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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/27/99

1997 (1999) - Lightstorm/20th Century Fox/Paramount (Paramount)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits


Titanic Film Ratings: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A+/D

Specs and Features

194 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:48:06, at start of chapter 18), THX-certified, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (30 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and English & French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English & Spanish, Close Captioned

The year is 1912, and the newly commissioned luxury liner, R.M.S. Titanic, is about to make her maiden voyage across the Atlantic to America. On board are the well-to-do of both American and British society at the time, including Molly Brown, John Jacob Astor, and more than 2,000 other passengers. One of them, is Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a young Philadelphia socialite, who is engaged to be married to a well-to-do gentleman named Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane). But Rose doesn't care much for Cal, and once the ship gets underway, she almost takes her life by jumping overboard. Alas, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) is there to save her, in more ways than he can possible realize. Jack is a working-class artist, who has been drifting around Europe, and won his ticket home in a poker game. Before long, a passionate love burns between Jack and Rose, but their relationship soon becomes a struggle against class lines, Hockley's rage, and an unthinkable fate... the sinking of the most magnificent ship of its age.

When director James Cameron sets out to make a movie, he doesn't fool around. Titanic was a huge gamble for 20th Century Fox, which footed the lion's share of the production bill (Paramount came on board later with a smaller investment, to help offset the cost, in exchange for domestic distribution rights). After a grueling production schedule, which required building not only a slightly-less-than-full-scale replica of the ship itself, but an entire studio in Baja Mexico to shoot it in, Titanic become the most expensive movie ever made (estimates place the final price tag at well over $200 million). But the risk paid off in a big way, as the most expensive movie ever, became the highest grossing film of all time (making slightly less than $2 billion worldwide), and went on to steal the 1997 Best Picture Academy Award. How do you like them apples? I say steal, because the film's hype machine was simply unstoppable, even among Academy voters. Sadly, a much better film, Warner's L.A.Confidential, was edged out by the big ship for Best Picture. Well, what can you do... Cameron was king of the world that year. He even said so, when he accepted his Oscar.

The story is simple - Romeo and Juliet get shipwrecked. The script is uneven - slow romance for the first half, non-stop action for the second - and it's always hopelessly melodramatic. The characters are rather two dimensional, and the acting is only fair (although good performances are turned in by Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, and Gloria Stuart - we won't talk about Leo, who was... well, Leo). Still, there's no denying that Titanic works on many levels. That gimmick where you see the computer simulation of the ship sinking early in the film, to prepare you for actually experiencing the sinking later? Brilliant. Somehow, this film manages to grab on to your senses (and the heart-strings of about 80% of the female population of the Earth, it seems), and shake you silly for some three hours. Like much of director Cameron's previous work, Titanic is a sensory tour-de-force, unlike anything that had come before. The special effects alone were ground-breaking, not to mention the sheer audacity and scale of the production. Under Cameron's guiding hand (and sometimes fist), the great lost luxury liner literally came back to life in such magnificent detail, that you just couldn't help but be impressed. Having heard all of the horror stories about the out-of-control budget and the reckless production, before the film was released, I remember thinking, "There's no way I'm gonna waste my money seeing this piece of crap." Then, my wife and I saw the trailer one day, and we both looked at each other just blown away. Well, we did eventually spend $7 each to see the film... and so did millions of others. Like I said, for all its problems, Titanic just works.

So does the long-awaited DVD version of Titanic live up to its name? Well, I suppose that depends on who you ask over the next few weeks. You do get at least some measure of quality with this disc. The video is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, although the image is regrettably NOT enhanced for anamorphic widescreen. This is a huge disappointment for home theater buffs and serious DVD fans, but it admittedly won't matter much to the vast majority of people. I have no doubt that the disc will sell like hotcakes (Paramount has reportedly shipped more than a million copies in the U.S. alone). Now I don't want to give Paramount too much grief for this decision, which I'm told was made some time ago. Paramount has since become VERY supportive of anamorphic widescreen on their DVD product. Still, if Paramount had used the high-definition, anamorphic transfer that we all know was done (for hi-def HBO broadcast), this disc would have looked a bunch better. As it is, the video has a very edgy-looking quality to it. Edges are too crisp - too sharp - and there are plenty of NTSC artifacts (that shimmer you get on fine patterns, because our TV system, called NTSC, doesn't have the necessary resolution to resolve them). That's not to say this disc looks bad, because it doesn't. The color is rich, and spot-on accurate. And the blacks are deep, with good detail. But there does seem to be a slight problem with the contrast - the brightest picture areas seem to be a bit too hot. All in all, it could have looked better.

The audio, on the other hand, is absolutely outstanding. This is one of the very best Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks you'll ever experience on a movie disc. There's great dynamic range to the mix, creating a full, wide soundfield. Trust me - you will hear every creak and groan of the ship's hull as it goes down, and every popping rivet. The bass is appropriately thunderous, yet the dialogue remains clear, and James Horner's haunting score comes through beautifully throughout. And there are plenty of nifty little surround sound effects to thrill your friends with. This is just a great audio experience.

And that's about all you get. Okay, I'll be fair... you do get that theatrical trailer I mentioned, in pretty good quality, as well as some nice looking menus. And you get a little catalog where Paramount lets you pick one free DVD if you buy 5 of their other discs. Notice I didn't mention the actual movie booklet? It's a complete fluff piece - a several-page, fold-out insert, that duplicates the scene selection menu exactly, just on paper. Why not give us some more movie poster artwork at least, and a few production notes? Lame.

I guess I can't really steer people away from this disc, but I just can't jump on the bandwagon myself, because of the anamorphic issue. I'm sure lots of you are gonna buy it anyway, just because it's Titanic. But if you already own the laserdisc version, or if you care about getting some value for your DVD dollar, you might want to wait for Paramount to release their special collector's edition DVD version of this film (with lots of extras, deleted scenes, and anamorphic widescreen), which almost everyone involved has all but admitted is planned. But if you just can't wait, well... buy it proudly and spin without guilt. I mean, what the hell... it is Titanic, right?

Bill Hunt

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