Today is the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. So let’s talk about the movie!
It’s a common observation that James Cameron has made a career out of the paradox. Aliens and the two Terminator movies are big masculine (and awesome) high-effects action movies definitive of the 1980s, that are actually about the value, virtue, and strength to be found in maternity. The Abyss is an underwater Cold War sci-fi thriller that was (in the words of MovieBob) all about ‘giving peace a chance.’ True Lies is a political thriller with two leads acting out a screwball romantic comedy. Avatar is a big-budget sci-fi CGI-laden extravaganza that’s all about the inhumanity and destructive nature of militant colonial greed.
Yet the best example (or my favorite) of Cameron’s duality is Titanic, a $200 million disaster-movie blockbuster and Oscar drama that’s all about a sinking ship. It was the first film in history to amass $1 billion and the highest grossing film of all time worldwide until topped by Avatar in 2009. When we include the 3D re-release in 2012, Titanic is the fifth highest grossing film of all time in North America. When adjusted for inflation, the only films that performed better are Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, The Sound of Music, and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. It also ties the record for the most Academy Award wins ever collected by a single film with Ben Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
It’s not easy for a film to get that kind of box office showing and that kind of critical reception & Oscar glory but still hold up as worthy of such one decade later. And indeed Titanic is high on the list of films people point to as being overrated, particularly when examining the acting career of Leonardo DiCaprio, who was 22 years old at the time of making this film.
So does it? Does Titanic still measure up as a great film when examining it from afar?
In my humble opinion, yes; yes it does.
I hate to dampen the cheap fun; and don’t get me wrong – I very much love poking fun of James Cameron in all his unsubtle quirky habits, and I loathe Avatar despite how great I acknowledge the canvas and effects are, but I’m sorry. Titanic still rocks and it shows – in the same way my favorite of his films – Terminator 2: Judgment Day – does just how talented and capable James Cameron is as a filmmaker. It’s an astounding and beautiful piece of cinematic art that wowed me as a child and got better as I grew up.
Cameron paints character and setting with broad strokes, yet he times his focus on the smaller details just enough to give you an exact sense on who & where everyone is and how each situation is unfolding. He balances the huge epic scale of the ship with the tightness and contained space of each setpiece, both before and after the ship hits the iceberg. The biggest trap a piece like this could have fallen into would have been for it to turn into a completely different film once the sinking started. Cameron is too smart to let it happen. Titanic is a film so meticulously and masterfully put together, a scene in which Rose and Jack sneak in and run through the engines to get away from Cal Hockley’s henchman, that when you add that music, plays out like two naughty mischievous kids acting out a Bob Seger music video, and a scene in which a poor Irish woman lulls her two small children to sleep with a soothing tale so that they don’t die frightened, both exist and feel exactly as one in the same overall experience.
The script is simple and Cameron is keen on making all the details count. The film is a story told backwards, starting off in the present day with an underwater scavenger crew perusing the ship at the bottom of the ocean and with the finding & unearthing of the nude portrait of Rose wearing the diamond necklace they’ve been looking for, which leads to the crew finding the woman, still alive and over a hundred years old, who then proceeds to tell her story of what happened. Cameron knows you’re going to wonder what the circumstances were that led to the drawing of it, yet once we get there, the characters have become so real that the sated curiosity of the audience on that arc is set aside in favor of continuing watching the overall drama unfold and finding out how Rose survived the sinking. Furthermore, the film documents an animated version of the sinking by itself before it even gets to the setting of 1912 so to give a general inkling of how it’s all going to happen, which you’ll be keeping in mind as you witness it. It’s a highlight of history that Cameron reinforces to give the narrative a sense of clarity that will matter even when you’re watching a scene where rich men & women are dining fancy and sampling expensive champagne.
Rose DeWitt Bukater is a wealthy daughter to a family whose father “left” them and saddled them with debt, set to marry a wealthy steel tycoon with the implication that such will save their family’s financial situation and overall social standing, yet no one – least of all her mother, who is very much a product of high-society pampering – cares even one bit as to what she wants and how empty she feels at what her life looks like. She has everything and nothing, which is what she finds so attractive about Jack Dawson – an impoverished but spirited free-roaming artist and boyishly good-natured cowboy with stories to tell and with a talent for finding happiness in the little things in life you don’t/can’t plan for. Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio are both amateurs, overacting in nearly every scene, yet they’ve got such terrific chemistry together, it’s impossible to care. When Rose tells Jack that their relationship is impossible because she’s marrying Cal and that she loves Cal, even I could tell at the age of eight that the fear in her eyes betrayed the lie on her tongue. Yet Cameron has made the connection with the viewer is so strong, you’ll be laughing at jokes you know aren’t all that funny and you’ll occasionally forget that soon enough, everything is going to go to hell.
The pacing is just as great. A good amount of time is spent getting to know people who seemingly don’t matter much – namely Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) who’s essentially playing the part of the audience. It’s like the film is using him and his mini-arc to ensure we know that this is very much a modern version of what would otherwise be a very old story you’ve heard before (Romeo and Juliet). If there’s a problem, it’s that Rose is just a bit too quick to change her mind about her feelings for Jack and Jack is a bit too ready to hear it and make a move, but asking a film that’s already three hours long to be even longer, or asking to cut something else out of it seems pretty unreasonable when you consider how much depth and atmosphere each scene adds without the overall film ever feeling bloated or as a drag. The sinking in general is astonishingly well-paced and choreographed. When the first flare goes up into the sky, people are in awe of how beautiful the light is, even though several decks below, water is rushing through the boiler rooms and sweeping everyone away. They haven’t felt the urgency yet, but as the sinking intensifies, so too do the chaos and the associated tragedy.
The themes are straightforward and unsubtle. The R.M. S. Titanic is an accomplishment of great engineering that the wealthy businessmen traveling on it are determined to politicize to the world for their benefit, and the film doesn’t hesitate to remark upon how their influence was partially responsible for the sinking of the ship. The film’s display of the pettiness of the rich – which may as well be equated with the British while the American upper-class woman Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) is the more grounded and humored one (this is Cameron’s way of satisfying the Oscars’ love for the British while also kind of mocking them and giving a thumbs up to the US of A) – is something Cameron uses to make fun of and even humble them when nature arrives to kick humanity in the balls. When the ostensibly calm and beautiful ocean seizes and grips the vessel, slowly but surely working its way into each room to crush and overwhelm all trespassers, suddenly the beauty and arbitrary value of a diamond necklace ceases to matter. Funnily enough though, here it actually does.
In real life absent imminent danger, scarcity of resources is enough by itself to turn human beings into monsters. Now imagine what becomes of mankind when nature itself is the active oppressor. A romance like the one we see wouldn’t ever be thought of as particularly fresh, but put them on a ship that’s about to sink, and suddenly it adds a whole new dimension. Titanic shows just about all sides of that, as well as the overall tragedy. Even a norm like placing the needs and safety of women and children first is put to a moral test, when a gate on the lower deck is forcibly kept shut in order to keep the men from moving up. A security officer handling the lowering of the lifeboats reneges on his arrangement and throws a wad of cash in Caledon Hockley’s face, exclaiming that his money is useless. Later on, he’s forced to pick up an abandoned child and claim parentage to save himself. The absurdity of segregating the lifeboats by class, as Rose’s mother wished it, was remarked upon as well.
Yet all the themes that serve to layer the script, broaden the scope, and round out the overall narrative are there primarily for a greater function – imbuing a great sense of immediacy and gravitas into the struggles of Rose and Jack. This is very much their story. They go down and up, then down, and then up again as the ship and so many on it are going down, down, and down.
What I think cements the film as a truly great and inspiring piece of cinema is the ending. The easy route would have been to end the way the real story exists in memory – a tragedy with the audiences leaving with heavy hearts. Yet Titanic found closure with the realization that Rose indeed keeps her promise to Jack. She found the strength and courage to live on, find happiness, and die an old lady warm in her bed. She lived to tell a story buried deep in memory that she never told anyone else, not even the man she ended up marrying. The search for that precious diamond necklace that consumed Lovett’s life and the value of the necklace itself weren’t even remotely as important as the meaning behind its disappearance. Like Jack, the necklace exists only in her memory, and one that she has now passed on. Letting go of it was the last step in never letting go of the promise she made to him. And as she greets death openly and willingly, she is in-kind greeted and welcomed by all who perished aboard the ship – the happy ending she had so endeavored to seek to honor him.
So yes, while I like nearly every other James Cameron movie more than this one, along with Good Will Hunting & L.A. Confidential, (don’t give me that look) I’m not ashamed one bit to admit that I still absolutely adore Titanic. Flawed and faulted in many ways as it is, it remains a glorious accomplishment in cinema – worthy of its ubiquity and its mantle of honor in the vaults of history.
The Good: Bernard Hill, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Paxton, Kathy Bates, Billy Zane, the pacing, the cinematography, the themes, the gravitas and composition of human drama, the music, My Heart Will Go On, the effects, and the ending.
The Bad: A lot of overacting, but not in the endearing Humphrey Bogart kind in Casablanca. Some moments of George-Lucas-level terrible dialogue and lack of subtlety in some scenes, and it’s not always quite as funny as James Cameron seems to think it is. The change of heart, though admirably executed, is just a bit too fast. There are a couple of unbelievable moments where people are a little too stupid. And yes, it’s a little tiresome now and then to hear Rose and Jack constantly call out each other’s name.
The Titanic: “Now as the bow goes down, the stern rises up, slow at first then faster and faster until finally she’s got her whole ass just sticking up in the air. And that’s a big ass; we’re talking twenty-thirty thousand tons!”