If there’s an image that can sum up the absolute dedication that James Cameron has to bringing his films to life, it’s probably the one of him inside a cramped submersible, dropping two and a half miles to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to get on film the wreckage of the Titanic for a feature film.
That trip to the bottom of the Atlantic would end up being the easiest and most straightforward thing that his version of Titanic would accomplish. Cameron would make use of the oceanic research vessel The Keldysh, make many trips to the wreckage, in the end spending more time at it than the passengers on the ship when coupled together with his time there to film IMAX documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, and, along with his brother Mike Cameron, create a special camera that could withstand the pressure of the ocean depths to film the footage on to but which could only hold a small number of minutes worth of film.
Once again, this would be the easiest part of making Titanic, because when Cameron got to Baja Studios in Mexico, he would end up recreating around ninety per cent of the exterior of the ship to film and restage the sinking, and found himself on the most intense production of his career, to the point where he was described by many as one of the “angriest men in Hollywood”.
READ MORE: Looking back at… James Cameron’s True Lies
One reported story even had it that during the filming of the present day scenes for the film, someone had spiked soup that the crew and cast were preparing to eat with PCP which left everyone with a bad case of food poisoning, while the production in Mexico, which involved an intense recreation of the sinking with a lot of filming having to be done with a lot of water, most of it cold, led to it becoming one of the most troubled productions in recent memory.
Yet, when it was all over and done, the film would come out shining on the other end in a fashion to call spectacular would be an incredible understatement. Oscar success and the largest box office take at that point in movie history would await, but after it would come a twelve-year sabbatical on the big screen, at least when it came to works of fiction. It appeared that after Titanic, James Cameron had nothing left to say. Which is no surprise, really because while the film may not be in the realm of science fiction or action in the manner that his previous films were, Titanic is in many respects the purest definition of ‘a James Cameron film.
Throughout his work up to 1997, Cameron’s films had displayed both a love and a fear of technology; his camera lovingly pans over the exoskeletons of Skynet’s Terminators in Terminator 2: Judgment Day before giving way to war sequence that had been brought about due to man’s dependence on technology; likewise there is the use of nuclear weapons in his narratives. While his stories upped the tension and stakes with the use of a nuclear bomb, most evidently in The Abyss and True Lies, they were there as a means to promote an anti-nuclear weapon message, most clearly in the final moments of the extended version of The Abyss which in its longer form feels like a late 80’s equivalent to The Day the Earth Stood Still. For a director who clearly was in love with his filmmaking technology and what it could accomplish on-screen, the message was clear that we needed to be aware of our own creations and nowhere was that more clear in Cameron’s portrayal of the hubris involved in Titanic.
Even if you lived under a rock and were unaware that the Titanic sunk on its maiden voyage (a running joke before the film’s release was how could a film be successful when everyone knew how it would end), it would be abundantly clear from how many times supporting characters dotted throughout make reference to its being unsinkable. Yet, his camera pans lovingly over the exterior of the ship, the combination of the recreation at Baja Studios in Mexico and CGI to recreate the backdrop of 1912 Southampton is still seamless in today’s age, the film’s widescreen framing in awe of the boat, but the warning is as powerful here as ever. We are not gods. We are not masters of our domain or our oceans and our hubris can always be torn down when nature demands it.
All of Cameron’s movies had love stories as the emotional heart of their narratives; the love that brings about John Connor in The Terminator; the biological or surrogate parent/child relationships that formed the heart of Aliens and T2, or the troubled marriages that are the heart of The Abyss and True Lies. With Titanic, Cameron gives the audience his purest and most Hollywood love story to date. Jack and Rose made superstars out of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, deservedly so, and yet this is the purest, the most movie-like relationship that Cameron has created. We buy into their love because the movie and the performances say so and yet these characters only spent as little as a week together and declare that they are the one for each other. Arguably that is movie logic and a similar thing that forms the heart of Kyle and Sarah Connor in the first Terminator.
It’s Cameron on his purest, unashamedly Hollywood form, delivering the type of romance against an epic backdrop that makes the film a late 90’s equivalent to the like of Gone with the Wind or Doctor Zhivago, although cineastes may scoff at comparing Titanic to well-regarded classics like that, yet Hollywood and audiences embraced the film in a manner similar to those films; Gone with the Wind, in particular, was a massive success and if adjusted for inflation is still the highest grossing film of all time and come 1997 audiences couldn’t get enough of Jack and Rose, with some people going to see the film several times, a factor that many believe allowed the film to push past the billion dollar mark in the manner that it did.
We may be so used to blockbusters such as the recent Aquaman (yes, directed by Cameron in a running joke on the television series Entourage) grossing over a billion dollars worldwide at the box office without breaking a sweat, but in 1998 when Titanic hit that milestone it seemed like it had done something genuinely impossible. Expected to be a disaster by many, the film became a defining box office sensation for a generation and subsequently became the most successful film release in history. It would translate that success into award wins, dominating every major film award ceremony and subsequently being nominated for fourteen Oscars, a record it would share with All About Eve, and winning eleven of them, a record it shared with Ben Hur and which was subsequently equalled by The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
The world would go Titanic crazy, with the film playing in some cinemas right up until its VHS release in the last quarter of 1998 (this being a time when films could take longer to be given a home video release), numerous books on the movie and the real-life disaster dominating bookstores and even television schedules being inundated with documentaries on the tragedy. As for its director, everyone speculated as to what he would do next. The two projects he was linked most closely to were an adaptation of Marvel’s Spider-Man which did look as if was actually going to happen with him calling the shots on at one point, as well as a third Terminator film, which would make it to screen but with Jonathan Mostow directing and with no creative input whatsoever from Cameron.
A few deep-sea documentaries made it onto IMAX screens in the shape of Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep, not to mention a television series he co-created with Charles H. Eglee called Dark Angel that ran for two seasons, in which Cameron directed the finale and made a star of its lead actress Jessica Alba, but as far as making big budget movies went, the blockbuster auteur, at the height of the biggest success of his career, was silent for twelve years. When he did return, the rulebook would be torn up once again and with it a return to the realm of science fiction, but one set in a more colourful and family-friendly world than that of Aliens or Terminator, but equally one that would challenge the very realm of filmmaking and visual effects.
Once again, disaster was expected with comparisons to The Smurfs and Dances with Wolves not being very flattering. However, the world’s box office was going to be hit with another game changer.
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