With the new ‘Titanic 3-D,’ a reappraisal of James Cameron, technology, and why we go down with the ship

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'Titanic 3-D' opens today ()
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Mark Sussman

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The best way to experience the newly-enhanced Titanic 3-D, which opens today, is to sit in a half-filled theater on a weeknight and be mindful of the audience.

What you’re likely to find there is a giggly bunch, most in their late-20s and early-30s, about a quarter of them a little tipsy, as evidenced by the telltale clink-and-roll of empties set loose down the aisle.

As the title screen fades in, the audience will cheer and then laugh at the irony of its own enthusiasm—many people came, after all, to enjoy a fully ironized experience. But something strange will happen around the two-hour mark, about two-thirds of the way through the film: as the ship begins to sink the audience will grow silent, and the laughter will stop.

Since its initial release in 1997, James Cameron’s Titanic has existed, if not exactly in 3-D, then in something more than two dimensions. It was the highest-grossing film of all time until Cameron broke his own record in 2009 with Avatar. But more than that, Titanic has become synonymous with the Big Hollywood Movie: nostalgic, overpowering, simplistic and condescending, remorselessly sentimental, innovative in its use of cutting-edge technology, and endlessly inventive in devising new forms of emotional manipulation.

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Titanic has given birth to countless memes, it has been skewered and mocked, satirized, endlessly edited for commercial broadcast and touted as the greatest film ever made. It is a moviegoer’s fantasy, offering a hero and ingenue with whom we effortlessly identify, rewriting historical catastrophe as personal tragedy and condensing a mythopoeic fable about man’s hubris into something the size of Kate Winslet’s teardrops. It is also a cinephile’s nightmare, and for all the same reasons. What’s disturbing about Titanic, apart from its evocation of the irresponsibility, arrogance, and incompetence that led to the deaths of 1,517 people on April 14, 1912, is how good it is at setting the filmgoer at the throat of the cinephile, at exacerbating the wrenching feeling that we’re enjoying something we really shouldn’t be.

All of this is why your Titanic 3-D experience is going to have a lot to do with your fellow audience members. All of them will be people who have seen the film before. If you didn’t see it during its original theatrical release, or on television, or on D.V.D., chances are you’ve actively avoided it. Given its ubiquity, both as a cultural reference point and as a basic cable mainstay, the desire to see it in the theaters can’t simply serve as the need for a refresher—this isn’t like catching a fondly remembered Fritz Lang flick at Film Forum (though the scenes in the ship’s engine room clearly do echo the “Moloch” episode of Lang’s Metropolis). Titanic 3-D’s audiences won't be there because they want to see the film again. They’ll be there because they want to experience something from the past, to recapture or revise the original experience of watching the film.

Ostensibly the 3-D technology ought to add something to this experience, but it remains strangely transparent. Unlike previous generations of 3-D, which tried to make some objects pop from the screen or appear to fly at the audience, the new effects in Titanic 3-D primarily lend a greater depth of field. The rooms look roomier, the close-ups closer, the horizon more distant. The film absorbs the attention more fully, and in this its effects become almost invisible. Despite the ridiculous glasses, it’s easy to forget you’re watching a film in 3-D, which is to its credit.

So the audience sits, bespectacled, bemused and then eventually enraptured, or at least guilted into silence by the continual reminders that the disaster on the screen references a real disaster, that John Jacob Astor actually died in it and by the grim possibility that Propeller Guy might have had a real-world counterpart. This despite the familiar list of complaints: it constantly invokes ham-fisted historical ironies, as when Cal Hockley (the magnificently loathsome Billy Zane) informs Rose (Winslet) that this “Pablo Picasso” person “will never amount to a thing”; it reviles the rich for their lack of empathy for the poor while it congratulates the poor for recognizing Rose as one of their betters; it has Jack (a still baby-fatted Leonardo DiCaprio) talk to Rose with the same lilting, monosyllabic commands we reserve for toddlers and elderly dogs; it transforms Rose from a witty, well-read sophisticate to a radiant blob of Jell-O; ad infinitum.

And yet Titanic 3-D, with its 194-minute running time, eventually overcomes whatever psychic antibodies we’ve developed to defend against it. Eventually the theater goes quiet and we capitulate—we're worn down. Technology triumphs. In 1912, the Titanic was the most impressive pieces of technology on Earth, just as the slave ship, with which Rose compares the Titanic, was, as the historian Marcus Rediker has shown, the most advanced technology of its day. So too the film Titanic remains an immensely effective piece of technology, despite how poorly its C.G.I. effects have aged. It is designed to work on its audience’s bodies. Like Avatar’s villainous R.D.A. Corporation, it’s a pitiless resource extractor, mining tears, gasps, and sentiment.

Titanic’s implicit warnings about placing too much faith in technology are delivered by what was at that time one of film’s greatest technological achievements. While Cameron is wary of technology and particularly sensitive to our tendency to use it to extend our worst tendencies (The Terminator: hubris; The Abyss: war; Titanic: hubris again; Avatar: greed), he cannot constrain a simultaneous belief in technology’s recuperative power (witness his recent submarine adventure). Too much faith in technology sunk the unsinkable ship, but it also raised it from the ocean’s floor. When the rusting, algae-hung railings of the sunken ship in 1997 metamorphoses into the gleaming, sun-drenched decks of 1912, the younger, smarter technology of C.G.I. recuperates the errors of the real Titanic. When the Titanic of 2012 rises again, refurbished with brand new technology, the same recuperation takes place.

The pattern repeats itself in most of Cameron’s films. The Abyss highlights the dangers of nuclear weapons, but promises salvation in the form of superior, otherworldly technology. Avatar’s critique of reckless environmental destruction and the military-industrial complex seems to champion its hero’s commitment to the nature-worshiping, technology-less Na’vi—a commitment made possible through the  technological transplantation of the hero’s consciousness into a Na’vi body grown in a lab. Cameron’s wariness of technology, then, comes nested in a larger narrative, one that sees technology as something that amplifies different aspects of human nature. A more technologically advanced society does not necessarily become more brutal, callous, and avaricious, but it does often enough.

What Cameron’s films suggest, and what his ongoing personal investment in developing new technologies for film makes even more apparent, is the necessity for ambitious thinking about technology freed from the grips of profit or power, enabling us to use it with empathy, or at least with less nasty intentions. These aspirations constitute the appeal of Cameron’s films, and also account for the visceral reactions for or against or, more commonly, both for and against the sincerity of his projects. It’s hard to swallow the valorization of the empathetic possibilities of technology when you’re being told about them by a film that is a profit-maximizing machine. Still, these values are no less real for their shortcomings and they’re more interesting for their contradictions.

While watching Titanic 3-D, though, none of these ideas is very likely to come to mind. Cameron, as a 2009 New Yorker profile made clear, takes an inordinate pleasure in proving his critics wrong, or at least winning over so many viewers that he can ignore the criticisms. The films themselves have an uncanny power to shut down those critical faculties in the moment, to overcome and submerge the audience. When the room goes silent as the ship begins to sink, James Cameron’s investment in the recuperative power of technology, its capacity to bring out our empathy—if only in its weakest, most sentimental form—seems justified. We're going down too. Re-emerging from the theater after the lights come up, the nostalgia trip complete, the laughter can resume. In that laughter, Titanic 3-D offers comfort to the critically-minded. You can sink with the ship for a few hours, but you come back safe just like the last time.