Unable to Stay, Unwilling to Leave: Titanic at 20
Titanic is the best Hollywood pop blockbuster of my lifetime, if not ever. James Cameron’s shipwreck romance is 20 years old and remains an effective piece of mainstream cinema and perhaps one of the best movies ever made. The success of Titanic has a dash of 'right place, right time.' The landscape of modern blockbusters has changed so much that we can never get a movie like this again.
Titanic is many things to many different people. For some, it's a romance for the ages. For history buffs, it's the seemingly definitive telling of one of history’s most ironic and tragic events. Some viewers love the science and technology of the ship and Cameron’s painstaking recreations. In 1997, when I was eight years old, Titanic was 'The Most Important Love Story of All Time.' I became obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet; my parents forbade me from even mentioning the movie, it was that bad.
The film spent 15 weeks at #1 at the domestic box office (it lost the top spot in April to Lost in Space). 15 weeks! Can you imagine a movie staying at number one for that long nowadays? Let alone, a woman-oriented romance with an original script? In the last decade, only Cameron’s Avatar came close and it fell to #2 in its 8th week. Now, I know that box office isn’t indicative of quality, but that kind of longevity is hard to ignore. According to Box Office Mojo, Titanic was in theaters until late September 1998. It was a movie that people could and did watch multiple times in the theater.
I bring up Titanic’s monumental box office success for two reasons. One, it’s pretty goddamn impressive. And two, before its release, people were convinced Titanic would be a colossal failure. The 'too big to fail' narrative historically backfired on the ship itself in 1912, and it looked like it would for the movie, too. The behind-the-scenes troubles and inflated budget made for a juicy story, and the natural conclusion was that the film would be an embarrassing flop. Titanic ended up becoming a landmark film for modern blockbusters and Cameron proved everyone wrong (he usually does, which is why I’m excited for Avatar 2 and beyond).
It’s not just that Titanic was immensely popular at the time. The screenplay and, specifically, its structure, is outstanding. The film is a master class of setup and payoff. Winslet’s Rose and DiCaprio’s Jack go through the entire ship during their quick but passionate courtship. Then the ship hits the iceberg and starts to fall apart. We can easily understand each part of the ship. Everything that happens in the first half (Rose and Titanic architect Thomas Andrews discuss the lifeboat count, for example) has some sort of relevance in the second half. The epic length of 195 minutes is earned because Cameron takes his time to introduce every moving part so that he can later break it down.
The sinking of the Titanic is a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Cameron’s methodical direction, peerless visual effects, and elegant camerawork create a breathless extended sequence. Every time I rewatch the film, I’m taken aback by how grueling and violent it is. You can feel the ice-cold water and each second is heart-stopping. The ship breaking in half is quite terrifying to behold. Cameron does not shy away from the danger or the suffering inflicted on the passengers and crew. His theme of classist hypocrisy plays out beautifully against this disaster backdrop.
The association of Titanic with preteen/teen girls has hurt its reputation in a really appalling way. This movie shot both DiCaprio and Winslet to fame, and DiCaprio’s matinee idol status would follow him throughout his career. Titanic gets ridiculed for its star-crossed romance and mushy dialogue. Part of me wonders if there’s some sort of internalized misogyny at play; young women like it, so it must be bad. I remember a lot of boys at the time loudly saying that they were too cool for it. That has followed this movie around, even today. For me, the love story is an archetype, an easy way to bring the audience into the story. Over the last few years, I’ve seen a resurgence and acceptance of Titanic as an overall great film, which is refreshing.
Titanic is one of the best films from the 1990s. The iconic score, the exciting action, and the heart-wrenching moments solidify it as a classic disaster epic. Despite decades of being ridiculed, the film really holds up for me as a populist gem. Calling Titanic a mass appeal masterpiece sounds like a backhanded compliment, I know. And for some cinephiles perhaps it is. I mean it, however, in the best way possible. It’s a movie everyone needs to revisit, not just because of its artistic merits but because it’s a time capsule for its era.