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"Titanic" still sails, a quarter century later

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the release of James Cameron's "Titanic," a drama about a ship and a ship filled with drama that seemed doomed to failure prior to its launch in December, 1997. Delays and cost overruns seemed like a bad omen, much like the "unsinkable" brag had been for the fated big ship. Cameron proved the skeptics wrong then and did it again in 2015, when he re-released "Titanic" in 3D. I reviewed it for the Toronto Star and still stand by my unabashed rave:

Titanic 3D

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (out of 4)

Starring Leonard DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Gloria Stuart, Billy Zane, Bill Paxton and Kathy Bates. Written and directed by James Cameron. 194 minutes. Available for streaming, renting or purchased on multiple platforms. PG

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

The ship still sinks in "Titanic 3D," as James Cameron jokingly assured it would.

But the 3D finally floats, and that’s the bigger marvel this time out.

Fifteen years after Cameron’s aquatic blockbuster first sailed, it returns to theatres on a different voyage: to prove the artistic value of adding the third dimension to a movie originally filmed in 2D.

It’s an unqualified success, and you don’t just have to take my word for it. The large number of moviegoers I saw weeping during and after a public preview screening Monday attest to the enduring impact of the star-crossed, and iceberg struck, shipboard romance of Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet).

Cameron and other high-tech prophets have long talked of the “immersive” effect that 3D can have on the audience, drawing viewers into the picture the way a “flat” image simply can’t.

Until now it’s been mostly just talk, with most 3D movies — a major exception being Cameron’s more recent "Avatar" — offering far less depth perception than promised.

The letdown factor has been most keenly felt in conversions from 2D, but "Titanic 3D" shows how the ambition can be realized if the will and skill are there. We can only hope that other filmmakers follow Cameron’s example.

He spent a reported $18 million (U.S.) and 60 weeks revamping "Titanic," and the evidence is in every second of the film’s 3½-hour running time. The images are sharper and the screen is more brightly lit, eliminating the common 3D annoyance of feeling as if you are watching while wearing sunglasses.

The grandeur of the mighty ship is more keenly felt with the added dimension, from the swoop of the prow as it cuts through the water to the ropes and rigging that dangle from above.

The 3D view allows us to move amongst the diners in the first-class cabin, as steerage pauper Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) finagles a seat at the table of arts patron Rose DeWitt Bukater (Winslet) and her industrialist fiancé Caledon “Cal” Hockley (Billy Zane).

The grand staircase scene where Cameron hat-tips Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey," swirling the camera while the orchestra plays “The Blue Danube,” is now so intense as to almost induce vertigo.

A different sensation is summoned during the scene where Jack teaches Rose how to spit, as their unlikely and risky courtship begins. You have to restrain yourself from jumping away from the flying gob.

It’s impossible to overstate the effect properly rendered 3D has on the drama, which really kicks in during the second half of the picture: the mighty Titanic strikes an iceberg midway through its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, a true historical event that occurred 100 years ago this month.

The already imposing scenes of mayhem, as water bursts through the ruptured hull and too many people attempt to escape on too few lifeboats, are considerably more dramatic in 3D. So is the horror of watching people jump from the ship to their doom, and also witnessing the bobbing heads of the dead and drowning.

For all of the technical achievements of "Titanic 3D," the film also holds up as a story well told and well acted. And this was my fourth time seeing it.

Cameron’s addition of dramatic fiction to the historical facts of the real Titanic’s 1912 sailing and sinking and the 1980s discovery of the wreck seemed a bit forced to me in 1997, when the film was first released.

The screenplay, also written by Cameron, contained such clangers as Jack mouthing a Bob Dylan lyric from the 1960s and young Rose proving to be an authority on everything from Sigmund Freud to how many lifeboats Titanic was carrying.

It must have seemed that way to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, too, since they gave "Titanic" a near-record 11 Oscars — including Best Picture and Best Director — but scorned the script entirely.

Funny how such quibbles drift away over the years, perhaps because the hype isn’t as loud this time as when "Titanic" first sailed, under a dark banner of predictions that it was Cameron’s $200-million folly. (How wrong the cynics were: the film has grossed more than $1.8 billion worldwide, a decade-plus record until "Avatar’s" $2.8 billion.)

Today, it’s easier to appreciate the pairing of the skinny DiCaprio and the buxom Winslet, who have a genuine chemistry that’s missing from so many recent romances.

"Titanic 3D" also reminded me of fine supporting roles: the late Gloria Stuart, as the older version of Rose, whose gentle remembrances frame the story; Bill Paxton as scruffy Brock Lovett, treasure hunter turned accidental historian; Kathy Bates as the funny and feisty passenger Molly Brown; and Canada’s Victor Garber as proud Titanic builder Thomas Andrews, a man who realizes too late the folly of proclaiming his ship “unsinkable.”

I even enjoyed watching Billy Zane twirl his metaphorical mustache once more as the vicious and vengeful Cal Hockley, even if he did once strike me as too much of a Snidely Whiplash type.

"Titanic" has earned the right to be considered a movie classic. And the 3D is the very sweet icing on the cake.

(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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