Cinematic classic 'Titanic' heads back to theaters

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The 1997 film “Titanic” is being rereleased today as “Titanic 3D” in theaters and IMAX. The movie became a cultural zenith upon release and was for over a decade the highest grossing film of all time. (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Standing 882 feet long and 175 feet tall and holding over 2,000 passengers, the RMS Titanic certainly fit its mythical billing as an unsinkable ship. Of course, it infamously and tragically sank due in part to the ego of the crew. Yet, the 1997 film “Titanic,” made by director, screenwriter and producer James Cameron whose hubris matched the ship, did not meet such a fate, as anyone who was breathing at the tail end of the decade can attest.

Instead, the film kept going on and on and on, just like Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the film’s theme song. Now, “Titanic” will return to the big screen in a re-release today as “Titanic 3D,” just in time for the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.

In a year when action films had just about completed their dominance of movie theaters, “Titanic,” a pure love story, filled the appetites for those looking for more than just fist fights and explosions. It became a truly word-of-mouth movie, grossing $28 million in its opening weekend and earning $20 million a week for nine more weeks. “Titanic” went on to become the highest grossing film of all time by a wide margin, until Cameron’s own “Avatar” usurped the title.

No boundaries existed for “Titanic’s” appeal; a love story wrapped in a discovery mission wrapped in huge film effects covered just about every demographic. When it finally hit home video, viewers could watch the film ad nauseam as long as they were to willing to switch VHS tapes in the middle of the three hour-plus movie.

In the months and years after its release, “Titanic” has been generally backlash immune, save for the usual parodies of cultural touch points. Few ever question its Oscar wins as they have with “Shakespeare in Love,” and cable channels still make it an event of sorts when showing the film (“Brought to you with limited commercials by ... ”). A decade on, there is still enough fervor and buzz over the re-release that “Titanic” may recapture its title as the biggest movie of all time.

Despite that and its long list of achievements, “Titanic” isn’t a terribly good film. Despite its bevy of quotable lines (“I’m the king of the world!”) and scenes (Who didn’t swoon when Rose [Kate Winslet] “flew” on the bow of the ship?), much of the film’s dialogue falls flat, saved only by the acting finesse of its stars. Many of the scenes are mere instruments for Cameron’s technical wizardry and don’t actually move the plot along. And the plot isn’t too much itself: the usual cliche of a love divided by social class.

Yet, watching it again, whether in IMAX 3-D on a re-release or on two 10-year-old videotapes, you cannot help feel a sense of awe when the ship lifts up in the ocean before its slow descent into the deep water. The film is made with such conviction by Cameron that bad lines and a wafer-thin plot fall by the wayside, and you become entranced by its epic scope.

“Titanic” was meant to be a Film with a capital F, and you wholeheartedly accept that while watching it. In an age of cynicism, there is something to be said for three hours of cinematic relief, thinking you would find a love like Jack and Rose’s, let that hand go, hold onto a blue jeweled necklace for decades and drop it when you’re 80 years old.

Much of the film’s significance and power now comes from its broader pop cultural context. You can yell out, “I’m the king of the world!” or hum the first few notes of “My Heart Will Go On” and people get it immediately. It’s almost as if millions upon millions of us were on the ship itself in seeing “Titanic.”

Even though “Titanic” had such mammoth success, movie studios have yet to try and repeat its formula in any major way. Instead of moving in the same vein as “Titanic,” movie studios have continued on with big action films, while independent films become grittier and smaller, both sides forgetting the universality and earnestness with which “Titanic” was made.

So it stands that even after 14 years, “Titanic” continues on as unsinkable as before.