Some things not to expect when you see the new 3-D version of James Cameron's 1997 Titanic: The prow of the Titanic does not threaten to cleave your forehead; the night-time flares do not burn your eyeballs; nor do Kate Winslet's naked breasts leap off the screen in the sketching scene.
Overall, for a blockbuster movie about one great big thing hitting another great big thing, the new film shows distinctly upper-deck restraint.
Titanic 3D is not a new Titanic, just the same old one with a new coat of sparkle paint and with perhaps a half-dimension of new visual complexity.
Unlike those first wintry showings back in 1997, the audience at Monday night's less-than-capacity sneak-preview screening, behind their dark glasses, seemed respectfully interested rather than emotionally overwhelmed.
They all seemed familiar with the melodrama about Jack the vagabond painter (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose the runaway fiancée (Kate Winslet), on the famed ship carrying a massive cargo of early 20th-century hubris.
What does the 3-D up-conversion do? Most obviously, the 3-D enhancement heightens the awareness to simultaneous actions in the foreground and background planes of the screen, notably during the long sequence of panicked crowds trying to get off the tilting ship.
More subtly, the 3-D emphasizes the scale and space within the ship, and reminds us how the romance between Jack and Rose is really a stand-in for the love affair between Cameron and the legendary sunken ship.
No doubt, the characters are clichéd (the pauper, the princess and the wicked overseer might have been lifted from Disney's Aladdin), and the dialogue is often rough sailing. (Jack, on seeing a Monet, says: "Look at his use of colour here. Isn't he great?")
But Cameron's screenplay is brilliant in one way: The upstairs-downstairs romance, with the two milk-fresh young stars, is a terrific way to bring the catastrophe to life, by allowing us to tour, and re-tour, the ship's interior, both in its pristine and destroyed states. Unlike, say, Michael Bay, Cameron is a fiend for clarity and we always know where we are on the Titanic.
At the beginning of the film, a scientist (Lewis Abernathy) does an illustrated drawing of the ship's sinking for the benefit of the 101-year-old Rose (Gloria Stuart). Then she narrates her story, with the salvage crew providing a surrogate audience. The use of this enfolded narrative structure echoes the experience of the ship itself, with its nesting inner spaces, from the stygian depths of the boiler rooms where the coal shovellers work, to the claustrophobic corridors in steerage to the back of the car where Rose and Jack make love.
While real 3-D might have made the ship's presence even more important, the up-conversion is meticulous, more suggestive of the use of interiors in Martin Scorsese's Hugo than the fishbowl approach used in Cameron's 3-D milestone, Avatar.
The lens of retrospect also changes the experience of Titanic in a couple of significant ways. The scene of people taking the long leap to their deaths from the vertical stern of the ship has a different resonance after Sept. 11, 2001.
So does the scene of Jack and Rose, clinging to their door in the icy North Atlantic seas, where the actors' skin tones are, unmistakably, Avatar-blue.
- Written and directed by James Cameron
- Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet
- Classification: PG
- 3 stars