After Cinematical's new "Movies I Will Never See" series elicited a strong variety of reactions – both positive and negative - from readers, it occurred to us that there's a huge, untapped reservoir of existing films that we have actually seen, and it would probably be at least as interesting, if not more so, to go back and see how well they held up in the years since their release. These may be acclaimed classics that audiences simply haven't revisited on a regular basis, or condemned failures that might deserve a second look; but setting a statute of limitations of five years or more old (meaning before '04), we're going back to see how good are the bad movies, and how bad are the good ones - in other words testing their shelf life.
With James Cameron's Avatar looming large on the horizon, and the "event movie" filmmaker lauding his latest as no less than a worthy successor to the Highest-Grossing Movie of All Time, it seemed appropriate to see if Titanic was not only worth the hype that surrounded its original release, but to indicate whether it promised enough true and lasting greatness to entice fanboys and casual filmgoers alike to trust in the director as he debuts his next effort.
The facts: Released in 1997, Titanic cost $200 million to make and eventually grossed $1.8 billion dollars worldwide. Currently the film still maintains an 82 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nominated for 14 Academy Awards, the film won 11, including for Best Picture, Director, and Cinematography, and it also won four Golden Globes.
What Still Works: A lot more than I expected, frankly. The story's two halves – the romance, and the disaster - seem as unwieldy and disconnected as the ship's hull, but Cameron does a good job constructing a palpable relationship between Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) whose themes inform the rest of their behavior once the ship starts sinking. And while a handful of shots look technologically primitive in the context of today's advances in CGI (there's one shot of Jack and Rose fleeing a tidal wave that looks like two stunt doubles wearing cardboard cutouts of DiCaprio and Winslet's faces), the majority of the sequences where the ship is deteriorating still look really, really convincing, thanks to a dexterous combination of miniature filming, 9/10 scale recreation and seamless computer-generated imagery.
What Doesn't Work: While it's understandable that Cameron wanted to avoid vilifying any of the actual people who were on the Titanic when it sank, he overcompensates by making them nobly, tragically, melodramatically heroic. The two chief offenders are Captain Smith (Bernard Hill) and the ship's architect, Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), the latter of whom actually apologizes to Rose for not building a strong enough ship.
Meanwhile, the upstairs-downstairs romance works best when it's not being commented upon in the most callous and manipulative ways possible, mostly by Billy Zane's incredulously conceited discarded suitor, Cal Hockley, and Frances Fisher's indefatigably insensitive mother, Ruth Bukater. But really the film's big flaw is its framing device, which admittedly offers a sense of reflection that affords Cameron a wealth of dramatic license, but otherwise adds little to the dramatic effect of the period narrative. Plus, the line "a woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets" makes me want to throw up.
What's The Verdict: Titanic holds up. Amazingly well, in fact. Truth be told, I picked this film precisely because I expected it not to, but there are so many aspects of its production and construction to admire that it seems impossible not to find something in it that appeals to you: its technical proficiency, its historical authenticity, or even its love story. Both now and in its original context, the film really exemplifies the last days when people utilized practical processes – stunt people, real sets, physical locations – in order to create a palpable reality on film. After this, filmmakers would graduate completely to CGI for their special effects, and it's a truly breathtaking achievement to watch the film and see how Cameron was able to marry a conventional but compelling story to some of the most spectacular moviemaking in the history of the medium.