Some popular entertainment doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It can be used as a derogatory distinction, often accompanied with an accusation that it appeals to the lowest common denominator. And that reveals the prejudice – populist entertainment is meant to be enjoyed by the largest amount of people, from every background possible, but the mere notion of it daring to include “the lowest common denominator” can lead to mockery. Thus, that helps to explain some of the discourse levied at Titanic on the internet, in the past 20 years. However, it’s one of the most viewed movies ever, isn’t it natural for it to foster a minority of individuals who reject its soap-opery storytelling techniques?
There are plenty of people who hate Marvel, Star Wars, Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. However, while there’s nothing wrong with disliking Titanic, what you should not do is belittle its execution as a list of cheap thrills. For Titanic is an accomplishment, one that is not easily duplicated no matter how easy it may look. Along the way, this Period-Epic reveals itself to be about 3 ideas. It’s about objects. It’s about people. Yet, it is ultimately about one adeptly orchestrated, yet unconventional, hero’s journey.
The design of this movie is as immaculate as the massive vessel the title refers to, and it’s all aimed to capture the ideal image of a time and place. Emphasis on ideal. When researcher Brock Levett (Bill Paxton) enlists the help of Rose Dawson Calvert (Gloria Stuart) to recall her experiences as the only known survivor of the Titanic, he’s motivated by material gain. The plot device that drives this movie is the search for a lost and mythical piece of jewelry. But it’s nostalgia that draws Brock and his team of explorers into Rose’s story, nostalgic for a world and time they weren’t even alive for. Rose becomes their walking time capsule, and her need for closure is what sets the stage for her character arc. For nostalgia is about piecing a part of you back together, a part that Rose lost in the ocean.
So why is any of that important? Well, if we were to go back to 1996, what would we think upon hearing the news that James Cameron was directing a blockbuster about the RMS Titanic? The James Cameron of Terminator, True Lies, & Aliens. Our first thought may be this was a disaster film, made in the mold of 1970s thrillers or the more recently released Twister (1996). In those movies, the characters play second fiddle to the disaster because those films are not about losing anything. It’s really about giving the audience groundbreaking special effects and little else, prioritizing spectacle while giving little thought to the lives lost in the catastrophe. So it would stand to reason that action movie extraordinaire Cameron would make a similar movie, one built on destruction rather than heart. The RMS Titanic itself is loosely the impetus for the disaster movie genre to exist in the first place. So Cameron would make his Twister, his Poseidon Adventure. But he wanted to have his cake and eat it too, by way of making the characters as memorable as the ship itself. But complicating matters even further, Cameron needs you to invest in a story where the ending is inevitable. How does he do that? By making the Titanic a place you don’t want to leave.
Enter Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), our hero and audience surrogate. She’s dragged onto the famed boat as the fiancé of the shamelessly evil Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane). But Caledon’s greatest sin isn’t his shit name, it’s his remorseless leveraging of wealth and the way he bullies his future wife. The voyage is a miserable experience for Rose… until she meets Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). You know the rest of the story – two star crossed lovers have their meeting of destiny at the most tragically inopportune time.
For Rose, Jack is the embodiment of an ideal. He’s Tom Sawyer, he’s the ideal leading man, the perfect combo of looks, wit, charm, and tenderness. Is Jack too good be true? There’s no record of his boarding of the Titanic, we only have Rose’s memory to go off of. But that adds to the mystique of the story – the past is viewed through poetically Rose-colored glasses, yet Rose is endearing enough of a protagonist that we want to go on the ride she takes us on. Cameron, who wrote the movie’s screenplay, was smart to add so many fictional details to the movie’s events. The framing device instantly tethers the movie to the 90s. Meaning, this was one of the last moments in time you could make the movie in this way, where it would be believable that there’s still a living survivor of the disaster. In doing so, Brock and his crew become audience surrogates for a 90s movie crowd that may have heard of the Titanic, but knew little about the details, setting the stage for the movie to work its fairy tale magic.
But Titanic doesn’t just recall the 90s; Cameron’s filmmaking owes a thanks to Hollywood’s grand epics from the “Studio System” era of the 40s-60s. The movie’s grand scale and attention to detail recalls the likes of Barry Lyndon & Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s sweeping story has the shades of Doctor Zhivago. Its use of color and awe is reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, Lawrence of Arabia, and Ben-Hur. In a decade dominated by action flicks, Batman movies, and sci-fi adventures, Cameron went out and made an old-school Hollywood epic. Replete with flamboyant costume choices, easily identifiable heroes and villains, and a “will they or won’t they” romance that can draw roots all the way back to It Happened One Night (1934). This unique (for its era) approach at a blockbuster may have been alien, and even off-putting to audiences who were accustomed to a certain type of spectacle. They weren’t used to the biggest, most expensive movie of the year centering on a woman discovering her autonomy while also earning love from a mythical man who primarily functions to elevate her story.
Rose’s dilemma is a lack of choice, as evidenced on her reliance on men and their power. This is brought home by a wonderfully tense encounter Rose has with her mother (Frances Fisher), the latter seeing Caledon as the meal ticket to save them from poverty. But Rose isn’t happy mortgaging her freedom for comfort. She takes action, multiple times, where she goes after what makes her happy even if it puts her wellbeing at risk. Throughout the film, Rose often needs to ask other men how to solve a given problem. This starts as relatively low stakes issues, but then amplifies until she needs the advice of several men just to save Jack from his demise. But this comes with a price – true survival can’t be accomplished until Rose slowly learns to survive on her own skill and will to live. Ending in a powerful last ditch effort that reveals an extraordinary amount of resourcefulness. Rose becomes the best version of herself when she can no longer rely on the advice and intelligence of someone else to save her.
It’s also a near miracle, given how insanely complex this production is, that Cameron and casting director Mali Finn nailed the casting so well. Kate Winslet is as empathetic as she is fiery and angelic. DiCaprio just manages the right amount of charisma and cocky assuredness. Kathy Bates often steals the scenes she’s in, while Billy Zane is having too much fun being a heel. Meanwhile, the likes of Victor Garber, Bernard Hill, and Ioan Gruffudd have little time and dialogue to leave an impression, often saying a lot with just a change of expression.
What continues to be most impressive about Titanic is its marriage of visual excellence mixed with gripping storytelling. Cameron’s calling cards are symmetry and triangular dynamics. The Terminator and Kyle Reese are polar opposites, fighting over the fate of a woman and her unborn child. The Alien Queen and Ripley, their battle over Newt will determine if human motherhood can overcome the deadliness of the Xenomorphs. But it’s also the geometry on-screen. Cameron loves visual clarity in his work, and Titanic is nearly perfect in its visual design. The stars are excellently framed, taking advantage of their movie star appearance and wardrobe, bathed in golden and reddish hues. The ship has weight, and stretches the space of the screen with angular beauty. In parts of the movie, the skyline seems to be perpetually at that sweet Golden Hour. It’s also pretty remarkable that a PG-13 movie can get away with this much nudity. But Cameron succeeds in tying the nudity to art, a rather sly loophole but one that allows Jack to capture Rose without her being disarmed. Noteworthy that once the drawing finally happens, the camera is perhaps more interested in Jack’s pencil strokes than her body.
Director of photography Russell Carpenter won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography on the film; that was accomplished not only by producing some of the most memorable shots in cinematic history, but by employing an immersive visual strategy. As the boat continues to sink, the film slowly alters its axis point, smoothly shifting the audience’s viewpoint to match the increasing disoriented anxiety of the characters. Cameron and Carpenter are so subtle with the shifts that you have to remind yourself that the technique is being utilized. This aids in the movie’s ability to put us in the moment. It’s downright frightening when characters are falling like bricks down the vessel, or Rose and Jack nearly drowning as the hallways continue to get flooded and destroyed. The weight, the staging, set design, appropriate usage of CGI, and masterful framing make Titanic one of the most impactful out of body experiences a theater can provide. The film is just too adept at the cheat code of maximizing the grand scale of a movie theater.
As a result, Titanic may still be the director’s greatest accomplishment, his magnum opus in a career filled with home runs that landed all the way in the parking lot. There’s many ways to illustrate the success of this movie – the fact that it was the highest grossing movie of all time, and the first to gross over $1 billion. I could mention it’s tied for the most awards won at the Academy Awards (11), including Best Picture and Best Director. Or, I could just mention that this movie is now synonymous with the real-life, world famous disaster. It’s now hard to think about one without the other. Think of how difficult of an accomplishment that is – no one feels the same about World Trade Center (2006), for example. Part of it is the benefit of timing. But that advantage allows Cameron to communicate a feeling of Nostalgia that was lost – the feeling doesn’t need to be accurate in relation to how life actually felt back then, that’s what makes it populist entertainment.
There’s a key moment in the film, where Rose laments that she has nary a record of this eventful time in her life – it now only exists in her memory. A lesser film would immediately splice this moment with nostalgic scenes from the past. But Cameron waits, as that would be good but he has a better moment in mind to uncork that avalanche of emotions. For that’s what this movie is about – emotions. It’s not preoccupied with logic; Caledon isn’t supposed to be a layered, realistic antagonist. He’s supposed to be a mustache twirling foe, and it works for the movie, including one last act that is so dastardly its audacious that Cameron even wrote it. A vital emotional beat occurs when the ship’s architect, Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), tells our protagonist “I’m sorry I didn’t build you a stronger ship, young Rose.” Interesting use of ‘young’; he blames himself that this young woman will not get to see a full life.
Rose herself can relate to being at your lowest; her journey details why it matters who loves you and how much you love yourself. Early on, she nearly lost her life until she put her trust in someone’s love. Later, when Jack is accused of a crime, she initially rebukes his pleas of innocence. Yet, she ends up going back to him, and only observant viewers will notice she received no evidence of his innocence; she returns because she already knew his heart. Of course, Cameron has to have her state this aloud, ending the sublety. Even so, the emotional resonance is clear. It’s clear when the orchestra continues to play as the ship is sinking. Sure, you can mock this (even hilariously so), but it says something that these men have accepted their fate and would rather do what they love with the people they know in their last moments. Or that the ship’s captain (Bernard Hill) can’t reconcile the crew’s failure, but is truly sorry that most won’t survive the sinking.
Rose takes many of these people with her, in her memory. In the end, her choices reveals what matter to her. The jewelry? No emotional connection. The drawing? It means everything. The wealth? She rejects it, affirming that what should be remembered about the Titanic isn’t the flashy lifestyle of the people aboard or the obscene riches it took to build the vessel. What actually matters are the memories. It’s all she has left to construct a fantasy of what was, thus choosing to remember Titanic as something that represents hopes, dreams, optimism, and fantasy. There’s a reason the story isn’t called The Iceburg.