Paramount // 1997 // 194 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge David Rogers (Retired) // March 1st, 2000
"Titanic was called 'The Ship of Dreams', and it was. It really was."
Titanic holds the rare distinction of not only being one of the best box office films in history, but also one of the most awarded. In fact, it currently holds the number one slot in both the North American and worldwide historical box office rankings, and also earned eleven Academy Awards. This alone gives it a mark of unusual achievement. Hardly ever does award recognition follow success at the box office, or do dollars follow the award circuit winners. Titanic set new levels by which future films will be judged for one simple reason. It was that special.
Now I'm quite sure I lost several readers with that opening paragraph. In fact, I can hear the cursing and tired head shaking from here. Allow me to do a little of my own. While it has become extremely fashionable to bash Titanic, I also suspect the bashing is a bit more overblown than the media would otherwise let on. There is no way a film could turn in over six hundred million dollars in North American business on the wallets of giggling teenage girls and teary eyed housewives alone. While I never underestimate the sheer force of will and insane energy level of teenage girls, I also don't think they alone had six hundred million in their pockets in 1997/1998.
James Cameron (Terminator, Aliens, True Lies) is a director who's long been known to genre fans. Specifically, science fiction fans. Long dismissed by those outside the relatively insider world of sci-fi entertainment as just another effects and alien director, Cameron has firmly cemented his richly earned status as one of the best directors alive in the minds of the mainstream, and for that I'm very pleased. His talent lies in his ability to seamlessly blend effects with actors and live action footage, to find heart and soul in the midst of what lesser directors would reduce to trite efforts of direct-by-the-numbers. Don't take my word for it; his body of work speaks for itself. He has long been anything but just an action and excitement director. And thanks to Titanic, he'll be able to tell new stories in the future without having to do quite as much begging.
On Titanic, Cameron gave the world one of the first mainstream examples of what the new digital effects technologies could be used for in traditional dramatic filmmaking. Not to create futuristic alien landscapes, or strange super humans, but rather to create in photo realistic quality a ship and a place nearly a century old. The production values in Titanic, which received considerable press prior to release, enabled Cameron to accurately create the ship, the time, the people, the trappings, every little detail down to the fasteners on clothing or the prevalence of the servant class. And when the disaster we're all waiting for finally strikes, you really believe you're watching it as it happened. The images on screen create a real and immersive illusion of a luxury passenger liner sinking with over twenty-two hundred people aboard her.
Stellar work was done by the entire cast, starting with the two star-crossed lovers fated to a tragic end. Both Kate Winslet (Hideous Kinky, Hamlet, Sense and Sensibility) and Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries, Romeo + Juliet) were relative unknowns at the time of shooting, DiCaprio somewhat less so than Winslet. However, both turned in marvelous performances under Cameron's tutelage. So too, Billy Zane (Tombstone, Twin Peaks), Kathy Bates (Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes, Primary Colors), and Bill Paxton (Aliens, Apollo 13, Tombstone) each give excellent efforts in their roles, helping the tapestry come alive.
Gloria Stuart (The Invisible Man, The Three Musketeers, The Love Letter), however, is the glue that holds this story together. Since the story is told as a flashback of "old Rose" reliving the disaster and the events preceding it, and one of the two key scenes that make or break the film's entire story is utterly dependent on the character of old Rose, the casting was a critical decision. Fortunately, Stuart delivered a magnificent performance that sets the mood for, and perfectly cements, the film experience for the viewer. She received a host of nominations, won many of them, and unfortunately lost the Oscar. But she remains a pivotal piece of the success of Titanic's storytelling.
Okay, so either you're someone who nods with a dreamy fond memory of the film, or you're someone who sneers and laughs. One more review won't change that derision into love. But an awful lot of people seem to like the film, and in my opinion, that should count for something. So let's just move onto the disc, shall we?
The disc is a definite improvement over the previous VHS edition. For starters, you no longer have to rise to switch tapes after the captain utters the fateful line "Well, I believe you may get your headlines, Mr. Ismay." Now the disc simply switches as smoothly as ever from chapter 17 to chapter 18. No problems at all. If that's not a reason to buy DVD, I don't know what is.
The video transfer, while not anamorphic, is quite well done considering. Edges, colors, everything is strong and sharp. Elements of artifacting are nowhere to be found. Considering the nature of many scenes involved in the disaster sequences in the second half of the film, this is no small thing to say. The unique color palette chosen by Cameron for much of the film further leads to possible problems, but the transfer comes through wonderfully.
While the video is nice, even lacking anamorphic, the disc has an incredible audio mix. Simply incredible. Those of you fortunate enough to enjoy a Dolby AC-3 system in your home theater will marvel at the rich and deep sound mix. Surrounds and low frequency make each scene truly immersive. Voices and other sounds come from the left and right of the soundstage. Titanic herself looms across the screen with impressive presence, seeming to wrap around you as she thunders through the ocean. And once again, the disaster sequences will really give you cause to delight.
Again, though this is so often a repeating record these days, the disc lacks anamorphic video. That's an extremely unfortunate oversight, as the already fine transfer could have been that much better by the additional attention.
Further, this disc continues Paramount's fine tradition of bare bones releases. Of all the titles that could have richly deserved a commentary track, making of featurettes, cast interviews, behind-the-scenes videos and everything else that can be packed into a DVD, this disc is surely one of those. Alas, Paramount chose to simply throw the title out into circulation, another missed opportunity to provide a truly worthy product to fans. In case you're wondering, the disc gives you the film, chapter selections, a setup screen for selecting audio and subtitle options, and the theatrical trailer. That's pretty much it. There aren't even the nearly standard "fluff" extras like cast biography screens. Oh well.
Ultimately, Titanic is a film about love. It's a Shakespearean tragedy told to the backdrop of a well-known disaster that manages to bring the horror and fear of such immense death to the viewer in a personal way. We all read stories in the news everyday about this horrible tragedy or that; but to see fifteen hundred people drown and freeze to death in the North Atlantic before our eyes, it's quite something to see. It's remarkably similar to what Steven Spielberg accomplished with Saving Private Ryan. One of the best films Hollywood has ever released, I feel safe in making that statement. Again, it's fashionable to bash Titanic, but it remains a stunning cinematic achievement at every level involved.
Paramount is issued the standard rebuke about their lack of interest in the format (their recent bare-bones releases of The Adams Family discs show they still lack any real desire). The court continues to hold hope the studio will come into the mainstream of the DVD community. Until such a time, however, we're left hoping.
The film itself is praised at all levels. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2000 David Rogers; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 194 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailer
* Movie Official Site
* Titanic Official Site