Nothing much has changed in James Cameron's recently re-released, nearly fifteen-year-old epic Titanic (in fact, beyond the fresh 3D conversion, a single shot of a starfield that Rose gazes upon near the movie's end marks the only alteration), but seeing it again reminds me that I've changed. Once a movie I adored in adolescence, then a movie I lightly defended during the inevitable backlash a few years later, Titanic is now a movie I can no longer take seriously or even enthusiastically. I can still respect Cameron's ambition, but this recent viewing felt like the movie's already established flaws were committing a hostile takeover.
Except that now there are new flaws. Sure, I had already accepted that the script is laughable and that James Horner's ethereal score (aided by the vocals of Norwegian singer Sissel Kyrkjebø) is as desperately sentimental as it is iconic, but I was surprised to find that Kate Winslet's Oscar-nominated performance is, um, sort of terrible. Sure, the acting isn't exactly an oft-praised element of Titanic, but I always thought Winslet was quite good. Now I can't believe I ever felt that way, since her performance is strangely stiff, so wooden that I'm surprised she even required a lifejacket to float.
Her line deliveries are stilted and stagey, too exaggerated to believably chart her transformation from mannered socialite to free-wheeling, spit-hurling lover. Her Rose never feels like anything more than a mess of rigid emotions cobbled together in service of a simple character arc. Part of the blame for this belongs to Cameron's script, of course, but Winslet is unable to overcome the character's problems on the page to make Rose anything more than a robotic damsel in distress who learns how to become an only slightly less robotic romantic adventurer.
Oh well, at least she still fares far better than Billy Zane. As spurned lover and non-icebergian antagonist Cal, Zane works hard to take the poorly written villain and make him even more ridiculously nasty than the script suggests. Zane isn't the kind of performer who is likely going to be mistaken for someone with meaty acting chops, so his approach to Cal isn't exactly a surprise. It's still supremely silly, though. His mannerisms are so comically inflated that his performance feels about as authentic a portrait of arrogant wealth as a Monopoly player greedily counting their pastel-coloured money.
This is where Zane can really point his finger at the script, though. At the heart of Cameron's ship-sinking romantic epic is a conflict that feels curiously ironic given how much money Cameron eventually made on this costly endeavour. Deep down, Titanic is really about the poor versus the rich. If Cameron made the movie today, he'd probably have some Occupy groups on board the boat. This is as black and white a depiction of such conflict that a colour movie can provide. Practically everyone rich is evil, while absolutely everyone on the poor side manages to be sweet, friendly, extroverted, and carefree. In this world, all you need to be a hero is a pair of empty pockets.
The only exceptions to the "rich is evil" rule are Rose, who hates the rich lifestyle, and real-life character "Unsinkable" Molly Brown (a better-than-most Kathy Bates), whose overall goodness is justified by the explanation that she is new to the wealthy lifestyle and therefore hasn't been corrupted by luxuries or whatever yet. I guess ship designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) could be added to the list, too, but he's more of a peripheral character without anything to do but look mournful when the ship's safety precautions come up short. He doesn't really fit into Cameron's depiction of the upstairs/downstairs conflict, but just about everyone else does. Rose's rigid mother Ruth (Frances Fisher), Cal's henchman Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner), and a host of bit parts for fancily dressed snobs all represent the dark side of wealth.
On the other side of the spectrum is nearly perfect Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio, embracing the silliness, though still delivering the movie's best performance), a vagabond who tries hard to transform his financial woes into adventurous freedom. Jack is a nice, friendly guy who acts as our transportation back and forth through the two sides of financial experience. The most obvious depiction of the split between rich and poor is unveiled when Jack joins Rose and her family for a fancy dinner in the main hall. It's nothing but dull conversation and stuffy scheduling. Then we glimpse the flip side when Rose joins Jack for a raucous party in steerage. Everyone in the cramped space is having a blast and it's nothing but love and smiles. Hmm... which side are we supposed to be rooting for again?
The depiction of the lower class citizens hits its most embarrassing notes whenever Jack's pal Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) is on screen. Just a single pasta meal away from being a complete Italian stereotype, Fabrizio is an entirely useless presence with a big goofy grin. He's also very friendly and overly sweet, so of course we're supposed to care about him. But Cameron can't be bothered to dig beneath the surface of the character and so he merely provides a quick glimpse of Fabrizio every now and then just to remind us that the guy is still around. It's too bad, since I was hoping he'd just disappear.
Between the poorly etched characters and the lazily simplified conflict, there are plenty of reasons to criticize Titanic, but there's still one reason to praise it. The actual sinking sequence still impresses, even if the added third dimension is only mildly effective in places. Once the big boat scrapes alongside that nasty CGI iceberg, Cameron unleashes the epically orchestrated mayhem in a style that is all his own. He also takes his time with the sinking, so we really feel the progression of the event that begins with a few people kicking around ice chunks on the ship's deck and ends with half-full lifeboats leaving behind frozen corpses bobbing in the Atlantic.
The entire sinking sequence is still marred by heavy doses of heartstring-tugging treacle and routine run-ins with Evil Cal, so it remains an uneven chunk of narrative. But Cameron makes an entertaining decision to send Jack and Rose on their own adventure during the entire sinking. They travel from deck to deck and find themselves in all sorts of tantalizing trouble while Cameron once again reminds us that rich people are total jerks. There's plenty of silliness littered throughout these moments, but the fun is that we get to witness every aspect of the sinking imaginable. We see the ship's bow slowly sink, the speed with which the freezing water rises in the constricting bowels of the ship, the split that tears the boat in half, the vertical slide that the rear half becomes when it is yanked skyward, and finally the experience of riding the stern right into the swirling ocean.
It's a visual marvel, really, as we watch all of Cameron's detailed perfectionism that led to the stunning creation of his ship replica graduate to a new level in a very believable and obviously expensive destruction sequence. It's far beyond any other big screen reenactment of the tragic event, a truly gargantuan block of mega moviemaking that targets history with a huge scope. But of course, this is just one (still flawed) sequence in a sea of bad dialogue, mostly mechanical performances, a sickly score, and enough syrup to, well, sink a gigantic boat.
So, after once loving and then just liking Titanic, I've now swung to the other side. Not so far that I can't still enjoy select parts of the movie, but I'm certainly feeling less forgiving of the movie's shortcomings than ever before. Despite this, I'll still maintain my good memories of the movie's original opening and the fever pitch that rose to meet the movie in the weeks that followed. For me, Titanic exists at the very edge of my adolescent nostalgia. I still remember how much fun it was to watch the movie take hold of the public and become a cultural icon at the multiplex. I remember it all fondly. But partaking in this recent re-release has apparently marked one viewing too many. Even though Cameron's big, bulky flick hasn't changed, I can't help but feel that I've seen it anew. The ship still sinks, but now the movie's strengths go down with it.