Away from the Hype: TITANIC

In 1997, I went to the cinema and saw Titanic 12 times. That’s somewhere in the region of 36 hours of my time spent watching two people fall in love and a ship sink. Every weekend for 3 months I would find myself back at the Odeon in Bromborough watching Titanic, a movie I thought was…good, which I went to see over and over because I was 13 and a pretty girl wanted to see it. 

During those 3 months, I managed to go through every conceivable version of film critique possible. I loved it, I hated it, I mocked it, I analysed it, I became obsessed with it, I became repulsed by it, and I tolerated it. I also never watched it again. And in the years since, it just became the movie I talked about as something I saw at the cinema 12 times and which I now despised for no specific reason. Perhaps it was funnier to have watched it 12 times and then end up disliking it in that sort of English self-deprecating way that we enjoy so much.

In all honesty, I talk shit about it because I remember it being an overwrought, overwritten, over-acted mess full of, presumably, dated VFX and corny dialogue. But, I did add it to my Away From the Hype list as it felt too perfect not to be included. After all, this movie was a behemoth when it was released. 

Away from the Hype: TITANIC
source: Twentieth Century Fox

The biggest movie in the world for 15 years, Titanic was running at the cinema seemingly forever. It came out on VHS while still being shown in theatres and those theatres required new reels to replace the ones worn out by showing the movie all the time. Unlike James Cameron’s other biggest movie ever, Avatar, Titanic has left a huge cultural footprint on the world. There are iconic lines and images that are still meme’d, spoofed, and homaged 25 years later and probably 25 years after that. 

So, for the first time since that weird season in 1997 when I did nothing but watch Titanic, I’m diving back in. My baby son is in bed, my wife and I have ice cream and wine, and I bought the DVD on eBay. It’s time to see if Titanic sinks or floats away from the hype. 

Titanic

A big complaint about this movie is that while it is technically marvelous, the writing lets it down. I disagree with that second part. Yes, the dialogue between Jack and Rose is corny, cheesy, and occasionally hammy. A veritable tapas menu of overwritten lines, big declarations, and saying each other’s names (“Jack” = 80 times, “Rose” = 50). However, consider this: these characters are 20 and 17 years old embarking on what is essentially a very intense vacation romance that begins with a near-death experience. Who hasn’t been young, in love, and said things like, “sooner or later that fire that I love about you, Rose. That fire’s gonna burn out.”

We also have to remind ourselves what the source of this story is. We’re seeing Old Rose’s memories from 85 years previously as well as getting her emotions at the time. Of course her every conversation with Jack would be a momentous affair full of big emotions and schmaltz. And once you start thinking about Old Rose as the narrator, it makes perfect sense that she would remember her time in steerage as being this incredibly fun bacchanalia filled with dancing, music, drinking, and impressing poor people by being able to go en pointe. Meanwhile, her time with the rich people is best explained by wondering what if ice-cream headaches were people. 

source: Twentieth Century Fox

During this watch of the movie, I spent a lot of it wondering if the framing device of Bill Paxton – RIP – searching for a diamond really enhanced the movie or not. I know it’s mostly there because James Cameron wanted to do dives to the wreckage and show them on film, but it bugged me that it never quite felt needed until I began to think of it in terms of the contextualisation of this story: an old woman remembering the greatest time of her life with her lost love and recounting that story. You can forgive an old woman for the occasional flourish or two, and it helps create a sense of fantasy around the pre-sinking sequences. 

But those sinking sequences are also amazing. The VFX hasn’t aged a day and while I know I say this in every article, seeing real people on real sets helps to create something so filled with tension it makes you feel ill with exhilarating terror. The sinking takes up half of the runtime with the iceberg hit happening after a 90-minute period romance movie. It’s a brave move by Cameron to pace things so slowly in the opening half but if the romance stuff doesn’t work for you, you’re still going into the sinking with a lot of characters whose fates you care about. Main characters, supporting characters, crewmen, comic relief characters, villains, and the rest are all shown dealing with the sinking in different ways and unlike my complaints about The Matrix Revolutions, you feel a connection with so many of them that there’s no relief. 

The masterstroke of this whole part of the movie is the “Nearer My God to Thee” sequence. Cameron moves away from Jack and Rose and shows the destruction and death occurring all across the doomed ship. We see a mother tucking her children into bed, a married couple who couldn’t leave each other, Captain Smith going to the helm of the ship to die, and Andrews setting the clock on his beloved ship. It’s only a few minutes long but gives us a sense of the cost of this tragedy outside of simply our star-crossed lovers.

That tragedy is never downplayed. There is never a sequence that tries to Hollywood-ise it. No celebratory rescue sequence or bold last-minute heroics. The sinking of the Titanic was a story of hubris and death, and Cameron doesn’t let you flinch away from the cost of this disaster. The scene of the single lifeboat going back to see if they can rescue any of the thousands floating in the ice-cold water and finding only frozen corpses is so incredibly eerie it stays with you long after the movie is over. 

This leads me back to the framing device. In interviews about this movie, James Cameron stated that seeing the ship at the bottom of the ocean made the whole thing real to him. All that death, all that fear, and he gives that arc to Paxton’s character. A diamond hunter who is accused of grave robbing but laughs it off ends the movie admitting that Rose’s story let the Titanic in. Made him realise that it’s more than just a story or a page in a history book.  

Away from the Hype: TITANIC
source: Twentieth Century Fox

Now, that all got a little bit dark so let’s finish with my favourite subject: the evils of capitalism. The commentary on class in this movie is heavy-handed but pointed. Cameron goes to great lengths to practically blame the sinking and death toll on the rich. It is Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line who causes the ship to be pushed to its limits, thus hindering its ability to miss the iceberg. It is complaints from the first-class passengers that lead to there being less lifeboats to not crowd the boardwalk. It is Molly Brown, the new money, who wants to go back and look for survivors while the old money wants to stay. And while that scene is heartbreaking but seems contrived, it’s based on real events. Molly Brown had to be bodily lifted into a boat as she refused to board until others were helped and, according to testimony, it wasn’t the crewman who threatened to throw her overboard, it was the other way around.    

So while the iceberg did puncture the Titanic’s hull, it is the unseen iceberg of dangerous, unbridled capitalism that caused it to sink. Also, this movie makes being rich look so boring. Everyone is so starchy like they were all born holding in farts and it just became their personality. 

Final Thoughts: Titanic

At the top, I talked about this movie’s legacy and there’s one part that has always bugged me. It relates to modern movie criticism and conversation as a whole. At some point, a lot of online critics decided the best way to talk about a movie was to outsmart it. It’s the “Why didn’t the Eagles take the Ring to Mordor?” school of criticism. It’s about not engaging with the movie when you can dish out snark instead. 

And as a side note, the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings corrupts nearly everyone it comes in contact with. If you’ve just watched 12 hours of movie telling you exactly that and your first thought is why didn’t the Eagles just take the Ring, then maybe movies aren’t for you. 

So, with that in mind, I wanted to address the persistent “Jack could have fit on the door” argument. 

Away from the Hype: TITANIC
source: Twentieth Century Fox

To recap, after plunging into the 27°F/-2.7°C water, Jack and Rose find a floating door. Rose gets on but when Jack goes to follow they both tip-off, back into the icy water. 

Go back and watch the movie and you’ll see after this, there is a moment, quick and subtle, where a look falls across Jack’s face, and in that moment he realises that if this incredible woman is going to survive and finally have some kind of life away from the bondage of forced engagements and a mother who is about as affectionate as an alleyway mugging, she needs to get onto that door. He also seems to understand that she’s cold, exhausted, and terrified, and arse-ing around with both of them climbing onto there is only going to reduce those survival chances. 

It’s irrelevant if the door could fit two people or a thousand. If both of them getting onto it reduces Rose’s chance of survival, Jack won’t take that risk and while throughout this movie Jack never tells Rose that he loves her, in that look he puts aside his own fear and cold and tiredness to give her a chance to live knowing full well that the boats might return for her, they won’t come back in time for him. 

It’s not often that a movie so hyped – the re-release trailer describes it as the world’s most beloved and acclaimed film – manages to hit the mark. This is a three-hour movie that zips past with a fun romance between two beautiful people with tons of chemistry, that then turns into one of the most deftly handled disaster movies ever made. The sinking sequence is a masterpiece of depicting rising panic amidst terror and sorrow, while still being exciting but not at the cost of cheapening the real events. That is an astronomically difficult needle to thread so it’s not surprising how many Oscars this movie pulled in.  

It’s no wonder I saw it at the cinema so many times. 

What are your thoughts on Titanic? Does it hold up? Let us know in the comments below!

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