‘Titanic’ at 25: My heart still goes on for a masterpiece as magnificent and tragic as the ship itself
Titanic is the first film that I can remember watching. I was too young to see it during its first time in theaters, but first encountered it via the two-part VHS when I was only seven years old. I was immediately enthralled, in awe of the tragedy of the ship’s sinking, the grandeur of the film, and the beauty of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. I had a crush on a boy in my first-grade class just because his last name was Dawson, and many times, my American Girl dolls narrowly escaped death on the Titanic. I was obsessed.
Getting the opportunity to see the film for the first time on the big screen twenty-five years after its release as a 28-year-old film critic was both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking. I know the film backward and forward, having seen it countless times through the years, but what if it didn’t live up to watching it in a dark theater with 3D glasses? Is Titanic really as special as it is in my head?
When James Cameron wrote and directed Titanic, he’d already had three films win Academy Awards. But this film was different – it had grown out of his personal fascination with shipwrecks and provided an excuse for him to spend time at the actual site of perhaps the most famous shipwreck of all time. But what he was doing with this film was clearly something quite different; it was epic on a scale that non-franchise films rarely rose to, even by the late 1990s.
The production would also test the limits of both technology and film budgeting; with $200 million backing it, forging two mega-studios to fund it – Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox – it was the most expensive movie ever made at the time. The film utilizes scale models, CGI, a 17 million gallon water tank, and a partial reconstruction of the ill-fated ship. Production designer Peter Lamont and set decorator Michael Ford beautifully recreated every nook and cranny of the famous ship.
But what makes Titanic work so well – aside from James Cameron’s meticulous attention to detail and ability to make a three-hour runtime fly – is that it’s not just a period drama romance or a survival film. It’s both those and a scathing class commentary and, perhaps most importantly, a beautiful coming-of-age film. As impressive as the sinking of the giant ship and the lavish costumes by Deborah L. Scott, and the underwater footage of the actual RMS Titanic all are, what makes the film come together is the transformation that we watch Rose undergo.
When we first encounter Rose, she’s a 101-year-old woman (Gloria Stuart) whose own granddaughter doesn’t even fully believe that she is the woman in the nude drawing recovered from the shipwreck. But as she unfolds her story to treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his crew, she conjures up the 17-year-old version of herself (Winslet), too preoccupied with her impending marriage to the cold and arrogant Cal (Billy Zane) to be impressed by the Titanic.
Rose is a young woman who feels trapped in her upper-class world, and it would be all too easy for her to be a privileged annoying brat of a character. But as the audience is treated to glimpses of Cal’s abusive behavior and her mother’s (Frances Fisher) apathy to her daughter’s happiness, it’s easy to feel sorry for her. Plus, Rose is intelligent and cultured (the references to Freud and Picasso never fail to make me laugh) and perfectly willing to interact with those “lower” than her.
That includes Jack Dawson (DiCaprio), the baby-faced poor artist whose lucky hand at a poker game won him and his friend Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) tickets for the Titanic. Jack is as enamored by Rose as the audience can’t help but be, so it seems like fate that he’s the one to witness her come very close to committing suicide by throwing herself off the stern. He manages to talk her down from jumping and the two form a bond, much to Rose’s mother and fiancé’s distaste.
While the romance between the young couple plays out, Rose also discovers that there is a different way that she could live – rowdy dances instead of stuffy dinners, riding horses astride on the beach instead of an endless parade of afternoon tea with women who don’t really seem to like each other at all. It’s enough to give her the will to live, which she soon needs once the ship hits an iceberg because Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), the managing director of the White Star Line, has pushed it to go too fast in an attempt to make headlines.
In the second half of the film, it shifts to become a survival movie as Rose and Jack race their way through seemingly all the decks of the ship in an attempt to survive both the flooding water and her jilted fiancé. It’s here that the class commentary of the film becomes more cutting as class distinctions become more deadly. From the gentlemen who request a brandy even as the ship is going down to the third class passengers locked below decks to the hubris that led men to call a ship “unsinkable,” it’s clear that the true enemy of the movie isn’t the pretentious and selfish Cal but the larger system that he is a part of – capitalism.
The performances from the entire cast are fantastic. DiCaprio and Winslet have the kind of chemistry that most costars can only dream of, and it remains one of his best performances to this day. Winslet, coming off the heels of her Oscar-nominated role in Sense and Sensibility, perfectly portrays the way that the aristocratic young Rose seems to thaw over the course of the film, as her own personality begins to come through her hard shell and her mother’s high-class training.
But the true stars of the show are Victor Garber and Kathy Bates as real-life passengers Thomas Andrews and Molly Brown. Garber’s increasingly somber performance as the ship sinks is all the more affecting for its subtlety, while Bates’s warm performance perfectly shows the coldness of the women around her by contrast. Her line delivery of “Those are your men out there,” as she sits in a lifeboat full of women listening to the screaming of the passengers in the water following the sinking, will haunt me my whole life.
There’s much to praise in Cameron’s script for this film, despite occasionally cheesy dialogue. No one knows how to craft a story like Cameron does, as he weaves together the two timelines seamlessly, ensuring that the present-day plot line tells us everything that we need to know about the mechanics of how the ship will sink before we watch the human experience of it. There are also at least a dozen stand out lines that fans of the film can gleefully quote. (Rose saying “I’d rather be his whore than your wife,” rocked my world when I first saw this as a child.)
After the recent release of Avatar: The Way of Water, this rerelease of Titanic for its anniversary is only further proof that Cameron is the master of utilizing 3D to enhance the theater experience. It’s subtle work and shies away from anything gimmicky that would disrupt the emotional beats of the film but instead immerses you further into its world. The remastered 4K version of the film has an added crispness to it, making everything more defined, which works together with the 3D to make you feel like you’re actually within the film. You can practically see the individual strands of hair on Winslet’s elaborate updos and the beading on her gowns. Truly, the gorgeous costuming and production design are perhaps the most benefited from this restoration, as the updated quality of the films makes them shine even more than before.
Twenty-five years later, Titanic is still a movie that makes you wonder how anything like it could possibly be made. It seems like a flash of lighting – something that could only happen once and never will again. It earned 11 Academy Awards and billions of dollars and catapulted its two leads into being household names. It has spawned fan clubs and podcasts, sold Barbie doll replicas of Rose and two-tape VHSes, and created Leomania.
But beyond all of that, what really makes Titanic special isn’t the cult around it or the insane craft and tech work that went into it. It’s the very human story at its heart, the critique of the classism that cost thousands of people their lives, the exploration of how a young woman can escape the cage that’s smothering her and choose a new life. It’s a tribute to those who lost their lives at sea on April 15, 1912, and a remarkably genuine celebration of the type of romance that can save you “in every way a person can be saved.”
The remastered Titanic is currently in theaters in 4K and 3D from Paramount Pictures.