I don’t remember anyone, anyone at all, pining for more James Cameron in their lives, smacking us in the face with his rampant ego-club and splooging tech jam all over our inner screens. But here we are. We thought, or hoped, after the year of Avatar 14 years ago, that he was a spent entertainment demagogue. But now, alongside the newest of what will be umpteen Avatar sequels and its moola-salute Best Picture Oscar nom, we get the splashy silver anniversary re-release of Titanic in theaters. Suddenly Cameron is in our grill all over again, everyone’s least favorite Hollywood alpha challenging the hegemony of Lucas/Spielberg Inc. and the Marvel/DC industrial complex, and demanding again, it seems, to be taken seriously in the process.
Why does every Cameron movie feel like I’ve just been shoulder-shoved in a crowded bar? Let’s remember first that this is not Titanic’s first re-release, but second or third, so the milking of the disaster-movie mega-cow is nothing new, although for most of us, any memory of the thing has been reduced to the overplay lifespan of “that song.” In the process, the simple ballad of Bad Luck Jack & Rose has been re-technified with 3D (in 2012), and now remastered with a 4K HDR high frame rate treatment and Dolby Atmos sound. The pandering mediocrity of the film is now louder, clearer and more twitch-inspiring than ever before.
Who is this for? Cameron seems to think we live in CameronWorld, but for most of us, he’s as relevant as Sylvester Stallone. This release – which hopes to add a few 100 mil to the film’s standing B.O. tally of $2.2 billion – is clearly a generational effort, aimed at the Z-ers who’ve never seen it before, rather than older viewers who wouldn’t want to re-watch it anymore than they’d want to re-see other Oscar-kings like Argo or The King’s Speech or Green Book, or even the first Avatar film.
We would be wise to consider how in our current blockbuster hippodrome, the idea of a ten-figure Box Office Champ revolving around a historical disaster, a mushy love story, and a PG-13 episode of sweaty sex, can seem like a time-traveled unicorn. (Was it only 25 years ago?) Truth is, worse films have made billions of dollars. Cameron knew how to cast (Leo and Kate are lovely bumpkins), he knew the romance had better have some lubrication involved, and he knew the robustly researched step-by-step ruination of the ocean liner could and would be a nasty spectacle. What’s more, he had an eye for the occasional haunting image, such as the frozen mother and infant floating in the dark water as Ioan Gruffud’s ship officer pokes through the life-jacketed corpses looking for life. Or the last glimpse of a dead Leo (spoiler!), facing up at us as his body descends feet first into the depths. Another tidbit I appreciated: the passengers obediently following the swarm of escaping rats down the hallway.
Death, death and death – you have to remind yourself that Titanic’s new release dates have so far been relegated to St. Valentine’s Day. It’s as if the script thought it owed a debt to the Friday the 13th brand of sex-death relativity – orgasmic fucking equals the payback of catastrophic death and suffering (quite literally, and hilariously, as the sailors on watch miss the iceberg because they’re watching Jack and Rose making out on the deck). Rose is this high-body-count franchise’s Final Girl, going on, and on, and on, until she’s 87-year-old Gloria Stuart, and then oh yeah, there’s that whole business concerning a giant blue diamond…
Of course, Titanic, which won 11 Academy Awards, isn’t really about that stuff; it’s about Cameron’s mansplaining God complex, expressed mostly by way of lavish fake crane shots over and through thrusting phallic machinery. It’s all a geek party in his pants, the envelope-pushing 1998 technology making real 1912’s envelope-pushing technology, in a kind of robot-love self-suck, the giant pistons and nautical infrastructure and tilting mega-monster of a ship all photographed as lovingly as Winslet’s naked breasts and for fifty times as long. The vast chunk of the movie examining the ship’s demise isn’t just meticulous – it’s gloating. There’s no question that the technology, old and brand new, is what motivated and still motivates the man, leaving little air space for much else (like an uncliched narrative thought), much as tech-lust destroyed, long ago, George Lucas’ desire to make human movies like American Graffiti.
We’re not all on that page, I’m afraid, giving us lots of time to notice how teenage Leo looked (he’s actually 23 here, a year older than Kate), and plenty of opportunity to notice the greenscreen fakery of the overlit deck scenes, and the primitive CGI stick figures in those endless faux-aerial careenings. That’s the thing about entertainment tech – it ages. The litany of one-dimensional characters meeting their watery demise, as well as Cameron’s overworked overemphasis muscle (the “king of the world” woo-hoo moment warrants ten separate shots, blam blam blam), can make you pine for the relative subtlety of The Poseidon Adventure. But Hollywood despots, like some war-mongering presidents, don’t do nuance, and don’t ever believe they’re making movies about people. That would require modesty and insight, after all.
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