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?
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.