Stereoscopic treatment reveals film's rich dimensions

One of the ironies of James Cameron’s “Titanic” is that it is a monument to the very qualities its story implicitly critiques: mad technological ambition, irrepressible showmanship, a love of size and spectacle for their own sake. In the 15 years since his 1997 blockbuster sailed into the history books, Cameron has remained an innovator among artists, as well as a filmmaker with the darnedest extracurricular activities: His recent 6.8-mile dive found him shooting 3D images on the ocean floor.

On March 25, Cameron literally sank to uncharted depths. This week, he takes his pioneering instincts to obsessive new heights with the theatrical re-release of “Titanic,” presented in a 3D version that represents the most exhaustive and sophisticated stereoscopic conversion yet undertaken by a studio. The rollout has generated buzz and anticipation aplenty among audiences, even as the timing of the whole affair — arranged to coincide with the centennial of the Titanic’s sinking — has struck some observers as being in questionable taste.

Faulting Cameron and this film in particular on grounds of taste is, of course, nothing new. Due to the sheer magnitude of “Titanic’s” achievement (11 Oscars and nearly $2 billion in worldwide B.O.), its detractors have long regarded it as a convenient emblem of bloated Hollywood excess, a celebration of crass commercialism and technology over the forces of humanity and art. Having just seen “Titanic” for the first time in 15 years, I beg to differ.

This triple-decker, three-hour-plus entertainment is as taut and rigorous a piece of filmmaking as any studio has produced, an epic that plays like a thriller and vice versa, and the work of a director in full command of his material and his abundant resources. And the picture’s digital remastering and 3D conversion, a highly effective enhancement achieved at great length (60 weeks) and expense ($18 million), unexpectedly heightens the rich, even subtle human dimensions that were present in the film all along.

A vociferous critic of sloppy post-production upgrades, Cameron recently singled out Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” as boasting the most impressive 3D cinematography he’d ever seen. It’s instructive to compare the two films, and not just because of the visual similarities between “Titanic’s” massive machinery below deck and the gears and pulleys in “Hugo’s” clock tower; in both pictures, the 3D is richly immersive, noticeable but not insistent throughout, and the strength of its application is smartly modulated in relation to what’s going on in a given scene.

It will surprise no one to hear that the surreal images of “Titanic’s” second half are all the more harrowing and violent to witness in 3D. The cascading walls of water come surging at you more fearsomely than before; a simple shot of china plates falling and shattering has an unnerving tactility. When the body of the ship turns vertically upright at the spectacle’s climax, the effect has never been so vertiginous, the distance between stern and sea so gaping. Be forewarned: One of the cinema’s most visceral and frankly morbid evocations of mass death has become all the more so.

The happier surprise is that the stereoscopic improvements have been applied with equal intelligence, if less obvious impact, to the human melodrama that occupies the film’s first 98 minutes. It takes an attentive eye to appreciate the subtlety of what Cameron is doing when he employs 3D to accentuate the gossiping socialites crowding the frame around Kate Winslet’s Rose, capturing her sense of suffocation in palpable terms. The movie uses depth and claustrophobia to very different effect during the raucous party sequence set in the boat’s third-class quarters, which encourages viewers to lose themselves in a hubbub of human activity.

To be sure, the irresistible cornball romance enacted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Winslet neither gains nor loses much intimacy in the new format; it would take a crasser sensibility than Cameron’s to have that sweaty palm (you know the one) come flying into the viewer’s face at the height of the couple’s sexual passion. And with due respect to the ever-radiant leads, the 3D process serves to underscore the Titanic itself as the film’s true star, an impossibly gorgeous creation that looms ever larger in the viewer’s imagination here.

Russell Carpenter’s deep-focus lensing of the ship’s opulent interiors was impressive enough in 2D, but the depth of field Cameron achieves in the enhanced format is remarkable. The corridors seem to go on for miles into the distance; a tracking shot that passes through a doorway and swoops over a grand staircase is a thing of suave majesty. One is reminded anew that before it was a tragic ruin, the ship was a luxurious world unto itself, a realization that lends weight and scope to the impending disaster.

There are stray moments when a character in the foreground obtrudes like a holographic cutout, or a depth-enhanced object is jarringly cut off by the edge of the frame. But for a picture that wasn’t originally shot in 3D, it’s remarkable how intuitive the end result feels; the overall effect is to render “Titanic” not just more technically imposing but more emotionally enveloping than before. Paradoxically, it also renews one’s appreciation of Cameron’s initial achievement: Without the beauty and crispness of the compositions, the coherence of the editing, and the utter clarity of the story’s ever-shifting perspectives, no amount of visual embellishment would have been so effective.

It’s been 15 years since “Titanic” became an unprecedented, widely embraced and much-parodied moviegoing phenomenon. Given that a mere mention of the title can still elicit knee-jerk derision, usually aimed at Celine Dion’s singing or the fact that Cameron isn’t exactly Edith Wharton when it comes to analyzing class warfare, it’s worth noting that the film holds up beautifully.

To see it again is to realize, somewhat depressingly, that while studios now routinely spend fortunes in excess of “Titanic’s” $200 million production budget, they are not nearly so willing to nurture filmmakers of Cameron’s caliber and chutzpah. Cameron may not have reinvented his film with a 3D makeover, but he has remained true to an essential filmmaking philosophy shared by “Titanic” and all other epics that have advanced the medium: the glory of making the old feel new again.

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