Titanic is a frustrating film. Hauling in well over $1 billion worldwide (combined theatrical and video release), the movie is an obvious success. That doesn't mean it's clear from criticisms though, and there's plenty to go around.
The cause is the love story. Filling over half the film, it's out of place, unnecessary, and ruins the otherwise stunning recreation of the ship's single voyage. All of the detail, down to finding the same company's who created the materials for the real Titanic, is tossed aside for a fake story of two people who seem to have the right connections.
It's too convenient that Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) happen to come across everyone necessary to tell the story. As they're fleeing to the deck, they find the ship's designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), stop to chat, and then take off again. It's unbelievably frustrating, both that the circumstances are so forced and the first half of the movie exists solely to have these two characters guide us to the end.
It gets worse as the ship goes down. Completely vertical and possibly seconds from death, Rose looks at Jack to say, "This is where we first met." This is the type of dialogue that nearly kills the drama of the actual event occurring around them. To think that James Cameron thought two fictional characters were necessary for an emotional pull at the end is one of the most absurd ideas in the history of Hollywood. There are thousands dying around them, but the audience should feel sorry for the stowaway.
However, the film is saved for what people came to see. The actual sinking is a stunning film achievement. The use of miniatures, full size sets, camera tricks, green screen, and of course that attention to detail make the entire movie a stunning piece, generic first half or not. It just keeps getting worse, and the sight of people jumping off the peak, hundreds of feet in the air as a last hope, is horrifying. The direction is superb, milking every ounce of terror from each shot.
In-between the segments of the actual event, Bill Paxton gets the story from Rose (Gloria Stuart), now 101 years old. These sections provide a few laughs, and break up the scenery, making this easier to watch in one sitting. It also puts a great emotional cap on the story.
Much like Pearl Harbor years later, this is an extended version of a story that didn't need to be. It could have been told in under two hours, and while it's unfortunate that didn't happen, the end result is worth fighting through. It's epic in the truest sense of the word. (**** out of *****)
Remastered (this time anamorphic) from the first DVD release in 1998, this is a substantial upgrade. The fuzzy, almost laserdisc-like quality of the first single-disc edition is cleared up in its entirety. Detail and clarity is stunning, a true showcase for a format that just keeps surprising people.
Black levels have been adjusted as well, creating incredible contrast and a better sense of how terrifying it was when the electricity went out. It's hard to see anything from a distance, only adding to the effect, not detracting. Color has been brought out to stronger levels, this time showing off the intricate detail of the ship. Compression problems, evident in the original release as it was crammed onto a single side of one DVD, are nearly completely absent in this three-disc version. (*****)
The film is split onto two discs this time, likely to increase video quality and offer the best sound work yet heard on a DVD. The 5.1 EX mix is great, certainly an improvement. However, it's the DTS 6.1 track that simply destroys any other movie you can compare it to.
It's impossible to imagine audio playing a bigger a role in the enjoyment of a film. Here, it's essential, and a perfect example of what audio can do for a film. Most of it comes from ambient bass as the ship slowly comes apart, eerily lingering in the background, and always present to remind viewers the inevitable is coming closer. The louder the bass, the more desperate the situation. It's never overbearing either unless it needs to be. The EX mix lacks the full impact.
That doesn't even begin to touch the rear surround work. Water clashes, people panic, and the creaking of the Titanic as it descends are flawless. It's more effective at the end as the helpless passengers scream for help in the now calm waters all around the sound field. This is a new standard in home movie audio. (*****)
As if those weren't enough sound options, you'll have three full-length commentaries, one from James Cameron, another from the cast (Gloria Stuart, Kate Winslet, Lewis Abernathy, Jon Landau, Rae Sanchini), and the final by Don Lynch and Ken Marshall. The latter are Titanic historians, discussing inaccuracies in the story when mistakes are made. The three commentaries provide of mix of filmmaking and reference.
Also spread though the movie is mini-features. These are selectable through the menu (thankfully), or can be viewed during the film by pressing "enter" when the icon pops up. In total, 61 of these informative short pieces are available, coming together nicely as a single piece if watched straight through.
Disc 2 holds the alternate ending, mastered in the same video and audio (5.1) quality as the rest of the film. It's one of the smarter deletions James Cameron will likely ever make, but will answer questions about the present-day characters. No Titanic set would be complete with the Celine Dion music video we all know, and it's of course here too.
Moving onto the third disc in this Collector's set, the deleted scenes are wonderful. James Cameron took the time to provide commentary for all of them. One would never have worked in the film (Molly Brown asking for ice as the iceberg passes in a window behind her just after it hits), but it's still funny. Like the alternate ending, all of these are finished with brilliant video and audio, a rare treat for DVD fans.
A 45-minute promotional documentary aired on Fox around the film's release and it's included. Breaking New Ground is one of the few pieces to offer actual historical information on the ship (aside from the commentary), which is a shame. A feature called "1912 Newsreel" is misleading. It's not actual footage, but a short staged recreation of one. It's hard to tell from the start until the actors start showing up. Deep Dive Presentation isn't really about the dive Cameron took down to the real ship for research even though it sounds like it. This is some sporadic footage of the cast and crew goofing off around the set, and while some of it is funny, at 20-minutes this drags unless you were actually on the team.
The rest of the disc is made up of other various feature types, from still pictures to video press materials. The number of still pictures is incredible and they're far too numerous to count. Visual effect breakdowns are an eye-opener. It's incredible to see that some shots were actually effects in the first place. There's a nice video of the interior sets too. (****)
While it sounds like a lot, Region 1 DVD viewers do not get the extra fourth disc released in other parts of the world. There was also supposedly a full-length documentary feature ready for inclusion. That's not here either, and that would have enhanced this disc. While it's an obvious a step up from the original release (which only had a trailer), the lack of history on the actual disaster and frustratingly skipped documentary knock this one down in the special features department.