Titanic 25th Anniversary

Titanic is a tale of lost opulence and human tragedy. It makes a familiar historical event frighteningly real, while simultaneously exploring how an upper-class dream dissolved into a nightmare of unspeakable cost. James Cameron's 3-hour-and-16-minute Oscar-winning epic returns to theaters for its 25th anniversary, now presented in 3D. I saw it on opening weekend in 1997, then again for this re-release. The added dimension adds considerably to the impact.

By now, you undoubtedly know the plot. It has come to be considered one of the great love stories of our time, for good reason. Prior to the original release, there was a considerable amount of grumbling about the choice to tell the tale from the perspective of a young couple. Why, people said, did they feel the need to put in a love story instead of just documenting the sinking, which is dramatic enough? The answer, of course, is that having two protagonists to follow adds to the sense of horror. Yes, we would feel awful seeing a film that depicted the loss of over 1,000 lives, but when we have an emotional investment in these characters, the urgency of the disaster is even greater. You comprehend to some degree how the people on board might have felt as they wondered if they and their loved ones would survive.

What strikes me 25 years later is how fully Cameron dives into issues of class. It resonated even more strongly now than it did then. Rose, as a woman of means, is expected by her fiancée (Billy Zane) and mother (Frances Fisher) to behave a certain way, whether it makes her happy or not. Jack, as a poor man, is treated as being less than worthy. So is everyone else in third class. When the crew starts putting rich people on lifeboats, they're literally kept locked behind a gate, despite water rapidly rising in their section. In these and other scenes, big and small, the movie is a scathing indictment of the inferior treatment of the impoverished, not just on the ship but in all of society. Because of the touching romance and the intensity of the special effects, failing to fully notice this theme on initial viewing is easy. It pops on a rewatch, though.

While the romance is nicely done, I don't think there's any doubt that Titanic's big draw is the disaster footage. Without a doubt, this film features some of the most realistic and spectacular special effects ever. Viewed in 3D, they're even more harrowing. When water rushes down a corridor, it looks as though it's coming right at you. When Jack and Rose cling to the back railing of the ship as it reaches a vertical position, the drop below them is stomach-churning. A lifeboat moving through a sea of dead bodies, looking for survivors in the water, gives the sensation that you're floating among them. Even non-catastrophe shots benefit from 3D. An early shot of Jack running down the docks to catch the boat conveys how massive it is and how crowded those docks are.

The effects are so believable that both times I saw the film, I was repeatedly hit with a horrific realization: This is true! People actually went through that! You can read all the books about the Titanic that you want, but when you see the event visualized, it boggles the mind. The pure terror that the passengers must have gone through is chilling to think about. Cameron tells a love story and provides excitement, without ever losing sight of the staggering loss of lives.

Two-and-a-half decades have done nothing to diminish Titanic's power. It 1997, it was an exciting epic. Now also 25 years older, I'm stuck by how masterfully Cameron pulls off three elements successfully – the romance, conveying the scope of the disaster, and saying something potent about socioeconomic matters. If any one of those factors was weak, the film would still be very good. Because he nailed them all at once, it's a flat-out masterpiece. And the excellent 3D conversion makes the movie more alive than ever.

out of four

Titanic is rated PG-13 for disaster-related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality, and brief language. The running time is 3 hours and 16 minutes.