We know it’s hard to believe in hindsight, but all sorts of people anticipated that James Cameron’s Titanic would be the biggest disaster since the original ship collided with that famous iceberg in 1912. The studio, 20th Century Fox (now owned by Disney), was jittery from the start. Despite its built-in wow finish, a three-hour period romance didn’t sound like it shared many of the ingredients that had turned Cameron’s T2: Judgment Day and True Lies—both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger—into commercial bonanzas.
Except for one thing, which was that bankrolling Titanic was going to cost them a whole lot of money. That wasn’t even because the cast featured no Ah-nold-level marquee names. Leonardo DiCaprio had gotten some buzz off Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet and was already an Academy Award nominee, but Kate Winslet, another one-time Oscar runner-up, was mainly known to art-house audiences and critics, not the public at large. Cameron needed the big bucks because, like the very literal-minded visionary he was, he wanted to rebuild the ship and then figure out a way to sink it.
Fox’s jitters got worse when the already humongous budget ballooned to $200 million. Production went 22 days over schedule. Reports from the set hinted that Cameron’s fanaticism was turning his cast and crew into a whole bunch of unhappy campers down in Baja California. Then the movie’s release date got pushed back from July to December 1997, which is rarely a sign that things are going swimmingly.
The studio begged Cameron to at least hack the thing down to two hours to make theater chains happier, but he refused. Since his dickhead ways had never won him much affection in Hollywood, the entertainment press was licking its lips at the prospect of him finally coming a cropper with his idiotic, ruinously expensive boat movie.
Instead, Titanic became the first movie to ever break the $1 billion mark at the box office, not to mention the biggest pop phenomenon of the decade. For months on end—right up until Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan finally gave everybody something new to chatter about the following summer, in fact—you couldn’t escape Celine Dion bawling “My Heart Will Go On,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet monopolizing magazine covers and red carpets or 13-year-olds yelling “I’m the king of the world!” every time they found a railing to pose with. There hadn’t been anything like it since 1939’s Gone With The Wind, and there really hasn’t been anything like it since.
With a few exceptions, serious movie buffs deplored Titanic then and still can’t stand it now. They hoot at how lame Cameron’s dialogue is, something even fans can’t deny (unless English isn’t their first language). They ridicule the preposterous plot dynamics that send the hero and heroine scuttling all over the ship to feast our eyes on its glories, especially once they’re in as much danger from rich-guy villain Billy Zane and his .45-toting henchman as they are from the icy Atlantic’s embrace. The movie’s huge popularity and 11 Oscars—three more than GWTW got but the same number as Ben-Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—aren’t much of a recommendation to film snobs, either. How good can a movie that entranced a generation of teenage girls be anyway?
Pretty damn good, actually. Call me soft in the head, but I was a sucker for Titanic in 1997 and I haven’t changed my mind. I got off on it partly because a communal event this enormous generated an excitement that was a blast to participate in. But Cameron’s extravaganza was also a reminder that movies lacking subtlety and refinement can be great experiences anyway. Immersive wasn’t a critical buzzworld then, but if any movie defined the category, Titanic did.
Disdaining Titanic because it’s vulgar and sappy, just means you’ve given up on the pleasures of movies as spellbinding folklore.
Cameron’s ineptitude at guessing how upper-class and lower-class people alike talked and behaved in 1912—or ever, for that matter—was probably no handicap in making the material more accessible to the big audience. If anything, the flip modern anachronisms in DiCaprio and Winslet’s courtship helped the kids identify. It says a lot that Billy Zane, who gives the only performance that shows any grasp of the period, is widely regarded as Titanic’s worst actor.
What Cameron deserves credit for, besides a structure sturdy enough to let him cram in everything that interested him about the real Titanic without boring ticket-buyers, was that he did justice to the event’s tragic dimension. Even the anonymous deaths weren’t trivialized. However, he also upended the conventional understanding of what the sinking symbolized, and that was his claim to pop-genius audacity.
Up to then, the Titanic story had always been seen as a parable of the collapse of the pre-World War One old order, from its serene confidence in technological progress to its equation of civilized values with aristocratic ones. Cameron turned the sinking into the raw beginning of a new age instead. That’s the point of Rose/Winslet’s Picasso paintings and dining-room chatter about Freud, not to mention her climactic declaration of female independence. It’s not an accident that her journey ends when she looks up at the Statue of Liberty in the rain; at least given how Cameron has stacked the decks, she’s the most important Titanic survivor of all. Metaphorically speaking, she’s pregnant with the whole rest of the 20th century.
It’s at this level that Cameron’s brand of crude, broad-strokes filmmaking is irresistible. A director who didn’t have his bravura version of the common touch would have verbalized and tarted up that idea until only its cleverness registered and the primitive poetry went MIA. Most likely, any number of people who loved Titanic would have been at a loss to articulate why its ending felt optimistic instead of morbid. But the best explanation is the aftermath that Cameron only hints at: Rose’s joyful, adventurous life in the 80-plus years since the sinking.
Naturally, there is still plenty in the movie to hoot at. That includes the kindergarten Marxism that turns anyone well-born into a vicious baddie while the proletarian passengers in steerage have a monopoly on heartily enjoying life. (Cameron undermines even that by his contempt for the ship’s stewards, whose priggishness or cowardice is always good for a laugh. Hey, aren’t they working class too?) But disdaining Titanic because it’s vulgar and sappy, which it often is, just means you’ve given up on the pleasures of movies as spellbinding popular folklore. That was the initial attraction of the barbaric but potent dream medium that was just beginning to capture people’s imaginations worldwide when the original Titanic set sail.
Interestingly, despite its success, the movie spawned virtually no imitators. (The main exception was Michael Bay’s misbegotten Pearl Harbor, which tried for a similar mix of romance and historical apocalypse and managed to botch both.) It’s right on the cusp between the post-millenial future of movies and their 20th-century past—anticipating our era’s CGI spectacle and demolition-derby action climaxes, but harking back to classic Hollywood’s glamor and larger-than-life emotions. Love it or hate it, Titanic was one of a kind, and at the very least we can all agree that one was enough.