There was a period in the last month of 1997 and the first several months of 1998 when it seemed likely that, if alien civilizations ever did a quick flyby of our humble little blue sphere, all their instruments might pick up would be Celine Dion. It’s hard to explain Titanic to anybody who wasn’t alive while it was out because, like big, White Christmas-style musicals or Saturday radio serials, it’s the sort of art and the sort of phenomenon-surrounding-the-art that just can’t exist in the current media landscape.
Perhaps for that reason, it remains one of the most sharply divisive films in your very own circle of friends. People love this thing or hate this thing. Why? Maybe looking at it with the benefit of hindsight and the bifocals I’ve needed to purchase since seeing the thing as a middle schooler will help.
The Story of a Boy and a Girl (Poorly Framed)
The thing about Titanic that I’m sure is going to frustrate every other retrospective writer is simply that there’s not a lot going on with it thematically. You don’t hear people wax philosophical about the class divisions of its characters or go into deeply detailed rundowns of the symbolism of the necklace-thingy Rose hurls over the side. But again, like White Christmas or a stage musical like Anything Goes, that’s by design. This is proud melodrama, here, pretending to nothing more and nothing higher.
For me, the story already gets off to a clunky start with a framing device placing us in the present day, as a group of deep sea explorers who are apparently fixated on one piece of jewelry recover from the wreck of the Titanic herself a drawing that depicts a young lady wearing it. I’m not sure a humble charcoal rendering could survive nearly a century of floating around in brine, but I’m also sympathetic to director James Cameron’s viewpoint in that I’m equally weary of the sort who fixates on those kinds of details.
An elderly woman, Rose (Gloria Stuart), comes forward to claim the picture is of her, and begins to narrate the story of her own fateful journey aboard the ocean liner whose wreck would transfix the world. She paints a picture of herself as a budding, modern young woman in a time before anybody appreciated that (portrayed by Kate Winslet in the role that would launch her career). Pressured into an essentially arranged marriage to an arrogant bore (Billy Zane … what was his character’s name again?), she chomps at the bit to escape and use her brain instead of just being a pretty little doll. Meanwhile, we also somehow get the story of Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio, the single cause of 1997’s fourth-quarter fainting couch boom). A young bounder who happens upon tickets on the ocean liner, Jack runs around causing trouble, he and Rose meet cute and then start seeing each other on the side.
Eventually, the ship hits an iceberg and all the truth about Rose trying to run off with Jack comes out. What follows is, for me, the most interminable stretch of film of the late 20th century (and I’ve seen Meet Joe Black). We watch hundreds of other folks die in the cataclysmic wreck; the film is notable for positing that the ship, once partly sunk, was rent in half by the force of its own gravity. Even with the aged CG, it’s still a cringingly hard part to watch. That should be the main focus, but instead we are treated to alarum after alarum—Billy Zane opening fire on the two lovebirds and double-crossing Jack, Rose leaping from a lifeboat back onto the damn ship, the two young lovers navigating the rapidly scuttling ship in a race against icy death.
The difficulty with all of this is, of course, that we know Rose doesn’t die, though if she suddenly did and we flashed forward again to discover Gloria Stuart is actually just a senile old lady playing a prank on the treasure hunters, my goodness what a film we’d have gotten then. This the real, damning structural flaw in Titanic and the part that has always kept me from liking it. I’ve never, in a whole lifetime of watching big budget movies, been angrier at one as I’ve been watching it. How Rose knows all the parts of the tale from Jack’s perspective—and the perspectives of other characters whose presence she is not in during several pivotal moments—is another thing best left entirely unexplored if you value your sanity.
I didn’t sit around reading all the reviews at the time, but in the years since, I really haven’t heard people go into those major structural flaws. I think one of the reasons they haven’t is that the movie gives critics no good reason to dwell on them, honestly.
A Ship-Shape Film Nonetheless
If Titanic pretends to nothing more than melodrama, neither does it pretend to anything less. Because Titanic, while it can be frustrating to a certain viewer, quite simply isn’t a bad movie, no matter how simple that plot synopsis above sounds to you. This is because the movie is just well made, from the outrageously opulent set design and costuming to the fairly intricate way with which Cameron makes sure to establish the important elements and objects that become key to the story.
We know there’s a gun before Billy Zane goes nuts with it. We know, clearly enough, the layout of the ship herself, and of the way the rich party above and the poor get stuck below. The photography is never too quick, the establishing shots may be a bit lavish, but they also ground us in each scene. We are after all talking about the same director who gave the world Aliens and Terminator, a man who understands how to stage action, whether that action is a knockdown fight between cyborg assassins in a steel foundry or a foot chase aboard a sinking ship.
This was also, in a way, the only movie apart from perhaps Star Wars where the meta-textual information was as important to enjoying the experience as just watching the film itself. An entire subculture of Titanic obsessive—ship and movie—was already springing up by the time it came out. (Look up the 1996 point-and-click adventure game Titanic: Adventure Out of Time when you have time to burrow deep into a wiki hole.) Cameron shoved little historically inspired details into every scene. Background characters culled from real photographs. Death scenes of extras inspired by actual historical people who were aboard the ship. On the one hand, who cares? On the other, how can you not?
All that Old Hollywood hubris is supposed to serve as the grand tapestry around which our two illuminated lovers’ story ends tragically, but in a lot of ways it stifles it. Despite that, DiCaprio’s death and Rose’s escape are still memorable.
In a Theater Near, Far and Wherever You Are
The phenomenon of Titanic, meanwhile, transfixed the entire world for what felt like an entire year. Find somebody in high school in 1998, and if they saved the memorabilia from their school’s winter dance or Homecoming or prom, you won’t need three guesses to figure out what the theme was. Celine Dion’s performance promos still, still feature the soaring ballad “My Heart Will Go On,” despite it being at best the third or fourth best ’90s movie ballad.
Part of the reason this even happened was that Titanic stormed the box office during the Christmas season and, that year, faced little meaningful competition. The Postman was a notorious flop, Tomorrow Never Dies outperformed the previous film in the 007 franchise but didn’t even touch Titanic’s contrails, and tired-ass stuff like Home Alone 3 was not going to steal box office from a much-hyped event movie featuring two hot young actors who explicitly bang during it. The initial months of 1998 also gave us some notable movies, but none could touch this behemoth.
By one calculation, if you adjusted Titanic’s 1997, $636.3 million gross to 2016 dollars, it would be just shy of $1 billion. Vanishingly few films ever make that kind of explosive return, and these days they do it with gimmicks like 3D screenings and a “weekend” that’s eyeing Wednesday night. Nowadays, every other movie is explicitly aspiring to be the sort of event movie Titanic was. Armies of special effects workers and vast computer processing farms have made it thus. If, like me, you’re an exhausted moviegoer who can’t even be bothered to go see a movie with Superman in it, you’ll have your chance to watch it on your phone in a few months.
That simply wasn’t the reality back then. In 1997, theatrical premieres of major films were still a monoculture. As I write this, Star Wars Episode VIII is poised to annihilate the box office, but there is no earthly possibility it’ll still be an obsession by March. Netflix will release some binge bait that we’ve never heard of and yet is essential viewing, and nobody’s going to buy that third ticket.
A Phenomenon without a Fandom
One of the harshest commentaries on Titanic’s artistic legacy came in a Rick and Morty episode, in which Chris Parnell’s sad sack paterfamilias drags his disinterested wife to what is essentially a weekend vacation getaway package that is a recreation of the movie, complete with a guaranteed sinking. Who, you’re supposed to wonder, is this whole thing for? Years later, you don’t get the sense that Titanic has a major fandom. You don’t hear references to it as often; it’s not particularly quotable. It’s seeing a theatrical re-release, but I haven’t heard anybody chomping at the bit to go see it again.
It’s perplexing, in retrospect, that the whole thing could be so ephemeral, but damn it, this whole thing has always, since the time it was in theaters, been perplexing to me. When we return to the present at the end of the movie, the flummoxed treasure hunters determine that the jewel must be lost—that long and lovely story had no payoff for them.
Old Rose still has the necklace of course, and she pitches it into the ocean to float back down to the Titanic. Here’s the thing: Why? She held onto it for 80 years. We just got a whole long story taking her back to the cherished past, to a love that still burns within her even though it was one moment in time. The point of the damned movie seems to be that these emotions are part of us and cannot be denied … I think? That necklace seems at least partly to symbolize that … maybe?
But it looks cooler to pitch it into the ocean, and we need to go big here. We’re talking about a movie that is about the biggest, mightiest thing of its kind ever built, and in the end it all just ended up at the bottom of the impassive sea.
Kenneth Lowe is 882 feet long and weighs 46,328 tons. He works in media relations for state government in Illinois and his work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues Magazine and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow him at his blog. He is also unwillingly on Twitter.