(20th Century Fox/Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, David Warner, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde, Suzy Amis, Danny Nucci, Bernard Fox. Directed by James Cameron
When Avatar was released, few would have predicted that it would overtake Titanic as box office champion but it did indeed. When Titanic was released, there were many who were predicting that the film would be one of the most expensive failures ever.
Brock Lovett (Paxton) is part of an expedition that is tasked with retrieving artifacts from the most famous wreck of all times, the Titanic. It becomes evident that he is searching for something specific; he sends his remote vehicles into a specific cabin and is thrilled when he retrieves a safe, sitting on the bottom of the ocean for 80 years. When he opens the safe, however, the prize isn’t in it.
They do find a portfolio of pencil drawings (how these would have survived immersed in sea water for 80 years I have no idea), one of which depicts a nude woman wearing a necklace with a large stone on it. It turns out this stone is the Heart of the Sea, cut from a larger diamond owned by Louis XIV. It had been purchased by a wealthy industrialist and was presumed to have gone down with the ship he had been sailing across the Atlantic on in 1912 (you guessed it) and would be nearly priceless on today’s market.
When images of the drawing are shown on television, an old woman named Rose Dawson (Stuart) is startled. She makes a call that is transferred to Lovett aboard the Russian research vessel hovering in the sea above the wreck and tells him that the drawing is of her. Seeing as she is Lovett’s best lead to finding the diamond, he flies her aboard. As she watches footage of the deep sea rovers filming aboard the silent, dark wreck in the endless night of the bottom of the North Atlantic, she tells him her story.
Rose deWitt Bukater (Winslet) is preparing for the trans-Atlantic crossing on board the newest and most heralded ship of the White Star line, the RMS Titanic. She is accompanied by Ruth (Fisher), her mother and her fiancé Cal Hockley (Zane), a wealthy industrialist and his manservant Lovejoy (Warner). While most of them are looking forward to a crossing aboard the most luxuriously appointed ship of its time, Rose sees it as a prison ship taking her to a life of endless boredom.
Unlike many women of her era, Rose has a spark of curiosity and adventurousness, curious about the world and in love with life. She dreads being the meek and mindless mistress of a household, caring only for her husband and children’s needs and never spreading her wings. She may look calm and serene on the outside but on the inside she’s screaming.
Jack Dawson (di Caprio) lives by the seat of his pants. He wins his steerage tickets for the great ship in a poker game and looks at the Titanic as a means of transportation only, of getting back to the United States after years of knocking about Europe (and Paris in particular) as an artist, getting by on what drawings he can sell for pennies.
Rose, desperate and looking for a way out, sees only one. She runs to the bow of the ship and intends to throw herself off. Jack, stargazing on the bow sees her and manages to talk her out of carrying through with her plan. She nearly falls climbing over the railing but Jack rescues her. A couple of crewmen come upon Jack and Rose crumpled in a heap and mistakes it for an assault on a first class passenger by a third class passenger. However, as Cal and Lovejoy are summoned along with acquaintance Colonel Gracie (Fox), the misunderstanding is quickly sorted out and Jack is revealed to be a hero. Cal wants to give the boy $20 for his trouble but this displeases Rose and so Jack is invited to the first class passenger’s dining room for dinner the next evening.
The next day Rose spends some time with Jack and they begin to get to know each other better. Rose is at first a bit put off by some of Jack’s vulgarities but as Jack shows her some of his drawings, she realizes that he is a talented artist with a rather sensitive soul. She realizes that she really likes this young man.
Jack is completely unprepared for the dinner, but fellow passenger Molly Brown (Bates) takes pity on him and supplies him with a tuxedo that her son wore. Jack arrives at the dinner self-possessed and unflappable, utterly calm in a sea full of sharks. Rose becomes more intrigued and when the men adjourn from the dinner table to go to the lounge for cigars and brandy “and to congratulate themselves on owning the world” as Rose puts it, Jack invites Rose to a party down in steerage. She is very much taken by the wild lively dancing, the drinking and the frivolity.
The next day, Jack can’t get Rose out of his mind and attempts to go see her again, but is rebuffed. He finally corners Rose, pulling her out of a tour led by ship designer Andrews (Garber), but she tells him that their romance is impossible. He counters that he just wants to make sure she’s all right, because her lifestyle is snuffing out her spirit and will eventually kill the woman she is. She sends him away, but realizes he’s right.
The Captain (Hill) is aware of icebergs in the North Atlantic at this time of year and wants to be cautious, but the ship’s owner, Ismay (Hyde) is more interested in publicity and wants to arrive in New York ahead of schedule. Captain Smith orders all the boilers to be lit and the Titanic sails full steam into destiny. Who will survive? Can Jack and Rose survive the sinking and end up together despite all the obstacles between them?
The voyage of the Titanic holds a fascination for nearly everybody. Deemed unsinkable at the time it was built, it has become a symbol for man’s hubris, as well as for the class structure that dominated society at the time; nearly everyone in steerage drowned and there are reports that crew members kept the steerage passengers behind locked gates while the 1st class passengers were loaded aboard half-full lifeboats that there were not nearly enough of.
Some say the definitive Titanic movie was the A Night to Remember (1958) which had more of a documentary feel to it but this one at least keeps most of the salient facts correct. While much of the vessels last minutes can only be conjecture, Cameron uses legends and intelligent guesses to fill in many of the blanks. He wisely doesn’t try to include the entire Titanic mythology (the movie was three hours long as it was) but instead focuses on the romance between the fictional Rose and Jack (a trivial aside here – there was in fact a J. Dawson that died on board the Titanic, a fitter named Joseph, and his grave in Halifax is now one of the most visited in the cemetery since the movie was released). Fortunately, the chemistry between di Caprio and Winslet is marvelous and we wind up caring that they wind up together, and feel concern that they both survive the disaster (in fact, we know for sure that Rose will since her character is seen in the opening modern day sequence).
This was the movie that made stars of di Caprio and Winslet, and even seeing it as many times as I have I never get tired of their performances. In fact, in Love Actually Liam Neeson uses a video of the movie as a tonic to cure his lovesick son and I’m sure that in reality many a lovelorn sort has done the same.
The recreation of the great ship was painstakingly executed, with many of the original providers of furnishings used to make new versions based on the original plans. As a result, the sets on board the Titanic are magnificent and historically accurate for the most part (there are some subtle differences – the Grand Staircase on board the original was a bit less grand, simply because people in that era were actually a little smaller than they are today).
A movie like this almost by definition has to be special effects-heavy and indeed it is, but they are rarely intrusive. There were some primitive computer animated shots of the vessel sailing the sea, some of which are crude by today’s standards (one such shot that was more or less a helicopter shot looked patently fake, even in 1997) but for the most part the movie holds up more than a decade after its release.
This was a movie that became an event. Nearly everything is iconic, from the image of Jack Dawson standing at the prow shouting “I’m the king of the world!” to Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning theme song. It is the only movie I’ve ever seen more than twice in a theater, and maybe one of the few I’d still go see again. On a personal level, the movie has a great deal of meaning to me – Da Queen and I saw it while we were dating, and less than three months before we were married. It holds significance on that personal level and of course on a historical level for the film industry.
In many ways it was the perfect movie. It attracted nearly every niche audience; women loved the romance, men loved the disaster and everyone loved the scope of it. It works on nearly every level and even though it is in some ways a standard Hollywood romance on an epic scale, it still remains one of the movies that will be a standard other movies are compared to for decades to come.
WHY RENT THIS: It’s a modern classic and some of the action holds up well. Di Caprio and Winslet have a great deal of chemistry as a couple.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the digital effects are a bit crude and didn’t work even in 1997. It’s quite likely you’ve already seen this movie a number of times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality and violence, but the disaster epic has some horrific images that may be too graphic for impressionable sorts.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The most expensive film made during the 20th century, the production cost more than it did to build the original Titanic.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is no Blu-Ray edition yet for this film, but there are three DVD versions available; a bare-bones 1999 release, a 10th Anniversary release from 2007 that has a number of features and the three-disc Special Collector’s Edition from 2005. Most of the features are fairly mundane, but there is a commentary track by two historians that gives a great deal of insight into the historical accuracy of the movie.
FINAL RATING: 9/10
TOMORROW: The Green Zone