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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Titanic: Special Collector's Edition - 3-Disc Set

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround


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Special Collector's Edition 3-Disc Set
1997 (2005) - 20th Century Fox (Paramount)

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A/B

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A/A

The year is 1912, and the newly commissioned White Star luxury liner, R.M.S. Titanic, is about to make her maiden voyage across the Atlantic from Southhampton to New York City. The grand vessel is the largest moving object ever built by the hands of Man - the ultimate symbol of Mankind's mastery over the natural world. On board is a virtual Who's Who of both American and British high society, including the likes of Molly Brown, multimillionaires John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, and more than 2,000 other passengers from all economic classes and walks of life.

One of these is a young Philadelphia socialite named Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet). Rose's father has recently died, leaving her family with a great deal of debt. To save their social status, Rose's mother has arranged to marry her off to one Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane), a would-be gentleman from a family of means. Unfortunately, Rose finds Cal insufferable and is desperate to escape her fate - so much so that, once the ship gets underway, Rose nearly (and ironically) takes her own life by jumping overboard.

Fortunately, someone's around to talk her out of it. A handsome young steerage lad named Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) saves Rose, in more ways than he can know. Jack's a working-class artist from Wisconsin, who's been drifting around Europe in search of adventure. He won his ticket home in a poker game, and he quickly wins Rose's heart as well. As the Titanic sets sail, a passionate love begins to burn between Jack and Rose, but their relationship is a struggle from the start - a struggle against class lines, Hockley's rage and an unthinkable fate... the death of a ship that was believed unsinkable.

There's little doubt that 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 produced went on to become the highest grossing film of all time (making slightly less than $2 billion worldwide). While admittedly a very good film, Titanic went on to steal the 1997 Best Picture Academy Award from a much better work - Curtis Hanson's moody and stylish L.A. Confidential. Ah well. The Titanic hype-machine was simply unstoppable that year, and Cameron was the king of the world. He even said so, when he accepted his Oscar.

Titanic's 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 fair at best (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. Titanic manages to grab on to your senses (and the heart-strings of about 80% of the female population of the Earth, it seems), and it shakes you silly for three straight hours. Like much of Cameron's previous work, Titanic is a sensory tour-de-force, unlike anything that had come before. Though it seems a bit dated now, the special effects work was ground-breaking at the time, and the sheer audacity and scale of the production was almost unparalleled in film history. Under Cameron's guiding hand (and sometimes his clenched fist), the great liner literally came back to life in such magnificent and historically accurate detail, that even Hollywood skeptics couldn't help but be impressed on some level. 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. Of course, we did eventually spend $7 each to see the film, along with millions of others... and we thoroughly enjoyed it. As I said, for all its problems, Titanic works.

This new Titanic: Special Collector's Edition from Paramount (20th Century Fox if you live outside the States) was a LONG time coming. The original DVD was released in unenhanced letterboxed format only, so you'll be glad to know that the new edition offers the film in full anamorphic widescreen. As it was on New Line's 4-disc Lord of the Rings DVDs, the film here has been split over the set's first two discs to allow for more room on each disc for the video data. As a result, the average video data rate hovers between 7 and 8 Mbps throughout the presentation. You'll appreciate that extra bit of video enhancement in such things as fine detail and color saturation. The new DVD offers a wonderfully film-like presentation. Contrast is excellent, colors are vibrant and accurate. You'll notice light grain in the image - it's very true to the theatrical experience and the print is quite clean looking overall. There is a bit of compression artifacting, but DVD releases always have a little bit of this when you blow them up on large displays. Even the best standard DVD release is never going to look as good as the original HD telecine master. That said, I think most home theater-philes will be very pleased with this image quality.

The new DVD release also offers a full choice of audio options, from Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround, to full Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS 6.1 ES. Each of these tracks is excellent. The 5.1 EX and 6.1 ES mixes both render wide, natural and immersive soundfields, each offering tremendous ambience and abundant bass. Until the film's second half, most of what you're getting is atmosphere - the soft whisper of wind, etc. But when the ship's engine pistons begins to churn furiously, when its hull plates buckle under the crushing impact of the iceberg... and when the ship splits in two... well, you'll FEEL as if you're right there on deck. I'll be honest - there's very little difference between the two discrete surround options. The DTS often has a slight edge in smoothness and sonic clarity, but this is the rare case where I'm hard-pressed to find it superior to the Dolby Digital mix. Whichever sound option you chose, you'll enjoy a superior audio experience.

Disc One and Two each offer a few interesting extras in addition to the film itself. First of all, there's a special "behind the scenes mode." Basically, it's an interactive branched viewing option. When you activate it, you'll periodically see a little sinking ship icon appear on your screen. Pressing ENTER on your remote at this time will take you out of the film, to view a short (1-2 minute) piece of behind-the-scenes footage relevant to the making of that scene. There are 61 of these video "pods" in all, the first 30 on Disc One and the rest on Disc Two. Most of them are interesting, and they're all well worth at least one viewing. Thankfully, the discs also allow you to view them individually, apart from the film, by selecting them from their own menu. In addition to the branching option, Disc Two adds an alternate version of the film's ending (viewable separately), in full anamorphic widescreen and with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio - a welcome touch. You also get Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On music video... which gives me personally the heebee-jeebees, but you knew it was going to be on here somewhere, so there you go.

The two film discs also include a trio of audio commentary tracks. To be fair (and to complete this review in as timely a manner as possible) I've only sampled them. But in my experience thus far, the most interesting one with respect to the film itself is the new director's track with James Cameron. He's in great form here, offering a ton of anecdotes and insights. There's also a "cast and crew" commentary that features actors Kate Winslet, Gloria Stewart (old Rose) and Lewis Abernathy (who plays Lewis Bodine and has also deep-dived with Cameron on other occasions), along with producers Jon Landau and Rae Sanchini. Unfortunately, Leonardo DiCaprio is MIA (presumably for scheduling reasons). Winslet and Stewart have nice chemistry, but the track tends to be a little too dominated by the producers. I would rather have had just an actors track, and maybe have Landau talking with Cameron instead. In a way, the track I find most generally interesting is the commentary by historians Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, who discuss the accuracy of the film to real life events and address controversies that have arisen over the years due to contradictions in the testimony of survivors of the sinking. It's fascinating stuff.

Disc Three contains the majority of this set's extras. EASILY the best of this material is a selection of 29 deleted and extended scenes from the film, each also finished in anamorphic widescreen video with full visual effects and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (and each with optional audio commentary by Cameron). There's over 45 minutes worth of new footage, much of it quite good. For you DVD hounds out there, you'll get a kick out of seeing a cameo in which DVD producer Van Ling (who's worked on virtually all of Cameron's DVD special editions over the years, including this one) is rescued from the water as one of the sinking's survivors. There's also a lot of additional (and interesting) historical moments that were left on the cutting room floor. Disc Three next includes a Marketing section that features the 42-minute Fox TV special Breaking New Ground (the one that was shown on the Fox network just prior to the film's release), which includes both behind-the-scenes and historical material. There's also a selection of brief video featurettes that were created as part of the film's EPK press kit (7 of them, featuring cast and crew interviews as well as behind-the-scenes footage, running some 20 minutes in all) and a gallery of still images featuring the film's one-sheet poster artwork as well as concept art for unused one-sheet designs. Finally, there's a catch-all Special Features section that collects material created during the production of the film itself. You get documentary filmmaker Ed Marsh's "fake" 1912 News Reel, a time-lapse video of the ship set construction, a Deep Dive Presentation narrated by Cameron (of some of the footage he shot during the trip to the actual Titanic wreck), the gag video created for the film's cast and crew, a video tour of the ship set shot for the Titanic Historical Society, videomatic footage created to pre-visualize various scenes, and several visual effects breakdowns. Some of this material has optional audio commentary. Finally, there's a truly MASSIVE gallery of still images from the production, including Cameron's original "scriptment" for the film (all 482 pages of it) along with storyboard drawings, production photographs, pre-production concept and design artwork and MUCH more. There are literally thousands of images collected here. There's even a bibliography to point you to more information on the film and the real historical events.

Taken in total, this is a good DVD special edition, produced as it was by Van Ling and Ed Marsh (both of whom were involved in the production of the original film). They have as good an understanding of what went on behind-the-scenes on Titanic as anyone. Unfortunately, this 3-disc set is also an undeniably flawed special edition. Never mind the fact that there's a whole disc of material missing here for U.S. viewers, which DVD fans in the rest of the world WILL get to see (more on that in a minute). What I really missed here is the kind of thoughtful perspective and insight you'd get from a newly-produced, retrospective documentary on the making of this film. We've seen some truly great in-depth production documentaries on DVD lately, on such releases as the Alien Quadrilogy, the 3-disc Gladiator, Top Gun, Spider-Man 2, etc. But you DON'T get one here. To make matters worse, as you may recall from our coverage of the initial DVD announcement event with Cameron and Landau, this new Titanic: Special Collector's Edition WAS originally expected to include just such a feature-length documentary, produced by Marsh. Our information is that Marsh DID in fact complete the piece, but it was killed late in the game by Cameron himself. This just goes to prove, I think, that even directors don't always know what's best for the DVD releases of their films. Without such a documentary, all the little video "pods" and the Fox special just serve to whet your appetite for a main course that never gets served. I also have to note that the absence of Leo from the cast commentary is surprisingly disappointing. What I really wanted more than anything was just a track with Kate and Leo, or maybe Kate, Leo and Cameron, talking about the visceral experience of making this film together. Without these things, this DVD release just doesn't feel complete, and that's a real shame.

For the record, the additional extras on the 4-disc version of Titanic that 20th Century Fox is releasing internationally include HBO's First Look special on the making of the film (entitled Titanic: The Heart of the Ocean), 3 short Titanic parodies and a gallery of trailers for the film (including some never before seen). Personally, I could care less about the parodies. Of those items, it's the gallery of theatrical trailers that I miss the most on the U.S. version. To correct this oversight, those of you who currently have the previous DVD release can simply slip it into an paper envelope and tuck it into the 3-disc package (it contains a single, non-anamorphic theatrical trailer for the film). It's a half-measure to be sure, but it's the best you're going to get, as Paramount has confirmed to me that the fourth disc will NOT be available as a Wal-Mart or Best Buy bonus disc here in the States. Yeah, that's stupid and I'd like to have a few choice words with whoever it was at Fox and/or Paramount that decided to cut the fourth disc from the U.S. set, but what can you do?

Titanic was such a huge phenomenon when it was released back in 1997, that it's strange to look back at it now in 2005. I can honestly say that I haven't thought about this film in years - not since it was first released as a movie-only DVD back in 1999. Somehow, for all its hype, Titanic had slipped entirely from my consciousness. Back in 1912, the ship and its sinking became a symbol of sorts for the death of a gilded age. It's ironic then that, in this post 9/11 world, Cameron's big screen Titanic feels like the ultimate gasp of a certain kind of Hollywood filmmaking - massively expensive, hopelessly naive and shamelessly commercial. Whether it's accurate or not, that feeling is impossible to separate from my perception of this new DVD release. For better or worse, I was really looking forward to (and expecting) an exhaustively comprehensive, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, ULTIMATE special edition of Titanic... and this 3-disc set (even the 4-disc set Fox is releasing internationally) is NOT it. Still, it's fair to say this new edition is a vast improvement over the original DVD release in every way, and there's a lot here that fans will enjoy. If those us who crave the "ultimate" special edition find it somewhat lacking... well, there's always the Blu-ray Disc version you know is coming in a few years (I've been saying that a lot lately, haven't I?). Maybe by then, Leo will finally have been able to find a little free time on his busy schedule to record his audio commentary...

Bill Hunt
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