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With ‘Titanic 3-D,’ the bigger, the better

3-D treatment adds new depth to movie

Wait, wasn’t “Titanic” already in 3-D?

Maybe it just felt that way. When James Cameron’s movie first launched in 1997 — on a poisonous wave of buzz predicting a disaster movie of the box-office kind — everything about it seemed bigger than expected. There was the boat, obviously, a massive, mostly digital re-creation of the doomed liner in all her 46,000-ton, 882-foot glory. There was a huge cast of characters, fictional and real, an epic running time (three hours and 12 minutes), and a swooning romance that played to teenage girls of all ages and genders by equating puppy love with the most storied nautical catastrophe of the 20th century.

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The reception was equally monstrous: 15 weeks atop the box office, 11 Oscars, and a 12-year run as the biggest movie moneymaker of all time (until Cameron’s “Avatar” came along to unseat it, in 2009). Isn’t that enough? Do we really need a three-dimensionalized “Titanic” brought back into theaters?

Well, yeah, we do. Movies this convincingly big need to be experienced big, and “Titanic” has been languishing on home screens for too long. I have a pair of teenage daughters who were respectively two years and eight months old when the film opened, in December 1997, and while they discovered it in due time on DVD — and marveled and sobbed and worshipped at the flame of baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio as their sistren had done before them — they understood that this is a film to wrap around your head in a dark room full of strangers. So when I asked them if they wanted to come to the opening night of “Titanic 3-D,” they readily agreed. Not excitedly — having seen the movie about six times each, they have a pretty good idea how it ends — but with a mixture of pleasure and duty, as though visiting the Statue of Liberty.

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The biggest surprise: The 3-D is good — excellent, even. Maybe that’s to be expected, since Cameron did move the technological ball several dozen yards upfield with “Avatar,” but audiences have been subjected to too many headache-inducing post-production 3-D jobs in recent years. What does 3-D bring to a movie, anyway, except an unconvincing illusion of depth in a story that’s often too shallow? “Titanic” is all about depth of field, though — and size and scale and human emotions against the widest backdrop imaginable. Cameron’s reputation as a detail-obsessed monomaniac has paid off with an $18 million 3-D refurb that includes a 4K digital remastering, and “Titanic” looks crisper, more present, than I remembered. Even better, it seems richer in detail, since the meticulously recalibrated planes of action draw your eye to parts of the screen you’d never noticed before.

It’s the first post-production 3-D conversion that looks like the film was originally shot in the format; even reflections off water and glass — notoriously difficult to get right — pass muster without a glitch. And in this enhanced playland, Cameron’s archetypal characters seem all the more compelling within the larger scrim of sea and steel and ice and decking. The storybook romance of Rose and Jack is more intimate now that the money scenes of disaster seem to stretch out toward the vanishing point; the iconic “flying shot” at the bow more breathtakingly places the human against the infinite. (Yes, it’s corny; yes, it works; yes, my daughters snurfled and gripped each other’s hands when it came.) Even the class structure of 1912 society feels more vivid: The stately stuffed-shirt millionaires in their spacious compartments and dining hall, the milling immigrants in steerage.

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Two shots in particular bring home what 3-D can add when it works. The first is an apparent throwaway: a long shot looking down a tilting lower-decks corridor as water creeps along the floor toward the audience. The illusion of depth adds menace by involving the viewer; more than ever, we’re at the near end of that hallway, lifting our feet in panic. The second shot broke my heart when I saw “Titanic” in 1997 and broke it anew in 2012: The view from the returning lifeboat as it plows through a sea of frozen corpses reaching into the night. With this movie, Cameron explicitly wanted us to imagine an unimaginable event, a tragedy too big for our senses to easily encompass. More than any image in “Titanic,” that shot of the floating dead conveys both the immensity of the loss and its specificity — the sheer scope of disaster and the individual humans within it.

The central love story? Still easy to scoff at if you fancy yourself too refined for well-produced populism, easier still to give into its passionate purpleness all over again. Anyway, isn’t this one reason most people go to movies — to see elemental human drama played out against a backdrop of spectacle? (And say what you will about Cameron’s script for “Titanic,” but it’s Shakespeare compared to the doggerel he wrote for “Avatar.”)

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Spectacle is what the sinking of the Titanic is about. It’s why the event lives on in the popular culture when disasters less easily romanticized — like the 1904 fire that killed more than 1,000 women and children on the steamship General Slocum in New York’s East River — have been forgotten. It’s why viewers keep coming back to “Titanic” on DVD, why they’ll probably make the theatrical rerelease a hit, why my daughters once more wept happy tears of tragedy. If 3-D is the bait that gets audiences back to where an epic should be seen — in a theater, as part of a crowd — then Cameron’s gamble will have been worthwhile. The only imaginable downside is if huge profits for “Titanic 3-D” send the film industry to ransacking and “improving” the spectacles of the past. Are you ready for “Gone With the Wind 3-D”?


Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.