Titanic (1997)

Over the course of his career, James Cameron has directed a total of 8 feature films thus far. The most successful of these was his last one, Avatar, which was for a time both the most expensive movie ever made and the highest grossing movie of all time. Ironically, the film which held both these titles before it was Cameron’s previous movie Titanic.

Before it was finally released in December 1997, that film made headlines for months for its huge budget, which kept getting higher and higher. But the film was released in time to get Oscar buzz and before long, it made more than enough to cover its huge cost. It also boosted the careers of its two stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and sadly or not, ensured that the big studios would keep giving the green light to super-expensive productions. It would even make history by tying with Ben-Hur as the film with the most Oscar wins (11), a record that has yet to be broken, although it would be matched just a few years later by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. One of the Oscars that Titanic won was for Best Original Song for “My Heart Will Go On”, which was sung by Celine Dion and which topped the Billboard charts. Hell, the movie even has a movie line that would go down as a classic: Jack’s “I’m the king of the world!”, which Cameron would infamously echo when he won three Oscars for this film (Best Picture, Director, and Editing).

In light of all this extreme buzz, how does the film itself hold up?

The article continues after these advertisements...

First, there’s much to admire about this film. Both DiCaprio and Winslet are appealing in their roles, making it easy to to root for them, although the scene-stealer is Gloria Stuart as the older version of Winslet’s character Rose DeWitt Bukater. The film is bookended by Rose relating her story about the title ship to treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), who makes headlines when he finds a drawing of Rose wearing a valuable necklace while scavenging the remains of the Titanic. With her granddaughter Lizzy (Suzy Amis, who became Cameron’s fifth and current wife), Rose meets up with Lovett at the site of the sinking.

The bulk of the film gives us an eye-popping recreation of the ship using both models and CGI. This is why one Oscar I’m glad the film won was for the Art Direction by Peter Lamont, who previously did Aliens for Cameron, as well as a number of the James Bond films.

The love story that emerges between the upper-class Rose and carefree lower-class artist Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) is, dramatically speaking, nothing we haven’t seen before. But it’s still pleasant thanks to the two leads.

But sadly, the film starts to become cliché-ridden when we meet Rose’s fiance Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), who’s basically the same annoying bully that’s been in nearly every teenage comedy/drama that came before this film. Not helping matters is Rose’s mother Ruth (Frances Fisher), who’s just as annoying as Cal, which ends up making us wonder why these two aren’t the ones set to walk down the aisle. There’s even the overused trope of the villainous Cal having a sinister henchman, played by David Warner, an actor who can always be counted on to act sinister (he was Jack the Ripper and tortured Picard, after all). The pressure and abuse (verbal from Ruth, and physical from Cal) are presented as the reasons why Rose tries to commit suicide, which also happens to be when she first meets Jack.

Happily, there’s one passenger who’s a delight to watch and that’s Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), who treats both Rose and Jack with decency when Jack surprises Rose, Cal, and Ruth by dressing impeccably for dinner in the first class section one evening.

Not surprisingly, this leads to Rose’s romance with Jack going further, to the point where he draws the sketch of her, followed by sex in a car in the cargo hold. It’s shortly after that when the ship hits that iceberg.

But clichés set in again when Cal sets out to get rid of Jack, even framing him for stealing Rose’s necklace. Jack is subsequently handcuffed and locked in one of the offices. Yes, even though the ship is starting to sink, the villain of the piece takes the time to engage in mustache-twirling antics.

However, chaos begins to increase and soon everyone on the ship is panicking as it starts to sink. One thing leads to another as our lovebirds are reunited, with Rose even jumping off a lifeboat back onto the doomed ship to be with Jack.

Soon we see the money shot (in a film full of them, I might add) when the Titanic is sticking up high in the air before the pressure causes a huge, horrific snap that breaks the ship in two. Our lovebirds are, of course, at the very edge of the ship as it goes down.

They surface and make their way to floating debris for Rose to climb onto. This is point which is probably the most debated moment in the film, as Jack remains in the ice cold Atlantic water and eventually dies as a result. Many have argued that he could’ve either gotten onto the debris with Rose or they could’ve found something else for him to climb onto. I can certainly understand that stance, but at least thanks to DiCaprio, Jack’s death is a sad moment. Fortunately, Rose informs us that Cal killed himself later on while she got on with her life.

We then get another “oh, come on” moment when we learn that Rose has actually had the necklace that treasure hunter Lovett has been coveting all along, and promptly throws it in the ocean. But the film gets an appropriately bittersweet ending when Rose quietly dies and is reunited with Jack in heaven, to the thunderous applause of their fellow Titanic passengers.

Many of the characters in the film are fictitious, with Bates’s Molly Brown, Capt. Smith (Bernard Hill), and Titanic builder Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) being exceptions. Perhaps inevitably some people noted inaccuracies with how some of these characters were depicted in the film. One important inaccuracy was the depiction of the ship’s first officer William Murdoch (Ewan Stewart), who in the film kills himself in a fit of panic as the ship is being evacuated. Murdoch’s nephew took Cameron to task for this, because his uncle died helping people escape from the ship. Scott Neeson, the vice president of 20th Century Fox (which released the film) later made an apology to the town of Dalbeattie, Scotland, where Murdoch lived. Cameron himself apologized as well, although he insisted he meant no disrespect with his depiction of Murdoch.

Historical inaccuracies aside, Titanic itself is certainly impressive to look at and Cameron stated from the beginning that this was a fictional story. But I can’t help but wonder how the drama would’ve played out if the character of Cal was either removed altogether or actually a nice guy, which would’ve put Rose in a dramatically intriguing conundrum as she found herself suddenly falling for another man. DiCaprio and Winslet would both go on to win Oscars, but Zane ended up being forever known as someone who plays a jerk to a generation of young girls who fell in love with DiCaprio thanks to this film.

If I had to pick my favorite Cameron movie, it would probably be a tie between The Terminator and Aliens. The former was a nerve-jolting thriller which managed to avoid many of the plot holes that time travel stories often fall into, while the latter (like the original Alien) worked beautifully as both a horror movie and a sci-fi movie. Like Titanic, both films had protagonists that are easy to root for, but unlike Titanic, they had tight screenplays.

Ironically, Cameron’s next film Avatar, which came out 12 years after Titanic, would also suffer from many of the same issues even though it also had great production values along with a great cast.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is The Thoughts of a Proud Nerd: A Story of Hope, available now from Amazon.

You may also like...

  • Xander

    This is a movie that has some absolutely beautiful and touching moments, but not a single one of them occurs where any of the main characters are on the screen.

    • John

      Agreed, the ship sinking and watching everyone panic and try to survive was more emotional than Jack dying or Rose getting rescued.

  • David Klopotoski

    The “controversy” of the door at the end to me has always been moot. Jack and Rose try to climb onto the door together at first but it flips over. So Jack tells Rose to get on it by herself. I suppose if they weren’t both panicking for their lives they might have been able to carefully maneuver onto the door together to keep it balanced but in the heat of the moment it didn’t work.

    • Michael Weyer

      Mythbusters even tackled it and noted that to keep it afloat, Jack would have to tie the lifejacket under it but a few minutes in the icy water would kill him anyway.

      To his credit, Cameron openly says “the script said he had to die, I should have used a smaller door.”

      • David Klopotoski

        Even if he did live… seriously they knew each other for like two days at that point. So they get off the boat and find an alleyway or something to sleep in for a week. Then Rose probably realizes she doesn’t have to marry a villainous millionaire to do better than some guy who draws naked ladies and doesn’t even make money doing so, and Jack gets sick of her stuck-up bullshit, and they break up, and the rest of Rose’s life probably happens exactly the same way because she didn’t fucking need Jack to be a successful independent woman. For all we know she lied about Jack dying because she didn’t want to go into how dreadful it was to live with him in the slums of New York for a week. Or she might have made up Jack entirely because there’s no fucking record of him to be found. He was just a storytelling device for her to easily explain how she found her independence while the tragedy of Titanic was happening around her. What a self-centered bitch.

  • John

    That is something I never understood about movies based on true events. Why take a real person and make up a situation (especially if its a negative one) instead of just making a new fictional character. Like would anyone in the audience really care that the crewmember that shot a passenger then himself had a made up name?

  • Michael Weyer

    * The Blu-Ray is terrific with the making of stuff like Cameron figuring “if I was going down, at least make it look good.” And yes, the actors sharing horror stories of his antics.

    * To his credit, Cameron openly acknowledges how the initial success pushed his ego and regretting some of his behavior then. “You ever win an Oscar, never quote your own movie.”

    * The alternate ending is notable as they find Rose with the necklace and Lovett speaks for everyone…
    Lovett: “You had it the whole time?!”
    Rose: “Hardest part of being poor is knowing you’re really rich. But every time I thought of selling it, I remembered Cal and how I got by without him.”
    That leads to a fun bit of Lovett holding it at last…and realizing how empty the search has been so gives it back and when Rose dumps it, one guy goes “that sucks, lady!”

    * Really, mock the dialouge and such but once the actual sinking takes place, it’s fantastic visuals and powerful filmmaking.

    • Xander

      I honestly teared up at some of the scenes during the sinking of the boat. The mother reading to her children. The old couple in bed together. The man (the boat’s designer?) adjusting the clock as the boat lists.

      I wish there’d been more moments like that throughout the movie’s run time.

      Or more moments like the guy falling and hitting the propeller and spinning off into the water. The theater broke out in laughter at that bit of unintentional comedy.

      • Michael Weyer

        The old couple are real, the Strauses who refused to abandon each other.

        And Andrews, by all reports, made no attempt to save himself either, just sitting there like he couldn’t believe his ship had betrayed him.

  • ozduck

    The biggest bit of disbelief I felt was that Cal would have ever have killed himself after the 1929 crash. He would have stolen the company money as it was going down the gurgler – after all he has a good record of safely leaving a sinking ship – and gone off to Hollywood to become a sleazy Film Producer with a casting couch!

  • maarvarq

    Ironically, Cameron’s next film, which came out 12 years after, would also suffer from many of the same issues even though it also had great production values along with a great cast.

    and a sucking hole of an excuse for a story line. I am not spending one cent on the goddamned sequel, and sincerely hope that it flops hard enough for Avatar 4 and 5 (apparently 2 and 3 were shot simultaneously) to die stillborn.

  • AJ

    So wait, Jack and Rose meet up in Heaven… and Heaven is the Titanic? And all the other people who died are there?
    That’s a pretty lousy Heaven, ending up in the place where the greatest tragedy of your life occurred. Seems more like they’re stuck in Hell to me.
    The again, I suppose it’s like “The Shack” where Worthington’s character ends up in Heaven and it’s where his daughter was brutally raped and murdered…

    • Xander

      I thought it was really weird, as well, that all of these characters were so happy to have Rose show up to get together with her one-night stand while her husband is nowhere to be found.

  • Jet

    Ironically, Murdoch was actually one of my favourite minor characters in the movie because he’s depicted as brave and deeply honourable – not only does he throw Cal’s bribe money back in his face and tell him to fuck off, but when he does shoot himself it’s in a fit of remorse after killing a passenger who’d tried to storm the lifeboat he was supervising. He’s easily one of the most heroic characters in the whole thing. I saw the movie when I was about eleven, and the next thing I knew every girl in my class had Leo DiCaprio stickers all over their schoolbooks and wouldn’t quit giggling over what a dreamboat he was, which I couldn’t comprehend because – as it later turned out – I’m not sexually attracted to dudes. Or indeed anyone. Still really admire him as an actor though.

  • Jet

    One of the reviewers over at [unnamed similar site] made the very astute observation that this movie worked as well as it did with audiences because it has both the “women’s code” (sacrifice all for the sake of true love!) and the “men’s code” (how do I behave honourably during a life-threatening catastrophe/physical sacrifice to protect others). So both men and women had something there which appealed to them. Broadly speaking, of course.