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Ship wrecked

In defense of once loving Titanic

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Are you ready, Indy readers? Are you ready to go back to Titanic?

Titanic first opened in December of 1997, amidst a lot of fanfare over its dreamy stars, the enormous budget and James Cameron's manic enthusiasm. For 15 years, Titanic has oscillated in our hearts between admiration and ridicule, and now, on the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic's sinking, the movie has been re-released in 3D.*

A lot is made about the film's glaring weaknesses, of which there are many. Cameron has a gift for writing absurdly one-dimensional villains. Lines such as "I'm flying, Jack!" and "I'm the king of the world!" are dumb and stand out in our memory, but dwelling on these landmarks is a mistake. Titanic remains the best disaster film ever made. It's a historical melodrama and careful period piece of unparalleled scope and vision, damn it, and it deserves your fear and respect.

The romance: oh lord. Do you think Cameron understood what he was doing when he centered the drama on star-crossed teenagers? The real force behind the movie's financial success came from so many repeat viewers like myself. In 1997, I was 15 years old. I saw the movie in theaters not once, but five times. To me, my obsession felt deeper than that of a crazed teenager clinging to whatever fad they were selling us that year. I was in love with stories. I wanted to make films. I wrote frantic posts on a burgeoning internet defending Leonardo DiCaprio, not as heartthrob but as serious actor.

In 1997, I'd never been drunk or kissed a boy. I was acutely aware both of what I wanted and of what I was missing. Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (Leo) showed me what romantic love looked like. Jack embodies a made-up perfection. He's an artist who loves life. He's kind to old people and children. Their romance has a repeating theme of salvation from the brink. "You jump, I jump, right?" they say to each other, again and again. "Promise me you'll never let go." Jack always says and does the right thing, and he always knows exactly what to do. He isn't scared; he's instructive. He somehow knows all about how the suction will suck the boat under, and he tells her to never let go of his hand, to kick her way up to the surface.

Deja vu.
  • Deja vu.

It's nearly two hours in before the ship even crashes into the iceberg. Watching what follows is bigger than an ordinary movie; it's a mind-body experience. Creating real suspense in cinema is not easy. We're too smart. We either know what's going to happen because of history or it's just too soon in the plot for the characters to die or whateverand yet. When Anders delivers the news of the ship's sinking as a certainty, I felt hope replaced with dread, as though I were right there with them, hearing it for the first time.

The film is at its best during the progression of scenes leading up to the sinking. The passengers are blasé. They don't believe the ship can sink until it actually starts to, and what follows are a lot of confused, frightened people scrambling to not enough lifeboats. When the lights go out and the ship finally goes under, all that's left are hundreds of doomed souls flailing in the freezing ocean. Trying to describe it here is pitiful and lame, but take my word for it: It's one of the scariest and most devastating things I've ever seen.

I'm 30 years old now. Jack Dawson is just a kid. Today, Rose's evil fiancé, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), is a lot more attractive to me, and maybe not just because he's older. The film still moves me, but at different moments, in different ways. This time, when Rose pries her frozen hands from Jack's and he fades down into the ocean, I don't really care.

I've kissed a lot of boys since 1997, and they've all let me down. I still want a strong man to pull me over the ship's railing and navigate me through a disaster, but so what? It's a hope as dumb as wishing the re-release will have tacked on a happy ending, in which the boat doesn't sink. I know better.

*The conversion to 3D is a non-event and hardly worth discussing. It's an invention of marketing and adds nothing to the viewing experience except a mild distraction that's quickly forgotten. The value here is the opportunity to see the movie again on the big screen. I recommend saving a couple bucks by seeing it in 2D, if it's available.

Titanic 3D continues at the Carmike 12 and Village 6.

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