In December 1997, like just about every guy in America, I was practically dragged by my significant other to see 'Titanic' in the theater. After reading so much about production troubles, the ever-increasing budget, and the release date being pushed from summer to the end of the year, I really didn't have much interest in seeing what I expected would be a complete disaster. It was the weekend right after Christmas, just before the sudden swell of the film's immense popularity, when the media and critics still expected box-office failure -- in spite of the mostly positive reviews and the good word of mouth it had garnered. Little did I know I was part of a major cultural movement that would prove early predictions horribly wrong and suddenly make the world, along with the studios, pay attention to a new demographic with plenty of disposable income. 'Titanic' would not only go on to record-breaking history, but it also introduced us to the "tween" audience, the group largely responsible for making the film an epic success.
And like most every other average guy out there, I was actually surprised. I wasn't really swept away by the movie or convinced it deserved the endless praise, but I was pleasantly satisfied nonetheless. The story of two people from vastly different social classes is nothing new. In fact, it's a rather generic and hackneyed plot — so common and unimaginative, it's downright stale. Coming from James Cameron, the mind behind 'Aliens,' 'True Lies' and 'Terminator 2,' I was dumbfounded such an inventive filmmaker would stoop to something so pedestrian for a movie of this magnitude, essentially affirming my expectation of a doomed production. Adding to my dismay was seeing the kid, Leonardo DiCaprio, who made a strong impression in 'This Boy's Life,' 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' and 'Romeo + Juliet' the year earlier. Kate Winslet, too, was a serious dramatic actress from 'Heavenly Creatures,' 'Sense & Sensibility' and Kenneth Branagh's 'Hamlet.' What were they doing in something as trite as this?
But like most every female audience member out there, my wife, on the other hand, was enjoying every minute of it. She could care less that the worn-out story had been used countless times before Cameron's 'Titanic' finally set sail on its voyage to cinematic history. She actually valued the plot's simplicity, a straightforward fairytale of star-crossed lovers fighting against social stigmas and eventually for their lives. And guess what? She was right. It's a universal fantasy which captures the imagination, perhaps even the desires, of a very large audience. Because we know the love affair of the free-spirited artist Jack (DiCaprio) and the restless, emotionally-constricted Rose (Winslet) is an ill-fated one, there's a natural sense of tension and doom that immediately draws us into the movie with little effort required. Cameron purposefully used a familiar melodrama that harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, perfect for the plot's 1912 setting and complementing the filmmaker's aspirations for a more regal and dignified period.
Yet, a great deal of my attention was placed elsewhere while sitting through the 194-minute epic romance, which consistently sold-out at theaters for nearly four months straight. And no, it wasn't just the lovely Kate Winslet or her memorable nude scene that kept me invested. I was swept away more by the striking cinematography of Russell Carpenter, adding to that classic Hollywood feel, and I marveled at the technical visual achievement on display. Admittedly, the love story helped tremendously in allowing my mind to gaze in awe at the production design and be astounded by all the historical details. I was captivated by the ship's majestic beauty as young love blossoms while an unfortunate disaster looms ahead, and I was spellbound for 90 minutes, witnessing the unsinkable "Ship of Dreams" slowly descend to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. Before I even knew it, I was magically transported back to that ill-fated night of 15 April 1912 and found myself enjoying the movie along with my date, tearing to the band playing their final melody and at the sight of seeing a captain go down with his ship.
So, like most every other couple out there who saw 'Titanic' together, we walked out of the theater, hand in hand, entertained by the same film and talked about it the rest of the night. At the time, the lovely lady accompanying me that evening had an ever growing interest in what I did for a living and wanted to discuss further what James Cameron had miraculously achieved. Over dinner, she shared many of her impressions and thoughts while I explained the video from the submersibles at the beginning is actual footage of the real RMS Titanic and that Cameron had the ship built to scale in Baja California. When I think back to that night, I think of one the best movie dates I've ever had in my life, and I also think that's the real genius of what Cameron had done with 'Titanic.' You're not merely watching it; you're experiencing it. For a brief moment, you're on that luxury cruiser heading towards America, enraptured by its splendor and man-made wonder, docking safely on the other side with the memory of a lifetime.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment offers fans two separate options to own James Cameron's 'Titanic.' The first is the 3D Blu-ray combo pack with four high-def discs, but no DVD copy. Being reviewed here is the four-disc Blu-ray combo pack, where the first Region A locked, BD50 disc contains the film in its original 2D version and audio commentaries. The second is a Region Free, BD50 disc with all the special features while the final two are the standard-def version of the film spanning two DVDs.
All four sit on flipper plates inside a slightly larger than normal blue keepcase and accompanied by a glossy slipcover with lightly embossed lettering. All available buying options come with a code for a digital download of the movie. At startup, the disc goes straight to animated main menu with full-motion clips and music.
Setting sail for its maiden voyage across the turbulent high-def seas is a prodigious and regal 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of 'Titanic.' Considering this is one of Cameron's biggest successes, I'm not all that surprise he would place a personal investment and take enormously great care to ensure the best possible high-def transfer. Previous editions ranged from an ugly non-anamorphic DVD riddled with countless annoying artifacts, to an improved, passable video that spanned two discs. On Blu-ray, the film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as seen during its initial theatrical run, and it completely blows those aforementioned DVDs right out of the water.
The high-def video is saturated with a rich display of colors, from the clothing of the cast to the smallest trinkets they use for decorating them. Primaries are lush and vibrant, practically leaping off the screen, while the softer secondary hues add a lovely full-bodied quality which brings Russell Carpenter's cinematography to life. Facial complexions appear natural with sometimes astounding lifelike textures, exposing every wrinkle and pore in the faces of actors. Contrast is pitch-perfect with crisp, brilliant whites that are energetic, allowing for some highly impressive moments of clarity into very far distances, which is most evident in scenes on the promenade decks. Black levels are luxurious and quite sumptuous with deep penetrating shadows and exceptional gradations in the grayscale, providing excellent dimensionality to the video.
The presentation is also one of the most detailed we've seen for a catalog title, showing razor-sharp lines in people's hair, in a various pieces of furniture, and along both the exterior and interior of the ship. Audiences can now fully appreciate the tremendous amount of work and time that was put into the film's making by the entire crew. The individual stitching and threading of the costumes is as plain as day, and each rivet holding the ship together can practically be counted, one by one. We can clearly make out the elegant toil and labor done by the production design team, from the detailed, ornate woodwork of the grand staircase to the more minimal, bare-white appearance of the steerage rooms. The extravagant decorations on the walls of Rose and Cal's room are precise and intricate. I could go on and on, but simply put, the frame is endlessly adorned with so much for the eyes to take in and looks immaculate from beginning to end.
Like its name implies, 'Titanic' splashes onto Blu-ray with a colossal audio presentation that adds another immersive layer to the 3D presentation. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack reveals the design to be a rather interesting one that starts off very subtle and understated, but it grows with the narrative into something quite spectacular and engaging. It's as if deliberately broken into two parts, much like the story itself, between a guided tour of the ship and its thrilling sinking.
For the first half, the movie is very front-heavy with only a few scattered pieces of atmospherics, nicely enhancing the soundfield at certain moments. Voices are detailed and precise in the center, and channel separation is well-balanced. With a clean, sharply-detailed mid-range, imaging feels wide and expansive, particularly during scenes on the promenade deck or while in the middle of large gatherings with plenty of convincing off-screen effects. James Horner's musical score spreads across the speakers with persuasive fidelity and acoustics while very lightly bleeding into the background.
It's not until the second half, when the entire sound system suddenly comes alive with thrills and excitement, beginning with some mild directionality soon after the ship crashes with the iceberg. As panic slowly ensues, passengers are heard running around, coupled with the noises of crew members readying for the inevitable. When the ship starts to take in lots of water, the rears display the loud cracks of wood and the bending of steel with enthralling discrete clarity. In the final moments, the screams of people, the splashing of watering and the death moans of the "Ship of Dreams" fills the entire room and envelopes the listening area. The subwoofer also takes a commanding presence with some deeply powerful ultra-low frequency effects which add to the drama and apprehension while the mid-bass provides an effectively impactful punch to other action sequences.
This first half of the film is an interestingly restrained design, but the second half offers an engrossing aural experience, making this a reference quality lossless mix.
'Titanic' hits Blu-ray with the same assortment of bonus features as 2005's three-disc special collector's DVD, which is actually nothing to sneeze at. The package is a treasure trove of goodies fans can spend a good deal of time with. The first disc holds the film with three commentary tracks while the second contains all the supplements. The final two as the standard-def copy. Missing, however, is the HBO First Look, an EPK, a Fox special piece and the faux 1912 newsreel.
One of the biggest box-office successes in movie history features a rather generic and formulaic plot about a pair of star-crossed lovers during the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. Nevertheless, the incredibly simple story is surprisingly the right approach for immersing audiences in the romance and glamor of the ship once called "The Last Word in Luxury" and its unfortunate plunge to the bottom of the Atlantic. This Blu-ray edition arrives with a spectacular, reference-quality high-def transfer and an interesting audio presentation that expands with the narrative. The package is also brimming with bonus features that will keep viewers occupied for hours, making this a must-own for devoted fans.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.