Refurbishing TITANIC

April 15, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

When it arrived in theaters the weekend before Christmas in 1997, no one knew what to expect from James Cameron's mammoth Titanic. The media was prepared to liken the movie - the most expensive ever to-date - to the ship. The iceberg, some thought, could be the latest James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, which opened the same day. Originally, Titanic had been expected to have the July 4 holiday period all to itself, but Cameron was unable to deliver a finished product that early. So, behind schedule and over budget, Titanic was shoehorned into the pre-Christmas roster, going head-to-head with 007.

Titanic won the battle by a whisker, but not with the kind of numbers that augured the long, unbroken string of #1 finishes that followed. Its opening weekend tally was about $29M. Considering the usual trajectory of would-be blockbusters, it seemed likely Titanic would amass about $150M (domestic). It needed close to $400M to recoup the costs shared between Paramount and Universal. By the time Titanic had stopped grossing money in theaters around the middle of 1998 (roughly a year after it was originally supposed to open), it had made $600M - the most-ever until another Cameron movie, Avatar, surpassed it.

I recently had an opportunity to re-watch Titanic in a theater, albeit in 3-D. (More on that later.) Some of what Cameron has said is true. The experience of watching the movie in an unbroken stretch (no pauses for bathroom or snack breaks) on a big screen is completely different than seeing it at home, no matter how good your home theater may be. Titanic is a grand soap opera. Reducing it to TV size, even big TV size, siphons off some of the grandeur but leaves the suds. In 2012, no one under the age of 18 is likely to have seen Titanic theatrically. A generation has grown up with it on TV.

Titanic remains a great accomplishment and a wonderful entertainment. Not for a moment have I regretted or re-considered my original four-star rating. Yes, the story is old-fashioned and at times cheesy. The romance is overblown, the villains are played too broadly, and some of the dialogue is laughable. But it's much in keeping with the great melodramas of Hollywood's Golden Age. When I first saw it in 1997 at a press screening some two weeks before the opening, I was swept away. Three weeks later, when I saw it in a packed theater, I was no less caught up. Now, once again sitting in a multiplex watching Titanic, I could not help but be enthralled. The phenomenon can be hard to understand until you sit in a 500-seat auditorium and allow the experience to wash over you.

This time around, I was more focused on the ship's particulars than the doomed lovers. That's not a criticism of Cameron's storytelling but praise for his technical acumen. I won't claim that Rose & Jack's story became background noise, but I was more aware of how forceful a presence the ship has. Lovingly recreated by Cameron using the ocean liner's original specifications, it comes to life. It is every bit as important a character as Rose and Jack, and its demise is tragic. For this viewing, I absorbed the d├ęcor, studied the layout, and generally allowed myself to be transported back in time.

The decision to convert Titanic into 3-D won't be viewed as a mistake from a financial standpoint - the 2012 re-release will probably make about $50M (or more) and it cost only $18M to retrofit the 2-D into 3-D. Creatively, however, it serves no purpose. Viewed on a purely technical level, it's about as good a conversion as one could expect. It's not a quickie hack-job. It's superior to the conversion of The Phantom Menace (which was by no means inept) and on par with the Disney animated features. Care has been taken. But the end result is distracting. The movie was not designed to be in 3-D and there are times when actions and moments are rendered awkward. Also, during the lengthy sinking, the 3-D is often subtle - so subtle it's difficult to notice. You can remove your glasses and see a barely blurred image. Some argue that subtle 3-D is the best employment of the technique (superior to the ever-popular "in your face" stuff), but is a little "pop" worth a $4 surcharge and the inconvenience of wearing glasses?

Cameron's reasons for supervising the 3-D conversion are unclear. He is cinema's loudest 3-D evangelist and he probably wanted to demonstrate that, when done with care and consideration, a post-production conversion need not be a shambles. Simply put, however, Titanic doesn't need 3-D, and 3-D Titanic doesn't offer nearly as immersive an experience as 3-D Avatar. It's a lot like colorization - a cheap and exploitative bastardization of the original. There's nothing wrong with a color film that's designed and made in color, but to take a black-and-white film and put it through a process that injects color - that's an abomination, no matter how expertly it is done. It's easier to accept a 3-D movie that has been designed from its genesis to be in 3-D than something that was made in 2-D then manipulated into 3-D in post-production.

So is it better to forego the big-screen experience and watch Titanic in 2-D at home or is it better to pay the surcharge and accept the limitations of wearing those glasses for 195 minutes? Neither is the best option and neither allows the viewer to re-live the experience that resulted in millions of repeat viewings, the most consistently high box office returns in recent history, and a boatload of Oscars. (Titanic was the first movie to tap both the previously-known teen boy revenue stream and the previously-unrecognized teen girl equivalent.) Fortunately, however, some theaters are offering a 2-D option. It's often only a single showing per day, but it's there. For those who want to return to Titanic in all its glory, that's the way to go. The 3-D is a gimmick unworthy of the man who commissioned it or the movie upon which it has been grafted.