25 Year Later: “Titanic” (1997)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

It still remember seeing “Titanic” 25 years ago. Despite being directed by the same guy who did such “manly” movies as “The Terminator”, “Aliens”, and “True Lies”, I remember dismissing “Titanic” as little more that a cornball romance set aboard the ill-fated British passenger liner. Well, it kinda is that.

But it was also a James Cameron movie meaning it would be an enormous blockbuster spectacle unlike anything done before. Sporting a whopping $200 million production budget, “Titanic” was easily the most expensive at the time. It became the first film ever to reach $1 billion at the box office and remained the highest grossing film of all-time until it was passed by 2019’s “Avatar”, yet another Cameron extravaganza.

“Titanic” truly is two movies fused into one – a sudsy love story and an epic disaster film. In addition to directing, producing, and editing, Cameron wrote the script, incorporating numerous historical details into his story. He also included several real-life characters including “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), the vessel’s architect and shipbuilder Thomas Andrews (Victor Gerber), Captain Edward John Smith (Bernard Hill), and the ship’s bandmaster Wallace Hartley (Jonathan Evans-Jones), among several others.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

But at its core “Titanic” is a fictional love story anchored by its two young stars. In 1997 Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, both barely over 20-years-old at the time of their casting, had already gained notoriety and each had already earned Academy Award nominations for supporting roles, him for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and her for “Sense and Sensibility”. But “Titanic” catapulted them both into Hollywood stardom (Winslet’s performance earned her a second Oscar nomination).

While Winslet’s Rose DeWitt Bukater and DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson were purely fictional, several things about their characters and circumstances were rooted in reality. Cameron gave a lot of attention to the class distinctions between the two leads. Jack was a poor aspiring artist who won his third-class ticket on the Titanic in a poker game. Rose was the upper-class fiancé to an older and wealthy heir (played by Billy Zane), a relationship encouraged by her widowed mother (Frances Fisher) who was desperate to maintain her high-end social status.

For Cameron, realistically portraying the Titanic was vital, and he felt a great responsibility to get it right. He poured a lot of time, effort, and budget into researching and recreating the Titanic’s interiors and exterior. The ship was reconstructed to full scale, and Cameron, along with his production designer Peter Lamont, followed archived blueprints and old photographs to capture the liner’s luxurious original designs. The meticulous attention to detail is as remarkable as it is impressive, and understanding what all went into accurately representing the Titanic really enhances the experience.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Meanwhile Winslet and DiCaprio fleshed out what would become one of cinema’s most well-known tragic love stories. Rose and Jack’s tale of forbidden love has its share of mushy moments. But Cameron never pushes it too far, and there is lots of compelling dressing surrounding their romance in the form of interesting characters, side stories, and themes. The good casting doesn’t hurt either, starting with Winslet and DiCaprio. And I can’t say enough about the often underappreciated Billy Zane. He’s a bit of a mustache-twirling cartoon (minus the mustache) which is one reason I like him so much. He’s possessive, conceited, and snobbish and Zane hits every single vile or despicable mark.

Then of course you have the second half which combines powerful emotional beats with pure moviemaking extravagance. As the film shifts to disaster movie mode, we again see Cameron pushing the boundaries of special effects. Much like with “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and “The Abyss”, he once again took digital technology in some groundbreaking new directions. But just as impressive are the incredible practical effects that included elaborate miniatures, a 5,000,000 gallon water tank, and some extraordinary set design. And all of it to create the most realistic rendering of the Titanic disaster ever put on screen.

“Titanic” would go on to earn 14 Academy Award nominations, winning eleven including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron. To its credit the movie has stood the proverbial test of time. I still find the central romance a bit too syrupy at times, but it’s hard not to be moved by where it goes. And you can say what you want about James Cameron, but he makes movies that people want to go see. Whether they’re about a blue-skinned indigenous tribe on a faraway planet or a love story set aboard a doomed luxury liner in 1912.


20 thoughts on “25 Year Later: “Titanic” (1997)

  1. I really enjoyed your spot-on review. Not much more I can add other than rewatching “Titanic” you wish James Cameron would take a detour from his “Avatar” epics and do a movie with real live actors again. He’s wasting his movie-making talent on Pandora.

  2. I watched this again just weeks ago and as always enjoyed it. I think it does a great job of making the viewers see that it happened to people just like you and me, and isn’t just a historical event. It also reminds me of my ex wife as she started to sniffle at the end, then after several choppy breaths began to sob then screamed loudly “Tony! She diiiiiiiiiedddd!” Setting off more sobbing through the theater. I was laughing so hard I was in tears, and still appreciate the old lady that walked past, placed her hand on my forearm, and told me it was okay for grown men to cry.

  3. They re-released it to theaters in 3D a few years back and my husband and I went to see it. It wasn’t the best 3D job but I have to say, on the whole, it still holds up. I’d be interested to watch it again sometime soon.

  4. I saw it in the theaters when it first came out. I do think it is a monumental achievement despite a few flaws in the story though I can’t say no to a topless Kate Winslet (who still looks great). Plus, let’s be honest. We knew there was more than enough room for Jack and Rose on that wooden raft. One of them had to be on top of one another. Yes, they would’ve been caught in a compromising position (if they were having sex in order to avoid getting hypothermia) but both of them would’ve lived. That is a better ending.

  5. First time I was focused on the movie, though I knew the story well. I thought it was well done, by all involved. Billy Zane plays the part of a young millionaire of the time, talking about the ship be unsinkable. I love period movies anyway and this one did not disappoint. The disaster portion brought everything and everyone together. The number of lives lost was large for that time frame in history and I can only imagine being there and understanding that I would not have made it to a boat and place my wife on. No heroics, but in those days, women and children first was not a request, it was the right thing for one to do. The 25th anniversary I was much more focused on the impending disaster. My wife and I visited the Titantic exhibit in Las Vegas several years ago at the Luxor Casino. You could walk through the various sized sleeping quarters (1st class knows how to travel!) and we were given a card before entering to open at the end. There were several artifacts on view and sections of the external portions of the side of the ship. At the end, we all came into a room and opened our cards and it had a name on it and you had to look up on the board which had all the names and if they survived or not. That was very sobering. Not anyone of us (@150) had a card of someone who had survived. So as I watched the ending of the movie, I had to wonder which one was my soulmate.

    • Wow! That sounds amazing. I would love go see the exhibit. “Sobering” is absolutely the right word and Cameron film captures that. But I can see how your experience at the exhibit would make it even more impactful.

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