Blu-ray Review: “Titanic”

by Jason LeRoy on September 14, 2012

starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Bill Paxton, Gloria Stuart, Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates

written and directed by: James Cameron

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for disaster related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality and brief language

When I was approached to write my very first Blu-ray review, for Paramount’s long-anticipated 15th anniversary BD presentation of James Cameron’s Titanic, I said yes immediately. Why not? I’m a big fan of watching Blu-ray transfers of pre-HD catalog titles, often turning to my boyfriend and excitedly marveling that it “looks really great!” in an awestruck voice, as though each restoration was somehow the shocking home video equivalent of Meryl Streep watching herself become younger in the mirror after drinking the magical potion in Death Becomes Her (and by the way, where is that Blu-ray?). I unfailingly pre-order the Blu-ray version of every single DVD I own the moment it is listed on Amazon, because once you get past the initial weirdness of Blu-ray/HD picture quality (overly lifelike clarity that at first appears cheap and uncinematic), you quickly realize there is no better way to watch movies and TV at home.

But then I realized that by agreeing to write a Blu-ray review of Titanic, I’d implicitly agreed to watch Titanic again; to go back to Titanic, if you will. Titanic was released theatrically in December 1997, exactly one half of my lifetime ago, when I was 15. While the ubiquity of Titanic touched all of us in its own culturally omnipresent way, it was especially intense for the teenagers among us. After all, it is fundamentally a teen romance; I didn’t catch Jack’s age in my latest viewing, but Rose was 17 at the time of her experiences aboard the doomed ship (which also means she’s supposed to be 17 when she poses for Jack like one of his French girls, then fucks him in the back of that old-timey car moments before the freezing ocean waters rush in and conveniently wash away whatever they left on the seat).

Point being, Titanic’s technical achievement was (and is) impressive for all audiences, but its emotional core is distinctly targeted toward teenagers (or those with teenage mindsets). Those outside that target demographic will find little to enjoy about the thinly sketched and comically brief romance between free-spirited ragamuffin Jack and oppressed young socialite Rose. Being a teenager at the time of its release, I have a very clear recollection of watching Titanic-mania sweep through my small rural high school. The shrieking anticipation was at a fever pitch by the time the film came out; I can recall watching two of my female classmates literally work each other into tears just discussing the brief (and, admittedly, very moving) trailer clip of the elderly couple clutching each other in a final embrace as the water rushes into their cabin. Um. Okay, I may have misted up a little just typing that. Ahem.

I saw Titanic on the Sunday of its opening weekend at a podunk theater called Cinema World, located in the parking lot of the Washington Mall in Washington, Pa., a genuine destination at the time that has since devolved into what Chris Rock would call “the mall the white people used to shop at,” with its tragic selection of “sneakers and baby clothes.” But it was very exciting at the time, especially for me, because it was my very first gay date. I had met someone through a friend of a friend of a friend in another school (as was the custom for gay teens in small towns back then), and after a series of phone dates, we had arranged to finally meet.

So  I was a bit distracted during the actual movie, starting when my date walked into the theater 20 minutes late and asked me to come meet his father in the lobby, to “prove I’m not making you up” (which should have been a red flag). Once I proved my existence to a weary-eyed older man, my date and I settled in for the movie. But we were teenage boys sitting in the back row of a movie theater and I had been waiting for this moment my entire life, so we spent the majority of the movie not exactly paying attention and, you know, touching each other inappropriately. I mean come on, it wasn’t Schindler’s List.

From what I could see, the film still impressed me, but in that unimpressive way where everyone has resignedly agreed that something is a foregone conclusion. Titanic was going to be the best movie of the year. We all knew it. The Oscars were as good as engraved. But then, a week later, I caught a screening of Boogie Nights at the Beehive in Pittsburgh, and that just about detonated my brain. Titanic may have been the box office and awards season champ, but compared to the startling adrenaline-shot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s explosive California pornucopia, it seemed about as fresh and exciting as Gloria Stuart’s nightgown.

I revisited Titanic once more at Cinema World, to watch it with my mother and brother. We were late getting to the theater (or at least Titanic-late, meaning we failed to arrive a half hour early despite the film having been out for at least a month). Consequently, we had to sit in the very front row for all three-plus hours. It was the opposite of my first experience of the film in every conceivable way. And, if memory serves, that was the last time I saw Titanic in its entirety.

As it was for the rest of the country, Titanic was still a constant fixture in my life for at least the next six months. The legend of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” (she had a cold when she recorded it!) grew with each passing day, leading up to that infamous moment when she crazily thumped the “Heart of the Ocean” necklace while singing at the Oscars. And after awards season, there was the first home video release. I worked as a clerk at a video store, Parkside Video, at the time, and Titanic was the only film we ever sold directly to customers as a pre-order. We even painted it on the window — BUY TITANIC HERE! And people did. We were up to our asses in those giant double-VHS copies of the movie for weeks once they arrived, waiting for their breathless new owners to claim them. But still, I resisted the temptation to watch it again.

Cut to this past Sunday, when I organized a small gathering of friends to sit through Titanic with me for the first time in 15 years (I’ll be damned if I’m watching that whole thing alone). And as the film started, with its grainy newsreel-style opening credits and that goddamn Irish flute lilting James Horner’s immortal melody, I have to admit that I was immediately transported. This was surprising, because in my mind, Titanic had come to represent everything overexposed and saccharine about Oscar-bait blockbuster dramas. I expected to see the film that my teenage self had shrugged off to feel superior to those around me. But as I sat and watched, I was shocked to find myself being drawn in.

Titanic is a legitimately absorbing and near-hypnotic film to experience, pulling you in with a powerful undertow that perseveres in spite of its by-the-numbers tragedy-porn story and genuinely, seriously, astoundingly terrible dialogue (much of which falls to Billy “God, not those finger paintings again” Zane to deliver, although Kate Winslet certainly earned her Oscar nomination by reciting lines like “You unimaginable bastard!” and “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of mystery” with a straight face). James Cameron was reportedly furious that his screenplay was not recognized with an Oscar nomination, and it was certainly a conspicuous and well-deserved snub in the film’s avalanche of 14 nominations. There is also the matter of the two scenes on the bow of the ship, with those iconic quotes I fear will outlive all of us in their notoriety. You know the ones I mean. The ones that have ruined the lives of cruise ship staffs everywhere. We must never forgive James Cameron for forcing those lines upon us.

But all that aside, Titanic holds up surprisingly well. It remains a startlingly effective and even bracing film, even if much of its final hour feels like a constant loop of Rose crawling out of lifeboats, running down one hallway after another with Jack, and cruelly yelling at the ship’s employees even though they are just doing their jobs and clearly going to die. Its majestic sets and special effects hold up to the unforgiving scrutiny of a 1080p Blu-ray transfer. Well, 99% of it does. There’s that one shot of Jack and Rose running in slo-mo down a watery hallway where Cameron had to digitally insert separate shots of DiCaprio’s and Winslet’s faces. Remember that shot? Always looked a little weird, like the faces didn’t fit the heads and were shot in different lighting? It seems like an egregious oversight that Cameron didn’t retouch that sequence for the Blu-ray release, because it now looks oh-my-god-we-have-to-rewind-that crude in its execution.

I am not yet equipped to speak to the finer technical details of a Blu-ray disc, nor do I have the time to evaluate the cavalcade of extras that have generously been added to this release. For that, I will refer you to my most trusted purveyor of Blu-ray news and reviews, Blu-ray.com, and their superlative and detailed review. But if you’re like me and have strenuously avoided Titanic for the last fifteen years, as if watching it again would somehow validate it, make it okay that we all had to deal with it so much for so long, I would encourage you to consider giving its Blu-ray release a look. It’s been long enough; it can’t hurt you anymore. Then after that, never again. I promise.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tamie Lynne September 14, 2012 at 5:48 pm

you left out the most important detail mr. leroy. the detail about which that the exact amount of time that the ship hit the burg until it went down in the movie is the exact amount of time that it took in real life for the ship to go down. sigh.

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