There's no way I could ever review Titanic the way I review movies now, constantly taking steps back and figuring out what works and what doesn't, asking questions about dramatic structure and authenticity and the value of certain scenes. I fell hard for Titanic on its opening day 15 years ago, and I wouldn't be a movie critic without it; as I wrote on the film's 10th anniversary, it was the first movie that got me thinking about film as a global industry, and set me on a path that led me directly, well, right here.
Even now it's still hard to look at the movie removed from the giant phenomenon that surrounded it. It remains the second-highest grossing movie of all time (fifth if you adjust for inflation), and grossed another $57 million with a 3D re-release this spring. 15 years later Titanic remains a powerful beast, an earnest and unabashedly romantic movie that, even after years and years of backlash and mockery, draws you in like nobody's business.
Rewatching Titanic on Blu-ray wasn't exactly a chance for me to revisit parts of the movie I had forgotten-- I know it by heart, and watch at least parts of it yearly-- but to see it sharper and more beautiful since probably the very first time I saw it in theaters. Titanic played for more than six months at my local theater, and the 35 mm print was in pretty rough shape by the seventh time I saw it in May of 1998; I missed the 3D re-release earlier this year, so seeing Titanic in impeccable Blu-Ray on my home TV was a thrill. That HD quality is also a litmus test for the film's ability to stand the test of time, not just in terms of effects-- which look remarkably good if not perfect-- but how the stilted dialogue and occasional melodrama work when you don't have the filter of an "old-looking" film to see it through.
There's no denying that there is some excruciating dialogue in Titanic-- the scene in which Rose grabs Jack's portfolio and first sees his drawings is one of very few in the movie I've been able to judge more harshly as I've gotten older. And the way characters fall along lines of good or bad, with Billy Zane's sniveling lip standing in for all of his character development, helps make Titanic feel more like a big cardboard diorama than a living, breathing story. But dammit, Titanic works so hard to make none of that matter. You wouldn't get the spectacular effects and perfect action scenes if you didn't also let James Cameron write all the hamfisted dialogue. You wouldn't get Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio's finely measured and passionate performances if you didn't have their characters taking all the unlikely steps to be at the center of the action. Titanic is the behemoth that it is, for better or for worse, and its rewards outweigh the pitfalls tenfold.
Yes, I'm biased. But I bet a lot of people who don't like Titanic-- who were the wrong age or in the wrong place to fall for it in the 90s, who remember all the bad parts and choose to ignore the good ones-- would be as sucked into rewatching this film as I always am, if they sat down and gave it the proper chance. Like it or not, it's a crucial part of our film culture, a big bloated mirror that reflects us-- even if it reflects James Cameron and his maniacal ambition a bit more. You don't have to love Titanic like I do, but you've got to respect it, and this Blu-ray release is the best opportunity yet to do kiss the gaudy ring of recent American film history.
I don't have a 3D TV or 3D Blu-ray player, but the 2D Blu-ray is gorgeous anyway, without taking away from the deliberately old-timey feel of the movie-- there are soft halos over lights and a polish to the film that are beautifully intact even in HD. The movie comes in a four-disc set, and despite the opulent reputation of the ship itself, it's thankfully a no-frills affair, the four discs tucked logically inside the case with no extra paper or other gewgaws. Two of the discs are devoted to the 3D Blu-ray, which is kind of a neat reminder of when I picked up the VHS copy of the film in 1998 and it was on two tapes. The third disc contains the regular 2D version, as well as three commentaries held over from the 2005 DVD release-- one from James Cameron, one from an assortment of cast and crew including producer Jon Landau and Kate Winslet, and one from historians Don Lynch and Ken Marschall.
All three are fun glimpses into a massive production, but Cameron's is indispensable. He practically goes through the film shot by shot and explains how all of them were done, describing where CGI and models and the massive sets met, acknowledging the historical details he fudged (you can tell one inaccurate door really grates on him), and even revealing some of his famous on-set temper, like when he squabbled with a costume designer and threw one of Rose's hats overboard.
The fourth disc is crammed full of all the other bonus features, though somewhat disappointingly, only two of them are new, the documentaries "Reflections on Titanic" and "Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron." Running over an hour long, "Reflections on Titanic" weaves together fascinating on-set footage-- the camera guys are all wearing scuba tanks!-- with cast and crew interviews, but given the level of access, you might wish for a little more nuts-and-bolts detail instead of the constant back-patting that goes on here. The second doc, "Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron," is strictly for those interested in the ship itself-- it documents his research into the ship's actual sinking, including visits to the wreck.
The details missing from "Reflections on Titanic" are much more visible in the older "Behind the Scenes" series of doc vignettes, included in the massive "Production" section. There you can find all kinds of other treats, like time-lapse photography of the set being built in Mexico, and an incredibly silly video made by the film's crew that's the closest this set comes to including bloopers.
Finally, an incredible 30 deleted scenes are also included, and they're color-corrected and scored as if they were in the final film. Some are insignificant, some are massive (like a fight scene between Jack and Cal's manservant, or an entire alternate ending), but in pretty much every case they would make for a worse movie. Watching the scenes one after another honestly made me like the movie less, so you might be better off flipping through them with Cameron's predictably insightful commentary.
Having owned behind-the-scenes books about Titanic written when the movie came out, this disc was a gold mine for me, crammed with content I'd never seen before about a movie I love. But with paltry additional features from the 2005 DVD release, it might not be as much of a draw for someone who's already seen this stuff. At the same time, if you've never seen Cameron's commentary, that in combination with the HD quality film is worth it alone.