made those illustrations in the picture book come to life for me right before my eyes. Just on a technical level, I had never seen anything of that massive size and scope. Because I was only 12 years old at the time, Titanic was my very first Cameron film so I had no idea that this man was known for reinventing the game over and over again like he had with his Terminator films and Aliens.

I believe Titanic was also the first film over three hours in length I had ever seen, so that only added to the grandeur of the experience. I ended up seeing the film in theaters five times total between its release and its sweeping of the 70th Academy Awards in March of 1998. I was dazzled by the mystery of how Cameron managed to capture the horror of that fateful night in such convincing and gripping detail. If you had asked me at that time, I might have even said that Titanic was my favorite movie of all time.

Before last Saturday, I had not seen the whole film in its entirety in 25 years. So I was filled with childlike excitement as I purchased a ticket for my return to Titanic but with a couple of key differences. First, the new re-release has hit theaters in 3D format. Second, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity for me to try out the 4DX theatrical experience. A double whammy, if you will. I absolutely could not wait. I was filled with anticipation to see everything on such a large scale again, to see which parts held up over time and which did not, and also to see which details I had missed or overlooked when I was younger.

I am happy to report that Titanic is still an absolute banger from start to finish. Despite its running time, it’s one of Cameron’s most economical films that absolutely flies by with practically no dips in the story or action. The 3D transfer looks great and absolutely enhances much of the visual majesty of the scale of the massive ship on its maiden voyage before and after disaster strikes. As for 4DX, I will say that I’m happy to have tried it finally, and I think I will probably save my money next time. To be honest, it felt like I was watching Titanic in a bumper car. Lots of jostling, and then of course the water spritz for the scenes of the boat splashing into water. They go so far to make the movie experience “immersive” that you’re almost surprised they don’t plummet the theater temperature to freezing in the later stages of the movie to really get you there. 

The story, of course, is told in flashback as Rose (Gloria Stuart) recounts her tale as we follow several characters on the RMS Titanic’s maiden – and ultimately final – voyage from Southampton to New York City. Young Rose (Kate Winslet) is a beautiful young girl who is engaged to be married to a high society pill named Cal (Billy Zane, who plays the scene-chewing Cameron villain to absolute perfection). The two of them along with Rose’s mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) are aboard the ship, and we learn that Rose is in personal agony and turmoil at the thought of marriage and becoming a shell of a person like the other polite, high society women she sees around her all the time. She also feels immense pressure from Ruth who has made it clear that they have no money, and she needs Cal for their survival. Things get even more complicated when Rose meets Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a struggling artist who wins his ticket on Titanic with his friend Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) in a poker game just minutes before the ship embarks.

The intense meeting, casual friendship, and eventual passionate love story of Jack and Rose is at the heart of Titanic and makes up much of the first half of the film. On this viewing, I was more astounded by DiCaprio’s performance than ever. He had been great in some smaller films prior to this, but the part of Jack was what skyrocketed him into super stardom, and he plays the role to perfection. Even at his young age, he is totally full-formed as a movie star in the vein of Jack Nicholson. He makes every moment believable, and we want the best for him. Winslet, also very early in her career, is a great match for him as they have undeniable chemistry, and she does a great job at conveying the inner turmoil she feels about her situation. Of course, the dynamics of all of the film’s relationships change suddenly when the ship hits an iceberg that dooms it to sink in merely a few hours time.

Cameron has been criticized over the years as being too much of a craftsman and perfectionist in a technical sense and not giving enough attention to his screenplay, dialogue, and characterizations. While it’s true that there are goofy lines of dialogue in Titanic just like in all other Cameron films, this is almost like a feature instead of a bug. He knows what he’s doing, and he writes in a specific way to drive the plot forward to the areas where his mastery is absolutely unmatched. I think he knows what he is doing with the dialogue he writes, and it’s annoying when critics act like they have really discovered something when they claim he’s a bad writer. Make no mistake: Cameron is in complete control of everything happening in his film.

Ultimately, I still feel that Titanic is a monumentally important achievement and an excellent film. It is paced exceptionally well, especially in the second half once the ship hits the iceberg. That concluding 90 minutes really moves, and the visuals are absolutely stunning. Obviously Cameron has gone on to top himself visually with the Avatar films, but I don’t know if he’s ever blended story and visuals together as well as he does in Titanic. Considering everyone expected it to be a giant Waterworld-style flop when it came out in 1997, you can almost understand Cameron exclaiming his character Jack’s line on the Oscar stage: “I’m the king of the world!” Now seeing how well Avatar: The Way of Water has done the past few months, while he may not be king of anything, he certainly knows how to silence the doubters… time and time again.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


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