TITANIC (1997)

  • Director: James Cameron
  • Writer: James Cameron
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Bernard Hill, Bill Paxton, and Gloria Stuart
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 (#83), 11 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – James Cameron, Best Original Song – “My Heart Will Go On,” Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costumes, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actress – Kate Winslet, Best Supporting Actress – Gloria Stuart, Best Makeup)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Starz app, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV

A lot of the movies I write about here have been re-evaluated over the years, but not many have been re-evaluated as many times in a relatively short span as Titanic has. Before it even came out, the studio assumed it would lose $100 million. Then it hit theaters, and became the biggest hit by sheer dollars ever up until that time. Then there was a major backlash, not just from teenage boys who were annoyed at teenage girls in their middle school class went to see it 11 times (who are those boys, I certainly didn’t know any, and I definitely wasn’t one of them), but from critics who complained about director James Cameron’s complete inability to write dialogue, and other problems. After the movie tied Ben-Hur’s all-time record for the most Oscars, it became a bit of a joke over time, and maybe I’m not in the right demo, but it felt like nobody watched it for like 15 years. But I’ve heard from several different places over the past few years that, you know, maybe, with a little bit of distance, it’s actually really good? And honestly I think I agree with everybody, except maybe me from middle school.

Titanic is one of the biggest technical achievements in movie history. This is obviously a statement without seeing all the movies in the recent past, but I think there’s a serious case to be made that it’s the earliest computer graphics-heavy movie where those graphics still completely hold up today. The virtual camera swoops around decks of the ship, we see the characters first in the distance, digitally, and then up close, without a transition. It’s never anything but believable. At the same time, it’s a deeply humanist movie. Its central love story is built on two characters seeing a light in each other that comes through on screen. It’s a movie that’s deeply empathetic to all its characters, even the “bad guys.” Billy Zane’s jilted fiance is obviously irredeemable, but the movie at least lets us see him feel guilty. It would have been easy to make a movie about the Titanic that’s about human hubris. That’s always been the moral of this little tale. Cameron’s genius in this movie, and I think the key to its success, is that he sees it as a basically human story of thousands of people, thrust together with all their joys and foibles. Just as in Rose and Jack’s sudden love story, the moral Cameron wants us to take from all of this is that everything can change on a dime and we never know when it’s going to happen.

And yet, just like with the famous ship, all of Cameron’s successes can’t quite absolve him of his hubris. As the project hemorrhaged money and the shoot dragged on, and Kate Winslet apparently almost drowned, he reportedly spent the entire time screaming at various members of the cast and crew. Winslet vowed never to work with him “unless she made a huge amount of money” (she did). The studio, sure they had an all-time of a disaster on their hands, tried to cut a full hour out of the movie, and honestly it could really have used it, but Cameron said he’d “kill anyone who tried to change anything.” This is a movie that basically takes twenty minutes of screen-time to even start, as we watch a framing story in which a 100-year-old Rose (Gloria Stuart, on her way to becoming the oldest person ever nominated for an Oscar up to this time) meets a treasure hunter played by Cameron vet Bill Paxton, a story that extends the movie by a half hour seemingly just to give Cameron an excuse to actually do an expedition out to the actual wreck of the Titanic.

More to the point, he insisted on writing the movie entirely himself, and while his heart may have been in the right place it’s just too big a lift. His young lovers, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Winslet), spend most of the movie yelling each other’s names, where most movies would have actual dialogue. Cameron’s later defense was that he wasn’t one of those screenwriters who need to “pirouette their witty and cynical dialogue for our admiration.” OK. And Jack and Rose may be winsome for some, but they both have something of a pasty, earnest quality that detracts from all of this. All the bright white walls and wet hair don’t help, nor does the ultra best-selling score by James Horner, which is right out of an Enya album and to me feels like the most dated part of the movie. Seriously, when the ceiling’s caving in and Jacob Astor is drowning while looking vaguely nonplussed, the score is still warbling dreamily away like muzak from a new agey nail salon.

Anyhoo, I think it’s those very qualities, of unthreatening, earnest pastiness, that appealed to the girls in my middle school class. Leonardo DiCaprio with wet hair isn’t so different from a boy band heartthrob, and here he was, rescuing the headstrong Rose from her boring life. Both he and Winslet had some great roles before this, but Titanic made them superstars. Neither of them really used their stardom the way one might expect, mostly taking roles that interested them artistically rather than just doing more big-budget blockbusters. Both would win acting Oscars years later. Baby-faced DiCaprio would go on, of all things, to replace the aging Robert De Niro as Martin Scorsese’s new muse.

For all the joking at the time from people who said they “liked the last hour, because everyone died,” that last hour really is unlike any other movie. It has a sense of quietly building disaster, with nobody at first quite realizing how bad it is, that builds and builds into total, mass desperation. It’s the one place the movie’s length helps it, because it lets Cameron slow down the usual disaster movie, and lets us watch the ship fall apart in what feels like real time, though it isn’t quite. If only Jack and Rose had something to do the whole time other than yell each other’s names.

I would be remiss if I talked about this movie in 2020 and didn’t mention the first thing that anyone would bring up if Titanic came up in conversation, which is that Jack could have fit on that door too. For the uninitiated, at the end of the movie, Rose survives until the lifeboat comes by floating on a door, while Jack holds on next to her and freezes to death while the audience cries. The movie never seems to come up with the idea that they both could have fit onto the door, though trust me when I say that the entire internet has in the years since. In two separate episodes of Mythbusters, they determined that the door would have floated with both of them on it as long as Jack “wrapped his jacket” around the bottom of the door. James Cameron asserts that he could not have done this before he froze to death, and that “his brain was starting to get hypothermia.” My two cents is this: the door really doesn’t look stable or big in the movie, and if Jack decided he wasn’t going to risk her life by trying to get on it, I’m on board, but the movie really could have used just one line of dialogue to clear all this up. There are my for serious thoughts on this, you guys.

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