Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Review: "Titanic 3D" offers an outstanding, respectful makeover of the beloved classic

Film Rating: A
3D Presentation Rating: A+

Never, under any circumstance, underestimate James Cameron.

We’ve all learned that lesson several times now.  “Nobody could make a great sequel to Alien!” “It just looks like a silly love story on a boat!” “Why are all the characters blue?” “What is he diving into the Mariana Trench for?”  Most of Cameron’s great accomplishments were initially met with skepticism, but time and time again, he overcomes the doubt. 

Even when keeping that in mind, though, I couldn’t help feeling wary heading into a 3D presentation of “Titanic.”  Originally filmed on 35mm in 2D, could it be digitally converted into 3D without looking like….well, garbage?  There really hasn’t been a good-looking 3D conversion so far from any filmmaker; the process looks flat and lifeless at best, blurry, dark, and incoherent at worst, and always comes across as an empty cash grab.  James Cameron obviously has an impressive history with the format, but I just didn’t believe even he could pull this off.    

Once again, I should have trusted Cameron’s judgment.  I have no earthly idea how he did it, but “Titanic” looks spectacular in 3D.  Not quite as immersive and awe-inspiring as a natively-shot 3D film like “Avatar” or “Hugo,” but damn close, and more importantly, the added dimension feels like a thoughtful, organic extension of the original work.  The film itself hasn’t changed – if you didn’t like it in 1997, 3D isn’t going to change your mind – but for fans, this re-release allows you to dive into “Titanic” like never before.  Continue reading after the jump…

I definitely consider myself a fan.  “Titanic” came out when I was six, just as I was starting to get enthusiastic about movies, and it was one of those experiences that solidified my lifelong obsession with the medium.  “Titanic” is epic in every way possible – the visuals, the characters, the set-pieces, and, of course, the emotions – and though I originally saw it on VHS tape, I was still swept away by the film’s scope.  It opened my eyes to the incredible feats cinema at its grandest can achieve, and I immediately became enamored with the story of this doomed ship.  Fifteen years later, little has changed, and that’s because you can feel Cameron’s enthusiasm for the material ingrained in the fabric of every last scene.  The Titanic tragedy clearly means something to him, and if you’re on board with how he tells the story, it’s bound to mean something to you too. 

He’s equally sincere in crafting the central romance between Jack and Rose.  It’s been endlessly mocked and parodied in the last decade-and-a-half, and though I can see why – high amounts of melodrama, cheesy dialogue, over-articulate messages, etc. – the relationship has always hit home for me because every second of it feels earnest.  Cameron believes in what he’s writing, truly buys into the mystical power of love, and if you’re at all inclined to dream a little bit when it comes to romance, I don’t see how you could ever deny “Titanic.”  Like many of us, Cameron’s a hopeless romantic at heart, and always has been.  Hell, my favorite was to describe “Titanic” is to call it “Terminator” on a boat: just swap out DiCaprio for Michael Biehn (wandering man who falls in love with woman while saving her), Winslet for Linda Hamilton (strong but dissatisfied woman who is saved by a mysterious man), and a large body of water for Arnold Schwarzenegger (relentless force of death), and it’s pretty much the same story.  If you want to reject the romance in “Titanic,” you’d have to make fun of Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor as well, and why would you ever want to do that?   

“Titanic” holds up amazingly well after all this time; even with special effects improving by leaps and bounds every year, there are sights in “Titanic,” particularly in the non-stop final act, that are simply unparalleled.  The breaking of the ship remains one of the greatest set-pieces ever committed to film.  And the performances – with the exception of Billy Zane as Rose’s evil, moustache-twirling fiancé, who was over-the-top then and is equally grating now – haven’t aged a day.  Winslet in particular is just fantastic from start to finish, a master-class in giving a great ‘movie-star’ performance (it’s still very, very strange that her Oscar isn’t for “Titanic”).  It’s also interesting to see how relevant the film’s discussion of class-structure has become; Cameron’s social commentary is hardly subtle, but you have to give him props for tapping into the zeitgeist a decade in advance. 

But if you’re reading this article, chances are you know all about the film – so let’s talk about the 3D.  Like I said, I didn’t go in expecting positive results, and I really was blown away.  Unlike other conversions, there is real, palpable depth to this image, and not the layered, ‘pop-up book’ kind seen in some 3D movies.  Sets, structures, props, bodies, and faces all extend into the frame with startling realism; this basic effect is often subtle, but it’s the foundation of good 3D – giving dimension to the details of the image.  From there, Cameron adjusts the depth of each sequence according to the scene’s needs.  Some stretches are so deep and richly detailed it looks like you could simply walk into the image and never return – the hallway shots from the final act are a great example – while other spots look a little flatter, such as Jack talking Rose out of killing herself.  In every case, it feels like an organic extension of the scene’s original photography, and always looks completely natural.  Even the best 3D often falters when it come to dark or nighttime scenes, but Cameron has overcome even this hurdle; the film’s entire second-half takes place at night, and there’s more jaw-dropping depth there than in any other stretch.  The only moments where the 3D effect falters are actually in brightly lit wide shots, but these instances are incredibly fleeting.    

Most impressively, Cameron has achieved real, authentic depth without sacrificing picture quality.  “Titanic” was shot on film, and I was worried that the amount of digital work needed for the conversion could scrub away the grain of the original source, and detail along with it (a la “Star Wars Episode I” in 3D).  Instead, Cameron has kept all the grain and warmth of the original film in tact, and even though the 3D version is projected digitally, much of the movie looks like a brand-new 35mm print.  He’s also kept colors in control; there’s none of the pesky dimming effect that often plagues 3D (if you take your glasses off, you’ll notice he’s bumped up the brightness so that when viewed through dark glasses, the colors will look accurate), no blurriness to speak of, and the entire image is as clear and vibrant as could be.  This is simply a wonderful, respectful re-master of the source material, 3D or no, and I think it’s safe to say “Titanic” has never looked this good before. 

Photo of the collectible "Titanic" 3D glasses
If you’re prejudiced against 3D – as I myself often am – I urge you to give this release of “Titanic” a try.  Don’t worry about the length; even at three-and-a-quarter hours, I felt no eyestrain whatsoever.  “Titanic” does exactly what good 3D should do; immerses us in the world of the film, brings us deeper into the visual experience, and allows our eyes to take in every last detail of the legendary production design.  This is thoughtful, nuanced artistry, and for once, I feel no remorse about paying extra for 3D. 

James Cameron knows what he’s doing.  Fear not.  Leave your doubt at the door and experience “Titanic” in this glorious new light as soon as possible.

“Titanic” is now playing in theatres everywhere in digital 3D, IMAX 3D, and 2D. 


  1. Great review, I can't wait to see it in 3D for myself next week.

  2. Good review. From what I've read Cameron did change one thing. He changed the star alignments in some night scenes because Neil Degrasse Tyson pointed out that they were incorrect for the part of the world they were. Not something most people would notice but still kind of an interesting thing that was changed.

    Cameron's movies (Besides Aliens) Have mostly been one trick pony in terms of the story. But he does tell that one story well and I haven't run across a movie of his that I didn't like on at least a superficial level (except The Spawning--(shudders))

  3. I just saw it and i must say that i ws thoroughly impressed. And i don't know why people rip on Billy Zane. Thought he did an excellent preformance as the villian of the film.

  4. Great review! I'm going to see it on Friday, and I can't wait! I've been excited ever since I first heard news of this a couple years ago. Titanic has always been a movie that really sucks me in, even from 3D standpoint, so I'm excited to see what the 3D has to offer.

  5. I just came back from Titanic- it was absolutely amazing. EspeciLLY the scene at the end when the last part of the Titanic begins to sink. I felt as if I was sinking with it!

  6. I just saw the 3D IMAX version in Torrance, California. Absolutely stunning from beginning to end. I normally get headaches watching 3D movies, and had no problems at will with this. My friend commented that she didn't even notice it was in 3D -- which is a true compliment to the process. It just seemed natural. I cannot figure out how the conversion was done but BRAVO to all concerned. Oh, and I saw the original several times when it first opened, and enjoyed it even more this time. Money very well spent, indeed.

  7. Sounds like everyone's enjoying the 3D version! Awesome! Good to know it's not just me!