TITANIC – Blu-ray review

Note:  In the following Blu-ray review, John Puccio and Justin Cleveland provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
James Cameron’s 1997 epic “Titanic” is among the biggest box-office attractions of all time (indeed, for a while it was number one).  Moreover, “Titanic” garnered eleven Academy Awards, including Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Visual Effects, Cinematography, Sound, Song, Music, Costumes, etc.  So, is it the best movie ever made?  Surely, not.  But is it worth buying on Blu-ray?  Certainly.  Especially in its newly remastered 2-D and 3-D Blu-ray configurations.  While I admit the film does not impress me as much as it does most other people, there is no questioning its passion and excitement.  In spite of its excessive length, it is a movie worth watching, especially the second half if only for the spectacle.

The plot divides into two parts, almost two separate movies, which helps account for its three-and-a-quarter hours duration.  In part one a poor boy named Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), who wins his ticket aboard the big boat in a poker game, and a rich girl named Rose (Kate Winslet), engaged to an arrogant snob (Billy Zane), fall in love, Romeo and Juliet style.  In part two the boat sinks.  Romance and spectacle:  What more could you want?

The framework for the movie involves Winslet’s character having survived the disaster and now an elderly lady telling her story to the crew of a salvage ship headed by Bill Paxton.  Gloria Stuart, a leading actress of the 1930’s, plays the older Rose admirably.  (Her makeup helps her look even older than she is, and she practically steals the show.)  However, by having her relate her story in flashback, it reduces any suspense about her character’s fate.  No matter.  We already know going in what will happen to the ship; why not know what will happen to the main character as well?  Yet for all its plot machinations and audience manipulation, the story succeeds.

By the close of the movie and knowing full well everything that is going to occur, I can still not help being at least a little moved.  The ending tends to go on and on, true, but it tugs a person in all the right directions.  It’s an amazing feat that a film so long, with characters who don’t exactly light up the screen like Gable and Lombard, can sustain one’s attention so well.  The romance is affecting, the shipwreck stunning, and the emotions high.  As I say, most of it works.

John’s film rating:  7/10

The Film According to Justin:
What’s the big deal about “Titanic?”  Sure, it’s one of the highest-grossing film of all time, gathering over 600 million dollars domestically; it enjoyed a phenomenal run at the box office, spanning months; and it’s heralded by many as one of the greatest epics ever created.

So then why do I think it’s just an average film?  At its core, “Titanic” is just an overblown, melodramatic period piece that plays more like a soap opera than a historical narration.

The story tracks Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a poor boy who manages to procure on the unsinkable Titanic through less-than-reputable means.  Jack is an artist who knows his fortunes lie in America and is following his dreams.  On the other hand is Rose (Kate Winslet); betrothed to Cal (Billy Zane at his maniacal best), she is sailing toward the confines of marriage to a man she does not love. Unsurprisingly these star-crossed lovers meet on this ill-fated voyage across the sea, fall madly in love and go through a roller-coaster of emotions that as any viewer knows, is all for naught.

Perhaps that is my biggest beef with the film itself:  its lack of poignancy.  Going in I knew the love wouldn’t last.  Even though I like the idea of crossing classes for love, this is one that can never be.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some brilliant moments contained within this overlong, melodramatic narrative.  While DiCaprio and Winslett never connect satisfactorily to this reviewer’s mind, they do share a moment on the bow of the ship, the famous scene where Jack teaches Rose how to “fly.”  Additionally, the early sequence when Jack rescues Rose from her suicide attempt works wonderfully, though more for the banter than any sense of danger.

I would be remiss to make any comments on “Titanic” without talking about the design.  From bow to stern, the unsinkable truly came alive for me in this film.  Beautiful and awe inspiring, I honestly believed that this was the ship of legend that went down those many years ago.  Unfortunately, it is populated with a bunch of amalgamated, stock characters who serve only to fill the gaps between Jack and Rose’s encounters.  Whereas the 1953 film was obviously less dynamic than its modern equivalent, I felt a greater sense of attachment for the people who filled the cabins, saw them grow and change, something that did not happen in Cameron’s film.

In retrospect, however, I do think I understand what exactly director Jim Cameron (“Aliens,” “Terminator 2“) was doing with this film; he was creating a cinematic period piece.  Essentially, “Titanic” is Rose’s memory of what happened on that fateful night and the events that lead up to it, and thus the limited perspective.  Of course that doesn’t explain how she knew so much of what happened to Jack when she wasn’t around, but that’s rather inconsequential.  Her memory, too, is likely marked by what she’s seen since then, and in order to process the details rationally, she has to omit broad characters in favor of simple ones.

The problem is that when the inevitable tragedy occurs, I didn’t feel anything for most of the people who died.  Aside from a few scenes (which are my favorites) in the lower decks where the third-class passengers are locked away from the eyes of the easily-offended, most of the passengers are neglected.  When they fall to their deaths when the ship splits in two, I felt nothing more than a pity they died.  A wider focus on the people in the ship could have helped elicit a broader sense of tragedy, but that is not the film that Cameron was making.  This is a simple story, one that is easily predictable, set against a dynamic historical background.

“Titanic” is beloved by many and most have at least heard of it, if not witnessed it themselves.  I passed on its theatrical release and rented it some months later with my brother, both of us feeling thoroughly underwhelmed and wondering what the hubbub was all about.  Though I’ve been overly critical in this review, I don’t think that “Titanic” is a bad film at all; I’m just not sure it is as great as everyone says it is.  It certainly earned every award it won because most of them were in technical categories, and the only other real contender for Best Picture was “Good Will Hunting,” which had its own problems.

“Titanic” is a phenomenon.  Those who love it will not likely be dissuaded by my criticisms, and newcomers will view the film with all the trappings that it’s accumulated over the years.  I just hope I could shed a new perspective on a film that will likely hold as much reverence in history as the event it depicts.

Justin’s film rating:  6/10

Given how long writer/director James Cameron worked on the Blu-ray 2-D and 3-D editions of “Titanic,” you would expect them to be good.  Certainly, the 2-D version I watched was excellent.  Using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4 encode, the video engineers obtained an exemplary, digitally remastered picture, framed in the movie’s original aspect ratio, 2.35:1.  The image is very sharp, and colors are bright and vivid, with just a hint of natural print grain.  Cameron casts much of the film in a golden glow, and everything about the transfer is rich and…glowing.  Like “Avatar,” it is one of the best-looking high-definition discs you’ll find anywhere.

The audio options are DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0.  In lossless DTS, the sound is clean, the dynamic range wide, the voices lifelike, and the bass thunderously deep.  In fact, the bass will rattle your walls.  Special aural effects like the groaning and creaking of the ship sinking, the rushing waters, and the waves washing overhead come across strikingly, with a broad front-channel stereo spread and excellent directional effects in the surrounds.  James Horner’s haunting, melancholic music and Celine Dion’s end-credits song are particularly appealing, given the soundtrack’s ambient bloom.

Audio addendum:  Videophiles have been raising a ruckus over a pop that occurs about thirty seconds into the film’s lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track, for many videophiles a disfiguring noise that appears to agitate them greatly.  Until someone pointed out this pop to me, I hadn’t heard it.  Indeed, at a normal volume level, it is almost unnoticeable.  But if you turn the gain up an additional ten decibels or so, you will hear it distinctly.  My advice, given that I doubt Paramount is going to replace the disc:  Listen to the movie at a normal volume level.

Depending on which of the two separate Blu-ray editions you choose to get, 2-D or 3-D, there are four discs involved.  For the 2-D edition, there is one Blu-ray disc for the movie in 2-D high definition, two DVD’s for the movie in standard-definition, and one Blu-ray disc for the special features.  For the 3-D edition, there are two Blu-ray discs for the movie in 3-D high definition, one Blu-ray disc for the movie in 2-D high definition, and one Blu-ray disc for the special features.

The 2-D Blu-ray presentation in each edition also includes three audio commentaries, one by director James Cameron, another by the cast and crew, and a third by historical supervisors Don Lynch and Don Marchelle.

The fourth disc in each edition is a Blu-ray containing the bulk of the extras.  Chief among them are two new documentaries.  The first is “Reflections on Titanic,” a four-part feature lasting sixty-four minutes, with comments from the director, stars, and crew.  The second documentary is “Titanic:  The Final Word with James Cameron,” a ninety-six minute, modern-day investigation of the sinking, with Cameron asking what he and his producers would change about the movie, knowing what they do today about the disaster.

Next up on disc four are thirty deleted scenes with an optional director commentary, lasting close to an hour, all of them in widescreen and high def.  I wonder if Cameron has any inkling to do a four-hour extended edition of “Titanic”?  Next is a whole series of behind-the-scenes featurettes; a “Construction Timelapse”; a “Deep Dive Presentation,” narrated by Cameron; a crew video called “$200,000,001:  A Ship’s Odyssey”; “Videomatics”; a music video, “My Heart Will Go On,” by Celine Deon; trailers and TV spots; still galleries; and three “Titanic” parodies:  “Titanic in 30 Seconds” and skits from MTV and “Saturday Night Live.”

The extras wrap with sixty-four scene selections; bookmarks; digital copy access (the offer expiring September 10, 2013); English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired.  Each four-disc edition comes housed in a Blu-ray case with double sleeves inside, the case further enclosed by a handsomely embossed, light-cardboard slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
The recreation of the disaster and the exquisite period detail involved are important, to be sure, but by personalizing the story of the world’s most famous shipwreck, writer-director Cameron has made “Titanic” more than an ordinary historical melodrama.  The sinking seems almost anticlimactic, a backdrop to the story of the young lovers.  By approaching a well-worn topic in a novel way, Cameron produced a canvas that reaches out to everyone.  Sure, “Titanic” is sentimental, and as gargantuan as its name implies, yet for all its drama it is intimate and passionate, too.  It does what it sets out to do, so, like it or not, more power to it.

Incidentally, legend has always had it that the ship’s salon orchestra played “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship went down.  True or not, it makes a good story, and one can hardly keep a dry eye when Cameron repeats it here.

“Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure playing with you.”