Review: ‘Titanic’ stays afloat with help of 3-D

James Cameron at a press conference for the 3-D version of "Titanic" in Tokyo.
James Cameron at a press conference for the 3-D version of "Titanic" in Tokyo. Shizuo Kambayashi/AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

If any film should be redone in 3-D, it's "Titanic." And if any filmmaker should be the one doing the redoing, it's James Cameron.

He's been a pioneer in advancing this cinematic technology for years now, from his underwater documentaries to the record-breaking juggernaut that is "Avatar." And so ironically, for a film that hasn't got an ounce of understatement in its three-hour-plus running time, "Titanic" in 3-D is really rather subtle and finely tuned. There's nothing gimmicky about the conversion process; it's immersive and actually enhances the viewing experience the way a third dimension should.

It's also gorgeous: crisp and tactile, warm and inviting - until all hell breaks loose, that is. So often when 2-D films are transformed into 3-D, they're done so hastily with results that are murky and inaccessible. Cameron clearly took his time here - 60 weeks, to be exact, with a team of 300 people. So while the romantic first half of the film remains more emotionally compelling, the disastrous second half is even more visually dazzling.

Cameron didn't rewrite the ending, or history. The maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic still goes down after a collision with an iceberg. As writer and director, Cameron has stayed true to the content of his 1997 film, the winner of 11 Oscars including best picture - and that includes his clunky script filled with hokey dialogue and broad characters. No amount of 3-D wizardry can make Billy Zane's villainous millionaire leap off the screen and seem like a fleshed-out human being.

What also remains intact is the earnestness of "Titanic," the absence of snark or irony, and the sensation that you're watching a big, ambitious, good-old-fashioned spectacle that can withstand the test of time. Sure, a lot of the "present-day" framing device material looks dated, but the budding, forbidden love affair between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet is as infectious as ever.

Let's recap the plot real quickly: Bill Paxton's character and his crew are exploring the underwater remains of the shipwrecked Titanic looking for the rare, priceless Heart of the Ocean pendant. Its original owner, Rose (Gloria Stuart), who's now about 100 years old, comes forward to say it belonged to her and share her story of survival.

Flashback to April 1912, and the launch of the world's biggest and most expensive cruise ship. Young, well-bred Rose (Winslet) is on board with her smarmy, controlling fiancé Cal (Zane) and her old-money mother (Frances Fisher). But so is the poor but resourceful artist Jack (DiCaprio), who's made his way onto the ship with a winning poker hand. Rose is more free-thinking than she looks, Jack is more charismatic than he looks, and in no time he's sketching her naked and they're doing it in the back seat of a car in the cargo hold.

You know the story by now, but the 3-D actually makes it seem new in some ways. The costumes look more refined, the sense of vertigo feels more severe, the rushing water feels more immediate.

That's another thing: If you're going to see "Titanic" in 3-D, see it with people who loved the movie the first time; I have to admit I was not one of them back then but found myself surprisingly more engaged this time around. It's so familiar, so full of lines and moments that are ingrained in the culture, it's just begging for "Rocky Horror Picture Show"-style interactions. Take DiCaprio's joyous exclamation "I'm the king of the world!" for example. You know it's coming but it's just so tantalizing, you may feel compelled to shout it along with him.

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