To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the real-life tragedy, I waited until this weekend to see one of my favourite movies back on the big screen, and it doesn’t get much bigger than IMAX. And if any film deserves to be seen on the biggest of big screens, it’s Titanic.
This is the film that reversed the fortunes of its inspiration. The Titanic was the largest ship ever built. Labelled as “unsinkable”, it famously sank on its maiden voyage. Before it was even completed, the 1997 film “Titanic” had pretty much entered the history books as the biggest flop of all-time, having gone ridiculously over-budget, over-schedule, missed its summer release date and had a famously disgruntled cast and crew. It went on to become the highest-grossing film of all-time, winning rave reviews from even the sniffiest of critics, and 11 Oscars.
History has, however, been somewhat rewritten. Rather than remaining a beloved and acclaimed film, it has gone on to become one of the most mocked and derided films ever made. Many claim they never liked it to begin with, but plenty did, and there are times when I feel like one of the few people left who will stand by it. Yes, even the Celine Dion song.
If I’m going to invest three-plus hours in doing something, I’d rather go with it than cross my arms and sniff at it. Fortunately, the lengthy running time zooms by faster than most movies half its length.
It’s by no means perfect. It does have some seriously dodgy dialogue, and for a film that was so lovingly, painstakingly researched to the nth degree, it features some glaring anachronisms, most notably the sinking of some famous works of art that hang in museums today.
But even taking such goofs into account, there is still a lot of bang for your buck. Even those “rooting for the iceberg” can’t deny that the second half’s scenes of devastation are spectacularly realised.
But, ultimately, the film is not a story about the Titanic, it’s a love story that happens to be set aboard the Titanic. The historical detail is merely window-dressing, there to enhance the story- the romance between engaged socialite Rose and homeless vagabond Jack. If you’re not invested in their story, then the film likely won’t work for you. And the story of Jack and Rose captivates me every time.
Kate Winslet and the late Gloria Stuart both received Oscar nominations for their performances as Rose, young and old respectively. However, there are two other stand-out performances that deserved more credit in my eyes, and that’s without mentioning Kathy Bates’s terrific turn as “the unsinkable” Molly Brown.
First is Frances Fisher, who plays Rose’s mother. What could have been a purely villainous role is entirely undone in one scene where we finally see things from her perspective. Selfish, certainly, but sympathetic and understandable. Fisher plays every moment- mostly without words- to perfection, in every scene.
But the other performance has to be that of Leonardo DiCaprio. An actor who has done his absolute best to make people forget this movie, it remains, hands-down, his best performance. He injects Jack with so much life and verve that his enthusiasm for life is infectious, and it’s easy to see why Rose would prefer a “fruitless existence” with him to that with her mother and Cal. DiCaprio has gone on to become a rather samey actor, and it’s interesting to look back at this star-making role to see why the world fell in love with him in a very different role.
The film does have its own equivalent of Jar Jar Binks, in the thankfully more attractive form of Billy Zane. His Cal is lumbered with the film’s most facepalm-inducing lines, and all that’s missing is a moustache to twirl. Each time he opens his mouth, you wish he’d just kept it closed.
However, the biggest elephant in the room this time around is that of the 3D. I’ve been very vocal in my criticism of 3D, but this is one of the increasing number of exceptions. There were a few moments that stood out because of the 3D, and for the most part it was a pretty faultless conversion, although after the first hour or so you don’t really notice it anymore. Did it make it a better film? No. Did it make it a worse film? No. Either way, it’s just a great excuse to see this big movie on a big screen, where it belongs. And 15 years later, none of the magic has been lost.