TITANTIC (25 YEARS LATER)
Release Date: 12/19/97 [Cinemas]
Genre: Drama / Romance
Studio: 20th Century Studios / Paramount Pictures
"A seventeen-year-old aristocrat falls in love with a kind but poor artist aboard the luxurious, ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic."
OUR MOVIE REVIEW:
CHAPTER I: THE POWER OF JAMES CAMERON
Everyone has that definitive movie. The one film that came out in their senor year that they fell in love with. That one film that does the impossible. That film which splits time itself into a before and after. That one film that makes too much sense to have only existed for such a small period of time, where you can’t imagine a time before its existence. Titanic is one of those movies. It’s a story that can only exist on film because the feeling; nigh, the experience, could only be captured at 24 frames per second and with hi-fidelity sound. The majesty of the Titanic dwarfs everything around it, and sitting in a darkened theatre, with 3D glasses looking up at the IMAX screen, you can feel its majesty. Titanic is much like a cathedral; its existence makes the observer feel small, but it also makes every event within as large as the heavens itself.
I didn’t have the opportunity to watch Titanic in theatres during its 54-week theatrical run in 1997/1998. Rather, being a 2001 baby, I had plenty of opportunities to hear about the doomed romance from afar. The award winning picture, to me, was just a movie that made a ton of money at the box office. It was a movie about jewels falling into the ocean. It was a film where Jack and Rose could both survive on a piece of wood but didn’t. It was a film about the mythological Titanic, a ship that sunk 111 years ago. And it was a romance, something teenage me couldn’t care less about.
Only now, 25 years after it’s release and remastered in 4K 3D, was I able to truly muster the desire to go and watch Titanic. And now, I can finally understand why this film made nearly two billion dollars.
James Cameron truly is unlike any other filmmaker today, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in Avatar. Much like George Lucas, Cameron has always been on the cutting edge of technology, and in Avatar, he pushed the medium beyond the limits of what was possible. Pandora is a world that you care about because its beauty fills every sense… literally. The 3D motion picture format was created for Avatar, and no other film has utilized the format as effectively, save its 14 year sequel, Avatar: The Way of the Water. Cameron understands the hypnotic power of location and scale, and his blockbusters always push the bounds of what could be thought possible.
Under all the artifice and wonder lie stories of universality; romances between two different worlds, assertions of autonomy, and the story of reclamation. The heart of Cameron’s films is firmly with his protagonists, despite the scale of the worlds he creates. While Christopher Nolan uses ground-breaking visual effects to reinforce complex sci-fi tales, James Cameron sets the simplest stories in the most fascinating of worlds. And nowhere is that more prevalent than with Titanic.
CHAPTER II: THE SCOPE OF TITANIC
Titanic is, arguably, the last great historical epic we have seen on the big screen. The titular vessel may not exist at the scale of Pandora, but the sheer detail of the production feels more layered and gargantuan than Pandora ever did. Each level has its own eco-system, from those who work below deck in the towering engine rooms, all the way to the top-most floor for the elite. Third class may have the smallest rooms, but that closeness forms the bedrock of its culture with the chaotic dancing, displays of strength, and unending consumption of cheap beer. That contrasts beautifully with the ordered elite, who schedule their lives around small-talk, gossip, and gender norms. Where below deck life is built on small desires, the elite live in perpetual transaction, only interacting with those who have something to offer them.
None of this is told subtly, but that’s the charm of Titanic. Every element of the story is grandiose, towering over the audience and taking up 100% of your focus. When the captain gives the order to start the engines, it doesn’t just happen off screen. The camera follows that motion through the entire ship, both establishing the procedure for its return in the third act, and immediately making the motion feel grand. It’s astonishing watching the Titanic set sail; a journey of spiritual enlightenment as mankind ascends beyond its limitations. Before Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) steps foot on the Titanic, it’s a looming figure that seems unattainable. And yet Jack is able to board, and suddenly anything feels possible. That emotion is the core of Titanic. It’s what empowers Rose’s flight to "My Heart Will Go On." It immediately sides the audience with these rambunctious teenagers, and so much of that can be ascribed to the late James Horner’s score.
The score for Titanic gives every moment even more power than the images alone can. In the present, it’s melancholy permeates throughout, but that gives even more power to the past, as the ship is resurrected before our eyes. The score swells, expanding to a full orchestra, and the music tells us immediately that this is the most important moment of Rose’s life. Horner gives each of the moments in the first 2 acts a joy and majesty that it really seems like everything will work out okay. You begin to believe in the magic of the Titanic. And that emotional core suddenly pays off, when everything falls apart.
CHAPTER III: THE KING OF THE THRILL
There are plenty of moments early on in the film that remind the audience of the tragic fate of the ship. Rose is retelling this story from the present timeline, where the ship has sunk to the bottom of the ocean. During a tour of the ship in 1912, Rose notes that there are only half as many lifeboats as needed if the ship should go down. The captain informs the crew to go faster, despite warnings of possible icebergs up ahead. The fate of the ship is no surprise to the audience, and James Cameron knows it. The audience has seen a simulation of what will happen to the ship when it hits the berg on the water. We know how it will fill with water, going nose down, before snapping in two. None of these events can surprise the audience.
But the emotion of it’s third act can surprise the audience. Claustrophobic hallways rapidly filling with water. A protagonist arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Doorways and elevators locked by guards afraid of how the elite will respond to not being first on the lifeboats, trapping our protagonists in a flooding ship. In that way, Titanic has more in common with Ridley Scott’s Alien than Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, ever did. Like the Nostromo, the Titanic becomes a horrifying, haunted vessel hunting down our protagonists for their love. The thrills of outrunning officer Spicer Lovejoy mutates into pure horror. No longer is the sinking of the Titanic a phenomenon of physics. The majestic scale of the Titanic, it’s winding halls and elaborate ballrooms become the very obstacle that Jack and Rose must escape to have a hope at survival. It’s this recontextualization of the environment that allows every beat of the final hour of Titanic to land. The audience understands the geography of the ship, knows the dangers at play, and every moment becomes tense as we hope for a happy ending that could never be.
CHAPTER IV: THE POWER OF TRAGEDIES
Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt Bukater may not have the deepest relationship, but when the ship is past capacity, even the shallowest of waters are dangerous territory. Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are giving this film their all, and the charm of their speedy relationship can soften the hardest heart. When compared to the harsh world of classes surrounding them, it becomes impossible not to root for their love to go on forever. This beating heart of the ocean keeps us engaged from the moment they meet to the moment they float in the water, and its beautiful throughout.
In that way, Titanic reminds me most of another love story, albeit released many years later. Baby Driver, for all the hate it gets on twitter, is a simple love story at the center of a bombastic heists and chases. Both these films depict simple love stories, elevated by the events around them. But where 90’s action films tend to fumble, making the romance the subplot that must be present in every sequel (with no romantic partners, looking at you Speed 2: Cruise Control), these films put the romance front and center. It’s the drive for the characters to make a change, and that romance becomes heightened by the events that surround it. We witness the start of a beautiful relationship in Titanic, as Jack and Rose slowly fall in love through the simple act of breaking away from the restrictive society that attempts to put them in their place. And that love, that whirlwind romance, is captured through their most simple actions: drawing, laughing, dancing, and hiding away from the butler spying on you at the request of a fiancé. The love story is emphasized by the all powerful camera and score, which work in tandem to make the most intimate moments larger than life. But this isn’t just their story.
Rather, it's the story of a hundred little mistakes that led to the happiest moments in life, taken away too soon. The entire cast of Titanic is giving it their all, from Victor Garber as the empathetic head engineer, Thomas Andrews, to the infinitely punchable Billy Zane as Rose’s fiancé, Cal Hockley. Even the roles that are all too well forgotten, like Danny Nucci’s Fabrizio, still add layers to this finely woven tapestry. Each character on this boat adds to the cost of Titanic, the cost of greed and pride. We see these characters board this boat with hope, only to drown in the ice cold ocean.
It’s the tragedy of Titanic that enables us to fall in love with this story, that enables us to want to return to the majestic ship of iron and steel for her maiden voyage all over again. The good times aboard the ship become the best times, before the tragic end that these characters must meet. We saw the end coming, but when the water stormed through the boat, we still weren’t prepared for it’s consequences.
I love Titanic. If reading the last 1700 words didn’t say that, then I don’t know what will. It’s a story that could only exist on film, over the course of 3 hours and 16 minutes. It’s a world of both light, and extreme dark, and each element is only made stronger in the contrast of the other. It’s a historic epic that gains value in the re-watch, because it is solely an experience made to be witnessed on a screen 40 feet high, with the largest sound system imaginable. I highly recommend going back to the theatre to experience the re-release of Titanic.