Titanic, TIME and Me

James Cameron's blockbuster epic returns to theaters in 3D. Does this romantic drama still soar? Or is it, as one crabby critic wrote long ago, dead in the water?

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20th Century Fox

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio

Titanic sails again to sink again. Hollywood’s costliest production ($200 million) when it was released in 1997, James Cameron’s drama about the sinking of the unsinkable cruise liner became the top-grossing movie in history — the $1.8 billion it earned at worldwide theaters was double what any other film had earned — and won a record-tying 11 Oscars, including Best Picture. Now it’s back, gussied up in 3D, to coincide with the centenary of the RMS Titanic’s demise on April 15, 1912. A new generation of moviegoers can discover what all the cheering and sobbing was about; and those of us who saw it nearly 15 years ago can put our old opinions to the test. Except for the 3D appliqué, Titanic is the same; have we changed?

(SEE: Titanic Stars Then and Now)

It happens that my review, in the Dec. 8, 1997, issue of TIME, enjoyed some notoriety. The piece ran as part of a six-page package on the film: a four-page story about its making, plus four columns by Cameron on his adventure and, the shortest element, my two-column notice. “The brilliantly realized visual effects are invisible and persuasive,” I wrote, but as “compelling romantic fiction…the film fails utterly.” The 100 minutes before the sip hits the iceberg — when upper-class Rose (Kate Winslet) deserts her predatory fiancé Cal (Billy Zane) for an affair with Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), the free-spirited artist in steerage — struck me as being mostly silly and ponderous. And some of the thriller elements of the second half were “substandard action tropes: kids in jeopardy, bad guys menacing pretty women, Jack manacled to a water pipe.” I concluded: “Ultimately, Titanic will sail or sink not on its budget but on its merits as drama and spectacle. The regretful verdict here: Dead in the water.”

That last line became my pet albatross for a while; a friend joked that it would be etched on my tombstone. (Only if I drowned.) One journalist, Matt Drudge in The Drudge Report, saw my review not as a simple minority opinion but as part of a vast corporate conspiracy. “The knife job” by “fool Richard Corliss,” Drudge wrote, “not only trashes Titanic… but he does it in a slight 6 paragraph shiv-between-the ribs.” He accused TIME of violating an agreement not to run an early review. And he quoted a “well placed insider” at Paramount, the film’s U.S. distributor, as saying, “There is no love, no love whatsoever, between Time Warner and Viacom’s Sumner Redstone…. Blood has clearly been drawn, and tempers are running very, very high.”

First, I didn’t choose the length of the review; that’s the space I was assigned — half of the space Cameron was given to review his own movie. Second, back in the days when TIME ran cover stories or extensive packages on big films, a review was usually included, as here. And third, I swear that the opinions expressed were all mine and not dictated by Time Warner boss Gerald Levin as part of a vendetta against the company that owns Paramount. The item contained so many goofy assertions that, the following month, when Drudge broke the story about Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, I dismissed it, thinking, That guy doesn’t get anything right. I later realized he was one-for-two.

(READ: Why James Cameron reshot the Titanic sky

That was a long time ago. My opinions on movies and moviemakers evolve, like anyone’s, and over the decades I have championed more Cameron films (The Terminator, The Abyss, Avatar) than I’ve dumped on (True Lies, Titanic). Entering a Times Square theater last night, I was eager to see the film afresh, to compare not just Titanic to Titanic 3D but me 1997 to me 2012.

Surprise! I had pretty much the same reaction: fitfully awed, mostly water-logged.

The careful conversion to 3D lends volume and impact to certain moments: when the passing iceberg spits out chunks onto the open deck, and when Rose swings the ax that will free Jack from his handcuffs. But in separating the foreground and background of each scene, the converters have carved the visual field into discrete, not organic, levels; a character sitting behind Rose may appear as if he’s in a distant room. In wider vistas, the background looks like back projection, or a process shot. The eye needs to adjust to the separation of planes, and to the slight darkening of the image that all 3D glasses impose. After a while, you get used to it, and the movie is the old Titanic, for good and ill.

I like the shape Cameron gave his story: framing the four days on the Titanic as the memoir of a 100-year-old survivor (Gloria Stuart) who was once the teenage Rose. A rare diamond, “The Heart of the Ocean,” serves as the film’s MacGuffin: a crew of deep-sea salvagers has been searching for the gem, but Rose secretly keeps it — and finally tosses it, in a gesture of her lifelong contempt for property and propriety, into the same spot in the Atlantic where her great love perished. I also admire the dramatic metronome Cameron employed. Viewers know that the grandfather clock of mortality is ticking as the passengers pursue their trysts and intrigues; but Jack and Rose don’t realize the limit of their time together, which makes the affair precious and theoretically poignant. The movie is a shipboard romance that docks at Death.

(READ: Gloria Stuart, 30s star with a Titanic comeback)

The two leads remain splendid. At the time, DiCaprio, 22 when he made Titanic, was navigating his first grownup role after distinguished work as troubled teens in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse, Marvin’s Room and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. His Jack is the perfect man-boy, fresh, slim, soft and pretty — pure golden charm for a ritzy girl from 1912 or a moviegoer of any period to fall in love with. Oddly, the post-Titanic DiCaprio closed the lid on that box of sunshine. His Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover admitted no carefree light, and in roles that called for a roguish charisma, as in Catch Me If You Can and Blood Diamonds, his performances seemed more an act of will than an easy expression of gaiety. I look forward to the actor’s take on Jay Gatsby, in Luhrmann’s film adaptation this Christmas, with equal amounts of fascination and anxiety. Can the 37-year-old star remember how to exude star quality?

Winslet, 21 at the time of filming, was already, perhaps always, a woman. Preternaturally poised three years earlier, as the teen murderess in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, she had essayed classical roles in Sense and Sensibility and Jude and as Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. Rose is just 16 or 17, but Winslet — with a claret voice, a smile like a sneer, and flesh as luxurious as that of a Renoir or Rubens nude — makes the girl a mature, driven creature, desperate enough first to contemplate suicide and then to take the love of a commoner as an emotional life preserver. The elderly Rose recalled her young self as a prisoner condemned to loveless exile: “I saw my whole life as if I’d already lived it.” No wonder the 1912 Rose clutches Jack’s hand and heart; no wonder she tells Cal (in the film’s strongest line), “I’d rather be his whore than your wife.”

(READ: Tweeting the Titanic voyage)

Poor Cal; poor Billy Zane. A mining tycoon, he should embody a superficial power and grandeur that impresses his fellows but which we, the perceptive audience, can see straight through. Instead, he’s a sadistic fop, and Cameron has directed Zane so that every gesture editorializes against his character. Frances Fisher, as Rose’s mother Ruth, gets a little more slack: in a well-turned scene, she explains that Rose’s marriage to Cal will save a noble family drowning in debt. But much of the movie’s first half is turbid, naive and dead-serious, an awkward collection of clichés from pulp fiction, ladies’ division.

The rare blockbuster that neither is a sequel nor allows for one, Titanic is really two feature-length films in one: the sailing (emphasizing the love plot) and the sinking (emphasizing the larger tragedy). Part 2 is the keeper, revealing Cameron’s strengths as a master of disaster. He freely ransacks every thriller convention — a great wall of water, a fatal flume ride, Rose wading through the rising tide to save her beau — and boldly invests in lunatic plot contrivances, as when Jack and Rose run down into a sinking vessel. The clear message: When a “ship of dreams” tilts until it stands up like a great water beast, we are in monster movie territory, and the narrative laws that governed Cameron’s Aliens or Terminator 2 can be applied here.

On those terms, the last hour of Titanic offers cinematic glory galore. A marvelous montage shows the iceberg’s damage to the staggering ship: a brandy glass crashes but makes no sound; an old couple embrace in their death bed; a mother tells a bedtime story to two children who will never see the dawn. Images of stacked dishes sliding off shelves, or of a woman’s corpse, seen from below, floating in a submerged public room, smartly convey the geometric and human anarchy. At the end, the camera canoes through a sea of cadavers, their glazed heads bobbing gently, as if in a water-ballet version of Night of the Living Dead. This part of the movie might be called Romero and Juliet.

(READ: James Cameron dives into the abyss)

But Titanic didn’t break box-office records, and lodge in the hearts of tens of millions of moviegoers, because it was a bigger Poseidon Adventure. No, the film was seriously compared to Gone With the Wind, the 1939 megasmash that, in numbers of tickets sold, is still the all-time No. 1 hit. Like Titanic, GWTW posed another romantic triangle — Rhett, Scarlett and Ashley — fighting for love in a time of disaster. But that trio of unsatisfied lovers expressed their passion and disappointment more sharply, and were more evenly balanced in terms of audience sympathy. (The whole thing also moved at whirlwind force, unlike the stately or dawdling first section of the Cameron film.) Made nearly 60 years before Titanic, Gone With the Wind provides a much more modern view of a dominant woman seeking a life partner.

At the Titanic screening last night, I heard some of the viewers laugh at the more operatic lines of dialogue. I wasn’t laughing, just perplexed, at how a 1997 or a 2012 audience — so restless for visual sensation, so ready to giggle at naked sentiment — could sit still through the movie, let alone fall in love with it. I know now not to consign Titanic to a watery grave, but I remain baffled by its appeal. I’m the agnostic visiting a cathedral where true believers pour in, beyond number, to declare their beatific faith.

For more about the Titanic and other famous disasters, check out the new books TIME Disasters That Shook the World and LIFE Titanic: The Tragedy that Shook the World: One Century Later