(Note: This article written before the release of Avatar.) Continuing The James Cameron Project with #4…
Intro: I like Titanic. I like it enough to be annoyed to have to start a discussion of the film by stating I do, in fact, like it. Titanic is the world’s biggest box office smash; nearly $2 billion in total business, one ticket at a time. The movie dominated its year both financially and critically, but since those crazy days has faced an equal and opposite backlash. Opinion polls call Titanic one of the worst Best Picture winners in history, and occasionally just the worst film period. To today’s film crowd, any movie loved by so many people so unconditionally just can’t be good. Hating Titanic is an easy way to be different, to plant a flag on one’s own little island while the masses party in Cancun.
Titanic certainly has its faulty rivets, the most prominent being its clunky screenplay. The film’s power is not in the words, however, but the craft. James Cameron put more into Titanic than would be expected, or even reasonable, then not only caught the lightning but sold the bottle over and over and over again. This film is a Hollywood legend and, in spite of its flaws, deserves to be examined honestly and not as an easy punchline to a familiar joke.
The Movie: We open on hero shots of the Titanic leaving port in 1912 before jaunting to the present-day wreck, where the improbably named Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) leads an elite team of nerds in pursuit of a priceless blue diamond called “The Heart of the Ocean”. The team fails to locate the stone, instead discovering some well-preserved pornography art. Jump cut to California where the 101-year old Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart) sees the pic on TV and boldly declares that the woman in the picture – and wearing the diamond – is her. Lovett flies Rose out to his salvage boat to hear her tale.
In 1912, Ms. Calvert was Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a 17-year old heiress engaged to the wealthy Cal Hockley (Billy f’n Zane), who made his fortune on Pittsburgh steel and being a dickshaft. She boards the Titanic in ultra first class as Hockley boasts that God himself couldn’t sink the ship. Nearby, a penniless drifter named Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) wins a steerage ticket on a lucky hand of poker, races to jump on board, and quickly declares he’s the king of the world.
Once the ship hits open sea, Rose has a battle with depression. She feels trapped by her future and contemplates leaping off the back of the ship, a plan narrowly averted by Jack.
(Jack, here’s a hint. Don’t hit on a girl in the midst of a suicide attempt! It’s, like, the number one warning sign!)
Hockley rewards Jack’s heroism with a humiliating invite to dine in first class with the “gentlemen” the next evening. After suffering through that gauntlet, Jack shows Rose a real party by taking her below decks for some raucous Irish dancing. Their budding flirtations are quickly halted, however, when Hockley discovers Rose’s actions and becomes abusive. Rose cuts it off with Jack. (Fickle, Jack. Fickle! Another warning sign!)
Jack refuses to give up, and eventually Rose agrees to run away with him. She asks Jack to draw her portrait, wearing only the giant diamond Hockley bought for her. Jack obliges, and the pair soon steam up the back of a locked car. Love is great! Love is grand! Hey, is that an iceberg?
The movie really shifts into gear as the boat begins to sink. Jack and Rose and Hockley play out their love triangle amidst the chaos of the collapsing vessel. Morality plays break out all over the ship. The crew locks third class passengers in steerage, so that the wealthy can get first pick at the lifeboats. Violence breaks out on the top deck. Children are used as bartering chips. Jack and Rose finally escape Hockley, but with no boats left they are forced to cling to the ship as it finally goes under. They become just two of the 1500 flailing, screaming survivors. Jack helps Rose onto a piece of driftwood, but with no way to save himself he makes Rose promise to live each day to the fullest, then promptly freezes to death. (Told ya, Jack.) When one boat finally does return, Rose drops Jack’s dead weight and gets herself rescued. She wraps up her story by arriving in New York, slipping past Hockley and living out the rest of her happy, full life.
What she neglects to tell Kurt Vanderjack Brock Lovett is that she kept the diamond. After the crew goes to sleep, old Rose slips out onto the deck of the ship, tosses the priceless, inhumanly valuable diamond into the water. She then dies in her sleep and her soul returns to Titanic, where she is cursed to spend a hellish afterlife with the rest of the damned and prideful victims who dared challenge the power of a vengeful God.
Er, I mean she has a romantic reunion with her long lost love.
The Scene: It’s tough to pick one single scene, so I’m going to point to the entire last hour of the film. Even if he’s awkward with staging a believable love story, James Cameron can sink shit real good. As he stated when pitching the film, “The Titanic story is like a great novel that really happened.” The ship was going too fast. Rescuers ignored calls for help. A class war played itself out over the course of a terrifying hour, and rich and poor alike froze to death in the North Atlantic. The real story is so compelling that throwing a fictional romance on top could have been overkill, but instead catapulted the film to another level. And it’s all because the movie didn’t skimp on the goods. Want to watch a boat sink? This is how it’s done.
The Line: It’s fitting that in a movie with a famously weak script, the best piece of dialogue is an ad-lib. Forget that “king of the world” crap. When Jack and Rose are rising out of the ocean on the back of the world’s biggest sinking ocean liner, moments from the vessel cracking in two, Rose turns to Jack and says – “Jack… this is where we first met.” It’s a cheese-free, touching moment between the two of them, and it was suggested by Winslet as an on-set improv.
The Production: Reams have been written about the terror of filming Titanic. A book on the making of the film actually spent time on the best-sellers list, the most successful movie tie-in book of its kind. The words “militaristic” and “tyrannical” came up multiple times in my research and, just as in The Abyss, both lead actors have suggested they wouldn’t work with Cameron again in the future.
Cameron became obsessed with the wreck after visiting it to collect footage for a pitch. He eventually got two studios to split the costs and the distribution rights. Good thing, because by the time Cameron was done, the budget for the film was a whopping $200 million dollars, an astronomical sum in 1997.
Cameron’s visit to the wreck flipped a switch in his brain. He became utterly obsessed with not only the story, but with getting every detail exactly and painstakingly correct. Every prop and set is so close to the real thing that it IS the real thing, right down to the White Star logo on the dinnerware. Cameron even built a full-scale replica of the ship, accurate down to the rivets, minus one side and some redundant deck sections. The filming took place in a 17 million gallon tank in Mexico, but moved to a smaller tank – “only” five million gallons – to sink the interiors. The shoot lasted nearly six months, with Cameron acting as his usual charming self. One disgruntled employee took revenge by lacing the cast and crew’s chowder with PCP, sending several to the hospital. He was never caught.
Meanwhile, the reputation of the film was sinking. The media loves a Hollywood bust, and Titanic looked like a big one. Delays in production pushed the film from its planned July opening into December, and Cameron’s obsessions seemed like overpriced indulgence. The critics smelled blood. Titanic was considered, no question, a sure bet to bomb. The film opened at #1, barely, with $28 million and pundits warned it had no chance to recoup its costs. And then the insanity began. Kids who don’t remember the Titanic winter have nothing to compare it to. It was a phenomenon, like Star Wars had been decades earlier. Sell-outs were common, even a month after its release. The film rode this wave of success to the Oscars, netting 11, including Cameron’s only Best Director and Best Picture wins. When Cameron raised his Oscar at the awards, he shouted that he was “king of the world.” After surviving this ordeal, I’m sure he felt like exactly that.
…A James Cameron Film: By now, we’ve established Cameron’s technological themes. He exposes the dangers of relying solely on technology, while saluting its use as a tool. There has never been a story that sums up this theme as completly as that of the Titanic. The sheer arrogance of the owners and builders of that ship, and the dramatic irony that brings about their deaths, is ripe for Cameron’s brand of storytelling, and he plays it to perfection. His Titanic is an observation of how the human spirit breaks down when our technology collapses from underneath us, and how we are slaves to our tools, whether they be real (the ship) or imaginary (the social ladders we use to define “us” from “them.”) Combine that with the ocean setting, his strong female hero, and the presence of Bill Paxton and you have an essential James Cameron work.
Lasting Impact: Two blights upon America, courtesy of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor knock-off and Celine Dion’s song, “My Heart Will Go On.”
Beyond that? The film launched Leonardo DiCaprio into superstardom, much to his everlasting anger. After being dragged against his will through tween publications like Tiger Beat and Cute Boy Giggle Book, Leo hid away in a cave and gradually rebuilt a solid, respectable career. Kate Winslet likewise hid away in the UK for a while and has become a strong, fearless actress. While they each owe their celebrity to this film, they struggled for years to distance themselves from it, to be taken seriously as actors instead of stars lucking into the biggest movie hit in history. Sadly, coupled with the public backlash I mentioned earlier, that appears to be the film’s biggest legacy – people trying to survive the film’s reputation and forge ahead without it.
Reason for Ranking: The decision in front of me is whether I look at Titanic as a story, or as a film. Can I separate the script from the accomplishment? Cameron is responsible for both, so it was a tough, tough choice. My final verdict is that the love story in the script is creaky, no question, but the filmmaking is so far ahead of the game that Titanic overcomes this flaw. There is passion and craft hanging on every frame, and the monumental achievement in bringing this film to life cannot be overlooked. I won’t allow some awkward dialogue to detract from Cameron’s victory – this film should have been impossible, was destined to sink its studio, and yet did much, much more than succeed. It conquered. As an accomplishment, it cracks the top three, but the script keeps it from rising any further.
The James Cameron Project:
5. True Lies
7. The Abyss