James Cameron’s chronicle about the maiden voyage of the “ship of dreams” is simply put, one of the greatest films of all time. Like Gone with the Wind for its era, this was THE epic romance for the 90s generation. Sweeping in both historical charm and emotional intensity, it was the most expensive movie ever made, with an estimated budget of $200 million. It could have been a recipe for bankruptcy for the studio but it ended up earning 1.8 billion worldwide to become the world’s highest grossing picture until Cameron beat his own record with Avatar 12 years later. Now it has been re-released presented in a new 3D print amid much fanfare. While the 3D transfer is adequate, what justifies watching this is the chance to see this saga on the big screen where it really shines best.
What sets Titanic apart is the skillful union of a technically dazzling disaster movie with a captivating art house period piece. Witness how the director deftly draws us into the drama. This takes patience and he lays the groundwork right from the beginning. Cameron uses a framing device where we are introduced to the adult Rose DeWitt Bukater, aged and forgotten in the modern day. As she tells her story, we flashback to 1912, the time of Titanic. The filmmaker didn’t have to frame the action this way. He could have just started 30 minutes in when the Titanic is getting ready to embark, but that’s a testament to his genius, He subtly provides a contemporary audience a deeper bond with this woman who survived. Rose is the woman forced into an engagement with Cal Hockley in order to maintain her family’s status. Jack Dawson is the young vagabond that unexpectedly wins a ticket aboard the same ship. Initially Rose is somewhat difficult to like. She comes across as a spoiled brat and Jack literally confronts her with that same description. But Jack makes her likable. We see she her true personality come through their relationship and we ultimately fall in love with them as a couple. We certainly care for Jack and Rose, our two principals, but Cameron actually takes the time to create involving vignettes around the passengers as well: the ship’s captain, the ship’s designer, the musicians in the band , the travelers in steerage vs. the those in first class. We’re introduced to all of them. This isn’t a group of nameless unknowns. These is a community with families and feelings and lives that are doomed to die. It makes the final hour that much more tragic.
Titanic is by no means a perfect picture. Of the 14 nominations, it failed to earn one for its screenplay and that’s not entirely a surprise. The script is a bit amateurish in its effort to set characters up with awkward dialogue. Many of the biggest groaners come from Rose’s fiancée, Cal Hockley played by Billy Zane. At the start he declares how indestructible the Titanic is. “It is unsinkable” he asserts “God himself could not sink this ship.” Cue laughter. Then later when discussing art he opines, “Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing. He won’t, trust me.” Ah, the screenwriters clumsily paint Cal as an idiot. I get that. But when Rose laments “Half the people on this ship are going to die” was it really necessary for Cal to sneer, “Not the better half.” And what about his character? Why does Cal settle for a woman who clearly hates him. She makes no secret of the fact that she despises him. Couldn’t Cal find a woman who truly loved him, even for the cad that he is. He’s sophisticated, good looking and very wealthy at least. Was Rose seriously his only option for a wife? But I digress, these are mere quibbles.
Titanic is the embodiment of a gifted director working at the top of his craft. His eye for detail is masterful. Of course there’s that spectacular final act that is the standard for non-stop, heart pounding excitement. But what many directors fail to establish is a cast we sincerely care about. That’s what makes a tragedy something we merely endure versus something we actually tear up over. We should be emotionally connected to the people. Throughout the course of 3 hours and 14 minutes Cameron expertly builds a real connection to our leads. A masterpiece combining technical skill of an action picture with the engaging theatrics of a tear-jerker, James Cameron’s Titanic is a stunning achievement. Critics continue to deride its success as dubious hype over a feature unwarranted of such praise. I disagree, It deserves its place among such popular works as The Sound of Music and Star Wars as one of the great achievements committed to celluloid. This is a film for people who love film.