Review: ‘Titanic 3D’ is technically impressive remaster but to what end?

I don’t think I ever wrote a review of “Titanic.”

I’m not sure, though.  I know I was already contributing reviews to Ain’t It Cool in 1997.  I’m pretty sure I sent material to Ain’t It Cool as early as 1996.  I know I was writing reviews for newsgroups as early as 1995.  But for some reason, I don’t think I ever wrote a review of James Cameron’s massive cultural event, which seems strange to me now.

After all, I’ve been a James Cameron fan since the moment my first screening of “The Terminator” ended in 1984.  And working in Los Angeles, it was impossible not to be aware of and fascinated by the stories of what was happening on the set of “Titanic”.  What I found most interesting was that Cameron was getting a reputation as the guy who made the most expensive film of all time every time out, and each time, those big bets seemed to be paying off.  “Terminator 2.”  “True Lies.”    Giant expensive gambles that managed to shrug off the reports of trouble that plagued them during production.  But at a time when $100 million was still considered a lot of money to spend on a movie, “Titanic” was at least twice that, delayed, a nightmare, the moment he was bound to fail.

Didn’t happen, of course.  I think at this point, betting against Cameron is a sucker’s game.  He’s the ultimate self-actualized man in Hollywood, a truck driver who has somehow become the single most successful filmmaker of all time as well as a billionaire inventor/adventurer.  If someone wrote James Cameron as a character, we would criticize him as hard to believe.  He is his own most improbably imagined character, and it’s little wonder his harshest critics say the same things about him that they do about his movies.

Several years ago, I was invited to the Lightstorm offices by Jon Landau, and he showed me a demo reel that they had prepared to demonstrate the potential for post-converting films into 3D.  They used clips from “Star Wars: A New Hope,” “Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones,” “The Two Towers,” and, very notably, “Titanic.”  It was an impressive demo reel, and the clips were smartly chosen.  At the time, Landau said they were still refining the process, and it’s gone through a lot of changes since that early version.

On Valentine’s Day this year, my wife and I attended a special screening of the film in Burbank, and afterwards, I saw Landau outside.  I told him that it seemed like they had done exactly what they set out to do, and that “Titanic” represents the very best 3D conversion of a film that I’ve seen so far.

Having said that, I’m pretty much convinced that there’s not much of a future for the process.

Maybe I’m wrong.  If any film is going to put this theory to the test, it’s “Titanic,” and I’m actually interested in the box-office outcome of a release for the first time in a long time.  Normally, that’s something I try to tune out, but in this case, I want to see what happens.  I’ve always felt strongly that studios should do more revival releases of important and well-loved films, and that they should do it on a much broader basis than they do.  These 3D releases of films are some of the most widely-released revivals ever, and while “The Phantom Menace” wasn’t a hit, especially by the standards of “Star Wars” re-releases, I would argue that “Titanic” is much better-liked than that film.

Seeing it again for the first time in at least a decade, I am struck by just how confident it is, and that seems to be the thing that really distinguishes a James Cameron film is exactly that:  confidence.  He believes in this story so completely, and he presents it with such a laser-focused overload of detail, that it’s almost impossible to deny it as an experience.  Does he draw on broad characterizations and archetypical dramatics?  Absolutely.  Cameron is anything but subtle, and that’s one of the reasons his films play around the world the way they do.  But I think he also tweaks the conventions he plays with, and he isn’t remotely cynical about the stories he tells.  His belief in the romantic appeal of the Titanic is palpable in the film, and he often strikes lightning with his casting.  If any film demonstrates that, it’s this one.

Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet were already well-liked young actors who had several great performances to their credit, but the combination of the two of them was magic.  They both completely understood what they were playing here, and Cameron captured them at this moment when they were gorgeous kids, just new enough to feel like discoveries, but experienced enough to bring real nuance to what they were doing.  Billy Zane’s taken a lot of flack for his work in the film, but he’s doing exactly what Cameron asked him to do, and he does it with a pretty overt sense of humor about the whole thing.  Kathy Bates is basically this film’s “Jeff Goldblum in ‘Jurassic Park,'” the one who has a supporting role but gets to kill every single moment she’s onscreen.  Other supporting players like Bernard Hill and Victor Garber and David Warner or Frances Conroy do strong work as well, with Bill Paxton being the only significant miscasting in the film.  He’s okay, but there’s something about his laconic energy that seems wrong for the guy he’s playing, a sort of riff on Cameron himself.  The best performance in the film is easily Gloria Stuart, who is luminous as the older version of Rose, given a fresh hit of life by this incident that stirs all those memories, so long relegated to the safety of the past.  She suddenly finds herself right back there, living through it all again, and Stuart is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons the film works.

The not-so-secret secret of “Titanic” and its success is that the actual sinking of the ship is one of the all time great action movie set pieces, one long sustained crescendo of remarkably orchestrated near-death that Cameron stages with a skill that is just plain staggering.  He tells us early on in the film, via computer simulation, exactly what’s going to happen later on, and then he goes for it, step by step, overlaying the human horror and emotion, and the result is just as exciting now as it was in 1997.  I was impressed and overwhelmed all over again, and I remain amazed at what Cameron can accomplish, and the sheer physical difficulty of what he pulled off is not to be underplayed.  Like the film or don’t like the film, there are very few filmmakers working now or ever who could have done what Cameron did here, no matter what resources they had.

Like I said, the screening we attended was on Valentine’s Day, and I surprised my wife with it.  She is a big fan of the movie, and so I thought the idea of taking her to see it without telling her where we were going would be something she really enjoyed.  And she did have a good time with the film again, no doubt about it.  But the 3D left her cold in the end, something she’s articulated to me a few times since then, and I think if anything, the glasses separated her from the experience in a way that she didn’t like.  I think fans of the film were already used to be immersed in it when they watched, because Cameron’s film is lush, dense, a hugely-involving sensory experience.  Adding 3D to that works technically, but I’m not sure it changed anything, one way or another, emotionally.

Working in 3D is important to James Cameron for reasons he may not ever be able to fully articulate.  He loves it, and he has spent an amazing amount of time and energy to make it a mainstream reality, knowing that the entire industry has to support 3D for it to really work.  This is going to be his big example to other filmmakers about why you do a post-conversion, and he’s gone all out.  In this case, though, I do wonder if this particular release will satisfy an itch that was one of the first things mentioned before 3D started this latest comeback, and if so, if that means the process is going to start to fade again, as it has each time 3D’s been embraced by Hollywood before.  Or if this film does hit again, does this mean Cameron and Hollywood are going to take this as the green light to start releasing more films this way?

All I know is, the film itself deserves to be rediscovered on the bigscreen, and for younger viewers who never had the opportunity to see it theatrically the first time around, it is totally worth it to see the film when it comes out on Friday, just so you can see how brisk it plays, and how involving it really is in a theater.  If the 3D does add something for you, great.  If not, then it’s worth asking the question:  does any film really need to be converted like this at all?

“Titanic” sinks again starting April 4, 2012.