Yup, Titanic. After years of backlash and mockery, I decided to take a fresh look at what the biggest movie in the world to see if it is any good and if it deserves the derision it receives. (Spoiler alert: it is good and not it doesn’t.)
Titanic was released in 1997. It was written, directed, and produced by James Cameron. It started Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. I was a kid when the movie was released, and I like everyone else at the time loved it. It captured my imagination and emotions in a way nothing had up until that point. The movie grossed a staggering $2 billion at the worldwide box office and won 11 Academy Awards.
Inevitably when something is popular there is a backlash against it. Titanic endured the parodies and the late night jokes, but then something interesting happened. The mockery only deepened and became more intense. The jokes transformed into genuine hatred and debates over whether the movie was any good at all. Much like the real ship, the movie has rested at the bottom of the cinematic ocean for the last decade.
I admit I was a part of this. I grew to hate the movie. I thought it was tripe. Illogical, maudlin, and melodramatic. Looking back I think the forces the influenced me also played a part in the wider reaction to the film. The first was what I’m going to call putting away childish things. Every kid loves Barney at 3 years old. Every kid hates Barney at 8 years old. You outgrow the need for a show like that. You see it as simplistic. You feel embarrassed you ever did need that kind of kids stuff. The same thing happened to me with Titanic. I loved it in my youth, but by the time I was a teenager I thought it was overly simple. I thought it was base and did nothing to satisfy my newly sophisticated palette. People who loved it in their teens became cynical adults who rejected the movie for its sincerity. It’s a natural reaction.
Hand in hand with this is the popularity of the thing. When people get caught up in the tidal wave of popular opinion it is common to reject that opinion once the wave subsides. Once the initial enthusiasm is over people need to reclaim their individuality by distancing themselves from the popular opinion. After the hype dies down a popular thing will always be met by those claiming they never liked it to begin with. This was me. Trying to define myself as a teenager by rejecting the movie everybody loved.
Finally, the movie played on network television. I think this is the biggest one. It amplified every criticism one could lob at the film. If you thought it was long in theaters when it 3 hours and 30 minutes, you’ll really think it’s bloated when you try to watch it for 5 hours with commercials. Speaking of commercials, every time the story got going it was cut off by ads. The movie thrives on its momentum. Breaking that momentum every six minutes destroys the audience engagement. I remember flipping channels and watching the “I’m flying Jack!” Scene. It got cut off by and ad, and I changed the channel. I thought about that scene and how melodramatic it was and how the whole movie was melodramatic. I flipped back later to watch Rose floating on the door. I thought he definitely could have fit on there and it’s dumb that he didn’t. I figured the whole movie was illogical. The movie really needs to be experienced as a whole, a single story beginning to end, not bits and pieces. The movie is an emotional one not a logical one. “I’m flying Jack” plays perfectly with the proper build up. The door isn’t about whether he could logically fit. It’s about the fact he will sacrifice himself to ensure her survival. He’s going to die so she can live. It’s a beautiful ending when viewed in context.
At long last we come to the movie itself. It’s really good. The story follows Rose as she recounts the story of Titanic’s sinking to a team of divers excavating the wreckage of the ship. Her tale involves class conflict, repression, and love.
The story telling is fantastic. The way Cameron sets up the character arcs and the conflicts that will charge the story is beautifully handled. He also sets up the ship, how it works, and how it sinks both visually and through well placed exposition. of course the ship itself is the real stunner here. Through special effects magic, he convincingly recreates the ship in all its glory. The effects hold up shockingly well despite being 23 years old. It is a completely convincing magic trick that is wonderful to behold.
Young Rose, played by Kate Winslet, is deeply repressed by her class and social pressure represented by her severe mother played by Frances Fisher. Her family is broke, and her mother has arranged a profitable marriage with Cal Hockley played by Billy Zane. Fisher is wonderful. She has such a disdainful way of looking down on others, yet she conveys real desperation in private moments with Rose. However it’s her performance during the sinking that really stands out. Billy Zane is wonderful when he’s playing the smarmy rich boy, but when he flies into fits of rage it just feels silly. Perhaps it’s the way these scenes are written or the way he plays them, but they don’t work for me.
As Rose, Kate Winslet is truly fantastic. It’s a classic Hollywood Star making turn. She is wonderful throughout, but watching she’s her upper class ways and come alive is a nice bit of acting. The way she walks the tightrope between the upper and lower classes, the repression vs the free spirit is truly excellent. She also makes us believe that her love for Jack is real. The depth she brings to that love story is the reason the movie succeeds.
Jack is of course played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Jack is beautiful. He is a stunningly good looking young man in this movie. No wonder every teenage girl fell in love with him when this movie came out. His performance is fine. There’s just not a lot to Jack. He’s just a simple beautiful free spirit who falls in love with a girl. He is not the deepest character, but he is charming, reckless, and caring, and you can see why she loves him. It’s not a deep part of a deep performance, but it totally works in this movie.
The love story works, and it provides the back bone for the action movie that takes place in the second half. Cameron uses every action movie trick in the book to make the sinking as thrilling and engaging as possible. Scenes of Jack and Rose racing down corridors trying to escape the raising water play like something out of Terminator. When the ship breaks apart it’s shot like the best disaster movie you’ve ever seen, and when a key gets dropped on the wrong side of a gate, it is like watching a classic Hitchcock suspense film. However in all this action excitement the movie doesn’t lose its human moments. When Rose shares a quiet glance with a woman at the back of the boat, or when Jack looks at a man desperately holding on before everything goes wrong. The movie never loses sight of the human cost of the story. That’s what makes it a great movie. That attention to the human element.
The movie is an emotional experience. It builds and crescendoes to the final shot. The lovers journey, the desperation of the sinking, the despair of those left in the icy water, all takes you on a beautiful journey if you’ll let it.
I’m really glad I took the time to rewatch this movie. It has its flaws. It can be melodramatic at times, but that’s kind of the point. The filmmaking, characters, and storytelling more than make up for it. I am glad I could put aside the criticism and just experience the movie again. I loved it and I think you will too if you give it a chance.
My cup of tea A
Here is the video essay that inspired this review…