Rewatching this film for the first time in nearly a decade (or possibly less, I really can’t remember), something happened that I hadn’t anticipated – I was surprised by it. You see, for whatever reason, I had remembered this film being a grand epic, something in the vein of Avatar, for example, and there were scenes where I kept thinking – “this isn’t going as I expected.” I kept thinking, kept waiting for the music to turn up real loud, kept waiting for it to be more “emotional” and “powerful” and yet it didn’t happen. Already I was thinking, this movie is somewhat inert – but then when I got to Jack’s death scene (spoilers?), I realized – this is by design. This big, $200 million film, that’s got all these big sets and CGI and a huge cast and everything, it’s got a grand score by James Horner – this film is in fact quite small, and I really appreciated that this time around. In fact, if anything, it’s made me like the film even more than I probably did before.
Let’s not get carried away, however: This is still a film that paints in broad strokes, a lot of its characters are simple archetypes/stereotypes with very little depth to them, and this does hurt the film somewhat (all of the upper class people are depicted as complete heartless bastards), but it does work in a lot of the early scenes involving Rose and Jack because there’s an earnestness to them that I found quite appealing. Both Jack and Rose (helped along by Leo and Kate’s simple but charming performances) become characters you care about – maybe not as much as you would’ve liked, but in a way, once again, I think it’s by design that you feel like you wish you’d spent more time with them before the film got to the ship sinking scenes. I also think that Rose, as far as a lead female character in a major film goes, is actually very good. She’s not an original character (upper class girl who feels trapped by her upbringing – this is nothing new) by any means, but I think Cameron manages to imbue her with a personality so that she at least appears, if not three-dimensional, then two-dimensional, but without falling prey to either any sexist tropes or even its opposite, the “Strong Female Character” archetype (which is actually not a solution to sexist representations of female characters, but I digress). She’s strong-willed and fierce, but never goes overboard with either of those two traits. She’s helpless at times too, but never quite to the point where she’s completely weak or subservient. It’s a very fine balance and I wish there had been just a little more depth added to her, but I’m fine with the character as it is.
James Cameron’s direction is also really, really good. Once again, even when the movie’s going “big,” his direction doesn’t. He doesn’t do anything too flashy, but there are subtleties here and there that I liked – some really interesting shot compositions and such. He also keeps the film moving at a very good pace – I think it slows down just a tad right before the ship hits the iceberg, but otherwise I barely even noticed its 3-hour-plus running time. I also think that Cameron does just a good enough job of making you care about some of the secondary characters (like the Captain of the ship, Mr. Andrews, etc.) but, again, some of the other characters are so one dimensional it’s ridiculous. I especially disliked the character played by Billy Zane – not the least of which because of his performance, which I thought was terrible, really just a hideous and over the top performance.
I will also never understand exactly how some people managed to take that “I’ll never let go, Jack” line so literally. I’m assuming it’s an obvious joke and everyone’s in on it because if not… I mean, literally, the line immediately preceding it is Jack telling Rose to make a promise she will survive no matter what and to never let go of that promise (kind of reminded me of Saving Private Ryan in a way, when Captain Miller tells Private Ryan to “earn this” after saving him). Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, I did like how Jack’s death is handled. It could very easily have been something really cheesy and over the top, with him doing something really heroic and dying a grand, epic death. Well, he is still heroic here in the way in which he saves Rose, but they both save each other throughout the film a lot, and I liked that Jack’s death is low key. He just freezes to death and although Rose tries to wake him up for a few seconds she ultimately lets him go and saves herself immediately. No histrionics, no flash, nothing of the sort. That doesn’t mean the film is completely without cheesy or corny scenes – no. There are several of them. Some work (like the band playing while the ship sinks), some don’t (the ending with old Rose). An interesting point of comparison here – I mentioned Saving Private Ryan. In that film, Spielberg deliberately never shows you exactly what the old Ryan has done to “earn it” – we see he has a family, yes, but no other information is ever given. Here, however, Cameron shows you pictures of all the things Rose has done – things she said she wanted to do, especially with Jack. It’s nice, but… a bit on the nose and unnecessary, I feel.
I think some of the themes of the film could also have been developed a bit more and given a little more depth, so the film has flaws, and it’s not perfect, but if the worst you could say about a film is that, well, it’s flawed and could’ve been better, well, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. And this really is a solid, solid film.
But goddamn that Celine Dion song, I say.