This year will mark the 15th anniversary of Titanic, and this month makes it 100 years since the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. To celebrate – or at least commemorate – these anniversaries, the 1997 film is being reissued to theaters in, you guessed it, 3-D. It opens today.
Now I haven’t seen the 3-D version, and I can’t say I really want to, considering that most 3-D conversions look dark and odd; nor does Titanic particularly need to be in 3-D. Aside from the spectacular shots of the ship’s sinking, just about everything good about the movie takes place in a close two-shot between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. But who knows? It might look fine, and even if it doesn’t, people who love the movie – and there are lots of them – might enjoy seeing it in a slightly new way.
In any case, this seemed like a good time to revisit the picture, and so I did, for the first time since 1997. In general, I found that some things about Titanic got worse with the years and some got better, but – here’s the good news – the things that got worse got only slightly worse, and the things that got better got a lot better.
So here are 13 points to look for the next time you watch Titanic.
1. The annoying absence of the: Yes, the ship was called Titanic, but nobody has ever called it anything but the Titanic, for the simple reason that using an adjective as a noun without the just strikes the ear as odd. But in the film, a memo must have went out, because nobody but nobody says the the. It’s an affectation that calls attention to itself.
2 . Check out the guy with the beard and exposition: In the film’s opening, set in modern times, actor Lewis Abernathy is given the brutal task of having to spout all the exposition in James Cameron’s often-awkward script. He survives as well as anyone could.
3. Speaking of the script: Cameron is a frustrating writer, in that he neither can be dismissed nor endorsed. He comes up with moments that are perfectly lovely, and then in other places, his script clunks. The first meeting of Rose (Winslet) and Jack (DiCaprio) is weak and clichéd, and whenever we join them mid-conversation, it never feels like mid-conversation, but like some awkward simulation. He also can’t resist moments of too-obvious irony, as when Rose’s evil fiancé (Billy Zane) says, Picasso – he won’t amount to a thing.
4. But wait, what happened to those paintings? Rose has a Monet and a Picasso. They look familiar. But how did they survive? Did they float?
5. The much-maligned love theme: Celine Dion’s rendition of My Heart Will Go On was heard so often in the late ’90s that it quickly became the stuff of parody. In fact, the theme music is used beautifully throughout. It’s a real asset to the picture.
6. If you want to see a sinking ship, see something else: See A Night to Remember. This is not a movie about the Titanic. This is a love story set on the Titanic. If you don’t get into the love story, you will hate the movie. So pay attention to the love story and stop waiting for the iceberg. It’s a long wait.
7. DiCaprio is the whole movie: And if you want to get into the love story, DiCaprio is your way in. I failed to appreciate him in 1997, but he is wonderful here – charming and self-assured, with many very fine moments.
8. Actually, it’s a little like Twilight, but not ridiculous: Winslet went on to become a beautiful and glamorous woman, so it’s hard to remember that here, in her early 20s, her looks were unremarkable, and the real beauty was DiCaprio. As in Twilight, you have the spectacle of an impossibly handsome heartthrob devoting himself to (and rescuing) an average pretty girl – and telling her how awesome she is: Rose, you’re no picnic. You’re a spoiled little brat, even. But under that, you’re the most amazingly astounding girl – woman – in the world.
Also, like Twilight, this becomes the story of a girl’s first sexual experience, and he is attentive and considerate of that fact. Nervous? he asks, when they get together in the back seat of a car. No wonder girls went back and saw this movie 50 times.
Titanic is also like one of those youth movies where everything that can possibly happen happens on one amazing night.
9. Beautiful stuff here: Once the movie gets beyond the awkward first meetings between Rose and Jack, their scenes improve, and they’re the best things in the movie. Cutting from them in the car to an overhead shot of the ship speeding toward its doom was inspired. When Cameron cuts back to the lovers, he gives us the single best shot in the film. We see the car from the outside – and Winslet’s hand suddenly presses against the glass. That’s all we see. It’s one of the subtlest presentations of an orgasm ever onscreen. It makes you wonder about a director who can do things this sparing, sophisticated and lovely and other things so ham-fisted – in the same film. That’s life. You take the good with the bad.
10. Keep watching Leo: Two good moments, one obvious, one quiet. Rose jumps out of the lifeboat to rejoin Jack on the ship, and DiCaprio has the line, You’re so stupid – why did you do that? which he repeats. In that moment, DiCaprio is playing about five emotions simultaneously. You can feel how overwhelmed he is. The less obvious good moment comes when they’re at the top of the ship, and it’s just about to sink. DiCaprio just glances at her, and you understand that this guy is absolutely determined that she survive – that he feels responsible for her, and his commitment is total. It’s just a flash, but it’s all there.
11. Rose screwed up: Of course, Rose’s fleeing the lifeboat to rejoin Jack is one of the best scenes in the movie. But in retrospect, she didn’t do Jack any favors. Think about it: There was one piece of wood out there in the entire ocean. She got on it and was saved. Had she stayed on the lifeboat, Jack could have been on that piece of wood. His heart could have gone on, too.
12. What a selfish, crazy old lady: She’s 101 and has about five minutes to live. In fact, the movie may actually end with her death: In the last shot, she and Jack are reunited in the stateroom of the Titanic, as everyone applauds. So why, after boring Bill Paxton and his team of explorers with an account of her shipboard romance, does she throw the diamond overboard? Paxton earned that diamond just for having to sit through that story.
13. Oscars: I hate to say this, because I didn’t see it at the time, but ... Titanic was nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11. But the one guy who should have won, DiCaprio, wasn’t nominated. The question isn’t why I didn’t see it, because anyone can miss anything. But why did everybody else miss it, too?
Except for a lot of teenage girls. They knew.