By Chaz Lipp
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Titanic [Limited 3D Edition] on Blogcritics.
James Cameron’s 1997 epic Titanic was a true phenomenon, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time during an astounding display of box office stamina that included a 15-week run at number one. Cameron’s 2009 Avatar shattered its record for highest domestic gross, but when adjusted for inflation, Titanic is still miles ahead of it. Fourteen Oscar nominations and 11 wins (including Best Picture) later, it was plain to see that the film had been accepted as a classic.
Billed appropriately as Titanic 3D, 2012 saw the film rereleased to theaters sporting an impressive 3D conversion. It cleaned up at the box office all over again. While its $58 million domestic take may sound relatively modest, its $285 million overseas haul proved the film’s international staying power. Now Titanic makes its high definition debut with a Blu-ray release (available as a four disc 3D and 2D combo pack—reviewed here—as well as 2D only) that shows off its impeccable production values to great effect. More on the Blu-ray’s technical attributes later, but know that they are nothing short of outstanding. But what about the movie itself?
Structurally speaking, Titanic is sound, framed by the remembrances of the fictional centenarian Rose (Gloria Stuart). Rose survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 14, 1912. An expedition team led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) has been searching for the so-called “Heart of the Ocean,” a large diamond that was presumed lost with the sinking of the ship. News coverage of his efforts leads Rose, who was given the diamond on a necklace by her fiancé, to contact Brock. She proceeds to tell him and his crew the story of her time aboard the doomed ocean liner.
Cameron combines fact and fiction as we are plunged back to 1912 as Titanic sets out on her maiden voyage. He presents a set of clichéd characters that includes the young Rose (Kate Winslet), a 17-year-old whose family—having lost their wealth—has arranged for her to marry the rich Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Cal is an unsympathetic, classist bastard who seems to view his underage bride as more of a pet than someone he loves. Meanwhile, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a vagabond sketch artist, wins a third-class Titanic ticket in a poker game. After meeting Rose, who is contemplating jumping overboard to her death to escape her impending marriage, he quickly strikes up a romantically-charged relationship with her. After begrudgingly inviting Jack to the first class dining room for a meal, Rose’s mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) is anxious to purge Jack, who she sees as a lowly scamp, from their lives.
Rose feels otherwise, especially when Jack gives her a taste of how the other half lives, partying in steerage with the rest of the commoners. Hence begins the essentially superficial romance between she and Jack that is the heart of Titanic. A rather hokey upper-versus-lower class struggle ensues, as Cal and his evil henchman, Spicer (David Warner), try to keep Jack away from Rose, going so far as to frame him for theft of the diamond necklace. All of this plays out while we meet real-life historical passengers and crew aboard Titanic, including Captain Edward John Smith (Bernard Hill), feisty proto-feminist passenger Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), and Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), the ship’s builder.
Once the ship has her fateful collision with an iceberg (around two hours into the film), Titanic’s clichés and often ripe overacting are swept away by the virtuosity of the film’s final hour. Cameron captures the tragic scope of the disaster that claimed over 1,500 lives in astoundingly vivid detail. The sinking of the ship doesn’t play out in real time (the ship actually took about two hours and 40 minutes to sink), but Cameron devotes a good deal of time to it. The flooding of the various sections and the sight of trapped passengers (or those who had resigned themselves to their fate) are among the more haunting images I’ve seen captured in a fictional film. The sheer spectacle on display is scary, thrilling, and unspeakably sad—all at the same time. Jack and Rose’s final moments together have poignancy that transcends all of the puppy love that we saw earlier in the film.
While Kate Winslet was nominated for Best Actress for her work here, Leonardo DiCaprio was not. It’s a shame really, because DiCaprio’s performance is at least as strong as Winslet’s. Cameron made a smart move in crafting a pair of exuberant, youthful, fictional characters—one from the lowest class and one from the highest. Between the two, they interact with a wider variety of passengers and crew members than any real-life person did. Unfortunately, the “framed for theft” storyline is rather hackneyed and predictable. It’s a schlocky, B-movie storyline that ultimately keeps a good movie from being truly great. However, if you can get past the hokiness and emotional manipulation of the first two-thirds, the film’s tragic final act makes it more than worth the time.
Titanic looks like a brand new movie on Blu-ray in 2D, with a sterling 1080p transfer that does absolute justice to Russell Carpenter’s award-winning cinematography. Clarity is perfect and fine detail is rich and vivid, all while retaining a natural film look. The golden glow of many interior shots casts a warm yellow over everything that never detracts from the realistic skin tones of the actors. Night exteriors are equally sharp, to the point where some of the green screen effects are more obvious than in previous home video incarnations. The whole thing looks stunning from start to finish.
I happen to not be a particular fan of 3D and I didn’t quite understand the desire on anyone’s part to see a film like Titanic in a format not generally associated with tragic historical epics. I never have felt that the few films I’ve seen converted from 2D to 3D gained anything significant from the process. That said, Titanic looks remarkable in 3D, split in half over two discs. As discussed in one of the new documentary features, a massive effort went into the conversion, resulting in a different aspect ratio (1.78:1 for 3D versus 2.35:1 for 2D). Without any truly serious compromise to brightness, contrast, or detail, the 3D version allows an enhanced method of viewing the film. I wouldn’t say it improves upon the standard 2D, which is ultimately how Titanic was meant to be seen. Predictably, it’s the final hour where the ship goes down that provides the most dramatic 3D effects. If you’re a devotee of the format, you will likely be quite pleased.
In terms of audio presentation, Titanic’s lossless 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack will not likely wow viewers as much as the visuals. Surround activity is perhaps a bit less than one might expect, but that’s not a bad thing. This is a very balanced mix that isn’t gratuitously aggressive. During the first two-thirds of the film, the audio delivers primarily what’s needed: undistorted dialogue, front-centered score, and general ship ambiance. The ship’s engines provide impressive rumbling from the LFE. Once the iceberg is struck, the mix really kicks into overdrive. Eerie creaking and buckling of metal, as water fills the ship, ring out from different channels. Roaring flood waters envelope the viewer at times, vibrating the floor with its intense bottom end. The mix does everything needed of it, only drawing attention to itself when necessary.
For special features Titanic provides an archive of new and previously available material. No features are included on discs one and two (the 3D discs), but disc three (the feature film in 2D) includes the three commentary tracks originally recorded for the 2005 special edition DVD. Writer-director Cameron handles one on his own, the second features a wide variety of cast and crew members, while the third (and arguably best) finds historians Don Lynch and Ken Marschall discussing the actual facts of the ship, its contents, its passengers and crew, and its demise. Combined, these three tracks add up to one of the most comprehensive audio examinations of a film ever recorded.
The fourth Blu-ray disc contains two terrific new documentaries. “Reflections on Titanic” runs just over an hour and focuses primarily on the negative buzz that surrounded the production prior to theatrical release, followed by the rapturous critical and audience response. Many key participants are interviewed (including all primary surviving cast members, with the exception of DiCaprio). A look at what into the 3D conversion is here as well.
“Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron” is a feature-length (one hour and 36 minutes) piece that features a bunch of experts, led by Cameron, piecing together (to the best of their knowledge) the true story of exactly how the ship sunk to the Atlantic Ocean floor. It’s a compulsively watchable account, basically an elaborate update of the now-primitive computer simulation that we originally saw early in the feature film (shown on a monitor to Gloria Stuart’s Rose). Titanic historians, U.S. Navy maritime experts, and others work towards creating an accurate computer-generated reenactment of the broken ship’s descent. There’s also an interesting what-if discussion of how more passengers might’ve been saved, as well as what errors are in the film’s depiction of the sinking.
The rest of the features have been ported over from the previous DVD. Nearly an hour of deleted scenes, with optional Cameron commentary, are presented in 1080p. Under the header “Production,” we get a ridiculous amount of behind-the-scenes footage in the form of interviews, videomatics, visual effects, and much more. All of this material is in 480p. “Archives” has even more stuff (again, in 480p), including parodies, stills, trailers and TV spots, and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” music video. All told, there are literally hours of features to supplement Titanic.
With a truly stunning audio/visual presentation and two-and-a-half hours of new features, the four-disc Titanic “Limited 3D Edition” Blu-ray is a comprehensive release that satisfies in every way.