The transformation of the 1997 sensation, Titanic, into 3D may seem like a mere gimmick, designed to propel millions of kids who never saw the original back to the multiplex for a first gander. OK, we get to see the magnificent title entity crash and sink, but with extra dimensions, right? Well, not quite. Interestingly, director James Cameron uses the new technology not so much to give us more objects propelling with intensity toward us, but to enrich an already full story.
It’s all there, the scrappy Jack Dawson (an incredibly, impossibly young Leonardo DiCaprio) wooing the irrepressible Rose (auburn-tressed Kate Winslet) amid a backdrop of impressive luxury on the upper decks and motley internationalism below. There’s Billy Zane as Rose’s conventional, chauvinist fiancé Cal, and Kathy Bates as the “unsinkable” Texan Molly Brown who recognizes that Rose is chafing under the yolk of what her secretly impoverished mother—and society—expects of her. The ship’s builder brims with pride, even as he worries that the head of the White Star Line, who wishes to shatter world records, is not thinking clearly; and the noble Captain Smith is proud that his last voyage prior to retirement is in command of the mighty Titanic. Obviously, the movie continues to focus primarily on the love story of Jack and Rose juxtaposed against the impending doom of April 14, at which point, it’s all about the sinking and devastation and, yes, ultimately survival.
The first time I reviewed Titanic I nursed a newborn in the darkened Crossgates theater. I remember thinking it was a rollicking story, but wouldn’t place it on my top 10 of all time. This time, I brought the youngest, a 6-year-old who sat rapt, even during the fairly leisurely early scenes that take up the space between the “meet cute” and the unfortunate appearance of the iceberg. There were things I had forgotten, like the humor, the unmistakable chemistry between the two leads, and—perhaps because I’m older and presumably wiser—the sweet and sorrowful nature of the love story, of meeting and then having to lose your soulmate. I had tears in my eyes as Jack and Rose struggle to survive, then struggle to say farewell. At the same time, I was struck by how extraneous most of the characters, including Molly (and even to some extent Cal), were to the story. Irish Johnny and Italian Fabrizzio are mere stick figures who appear at rare but integral moments to remind us that the vast majority of the Titanic’s dead were poor immigrants. It feels cheap, 3D or no.
That said, the 3D is something of a marvel, not meant to dazzle us with firestorms and the usual “I didn’t see that coming” thing we’ve come to expect. Rather, Cameron uses the technique to enhance the immediacy of the proceedings. Consider the below-decks party, which Jack lures Rose to after a particularly stuffy evening in the dining room. The figures dancing and playing jaunty music are solid presences, living and breathing and enjoying life, and it’s as if they’re in the room before us, not just up on a flat screen. The infamous “king of the world” scene has a richness and feeling of spatial wonder that I don’t remember the first time around. And of course, the dreadful moments of crash and sink take on an added element of horror. In the end, the film’s scavenger concludes that he’d been mistaken in thinking about the Titanic in terms of treasure, rather than lives lived and lost; perhaps ironically, the 3D conversion underscores that essential fact.