There was a school of thought just prior to the release of Titanic that the movie was going to be a massive flop, a pure example of an idiotic Hollywood folly not seen since the moment when Michael Cimino decided to bring Heaven’s Gate to the screen.
Only two years before we had Waterworld, which became famously known as “Kevin’s Gate”, and thus, everyone was on edge, expecting the same from James Cameron’s new project. Hell, both movies were set on water, further bringing up that famous saying about not working on the stuff.
Cameron was famous for his ability to go over budget spectacularly and yet always delivering the goods, and looked as if he had finally bitten of more than he could chew. Worst of all, he was making a movie where everyone knew the ending. The boat sinks.
Not only did the film deliver the goods, gain good critical reviews and make a fortune at the box office, it did so on a scale that was totally unexpected; the first film to gross over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, fourteen Academy Award nominations that converted into eleven wins, and becoming beloved with an audience who connected with it deeply.
It also gave the world, for good or ill, an incredibly popular theme song from Celine Dion.
In many ways an old-fashioned film, Titanic has the feel of an old school epic, a film made on a grand scale, with a love story at the centre of it, set against a disaster of somewhat epic proportions. The film manages to brilliantly come across as some sort of love child that lies somewhere between David O Selznick, David Lean and Irwin Allen, being a love story/disaster movie.
Focusing on a romance between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), the latter engaged to the dastardly Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), the former a penniless artist travelling in third class. Although a fictional love story, it plays out against the real life events on the ship that took place in real life, a lovely notion. Although the love story makes it easy for many to proclaim the film historically inaccurate, in fact the background detail and its cutting away to actual events that happened make it more accurate than it first appears.
Yes, there are one or two moments that probably are fictional (a murder/suicide sequence involving First Officer Murdoch, although referred to in some historical texts, has been strongly disputed and became a source of some controversy after its release), but the film is such a piece of grand entertainment that it carries you along with its genuine sense of romance, its insurmountable odds in the second half, and all backed by one of the late, great James Horner’s greatest scores, part of a cycle of work that saw the great composer deliver work for this, Braveheart and The Perfect Storm within the span of a few years that mixed thrills and romantic strings in a way that only he could with such unbridled emotion.
With its three-hour plus running time, there was a danger that audiences might have been put off, bearing in mind this was a time when the running time of movies were usually, at most, hitting somewhere around the two-hour mark, yet audiences flocked to see it. Again and again and again and again.
Although its success was put down to teenage girls flocking to see Leonard DiCaprio, who became a massive star of the back of this movie, in fact it does the movie a disservice to level it with something like The Twilight Saga in terms of audience. The film is probably one of the most demographically perfect movies you could think of; love story for the girls, special effects sequences for the boys, a key character being a woman in her advancing years in an old-fashioned epic like the ones that cinema delivered in the forties and fifties, hence the appeal to older audiences, there really shouldn’t be any surprise that the film struck a chord with a mass range of ages, as well as with gender.
In the middle of it all is James Cameron. The making of the movie has become the stuff of legend, with its tales of filming in cold water, hot tempers among the crew (the original DoP, Caleb Deschanel, left the project early on and was replaced with Russell Carpenter, while there was a massive falling out with the stunt coordinator) as well as a famous case of food poisoning, but he brings the film together in a way that one truly expects from someone who has brought great storytelling and craft to the Hollywood blockbuster; after all he is the person who brought emotion, humour and engaging characters and stories to, of all things, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies about cyborgs.
The success of the film should never have been a surprise. If anything its success should have been expected. If anyone could have pulled this off, it was him. While many have criticised him for his ego and pull no punches attitude to crafting his entertainments, he brings gravitas, character and engaging plots to his projects. Compare this movie to what Michael Bay ended up doing to Pearl Harbor and one can see two very differing directors as well as status of talent when it comes to crafting a film that mixes historical peril and fictional romance. Pearl Harbor is at home with the bombs, but not the characters, and while Jack and Rose may not be Shakespeare, you still root for them throughout the entire movie and theirs is a romance that one gets carried along with.
A backlash was inevitable, but the film is regarded now as something of a modern classic, and one for the ages. That it became the biggest movie of a generation cannot be disputed.
Even more intriguingly, it left its writer and director with very little to say for the next twelve years, at least in terms of fictional works, and that really shouldn’t be any surprise. The film is the perfect summation and portrayal of many of James Cameron’s story telling interests and themes; all of his movies have had a love story as a key component of his movies, be they romantic or parental, with The Terminator and The Abyss having important relationships at the forefront of their narrative. With Titanic, Cameron presents his purest romantic love story yet, with the relationship between Rose and Jack anchoring the plot and being a main catalyst in making the audience care even more deeply.
Then there’s technology. Technology gone wrong is the biggest Cameron theme, be it the threat of nuclear technology in The Abyss, or even True Lies, or the threat of artificial intelligence in The Terminator. Like the creation of Skynet, the creation of the Titanic is the cause of much celebration amongst humanity at the beginning, a sense of hubris that is drastically reversed by the end of the story, but, as cheesy or “Hollywood” you may feel the romance is, it is the heart and soul of the movie.
Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio carry the movie beautifully, and amazingly they managed to have wonderful careers after. While Cameron may have left us waiting twelve years for Avatar, Titanic represents pure, cinematic Cameron, a director at the peak of his powers, delivering spectacle, scale, romance, emotion and thrills in the way only he can, and a way that very few others are capable of.