Where do you even begin with a film like Titanic, a film so sprawling, so epic, so visionary, that it earns every moment of its three hour length? Do you begin with Jack and Rose, the romantic leads of the story, played by (a very young) Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet? Do you begin with the epic and sprawling scope of the story, its subtext on the hubris of mankind? Do you talk about the impact that Titanic has had on our culture, the myriad ways in which two decades of films have copied and stolen from James Cameron? Any one of these would be a valid starting point.
To begin with, James Cameron is a man of obsession. In particular, obsession with two things: Making epic movies of unprecedented financial success, and the ocean. In bridging these two obsessions, Cameron had to take great financial risk, putting his career on the line for a film that many thought would flop, a film that cost more money than any film before (and, indeed, most films since). Titanic may not be the most ambitious film when it comes to story or theme, but its scale, scope, and vision is as ambitious as any film in history.
We open on an expedition, lead by naval treasure hunter Brock Lovett (the late Bill Paxton) for a long lost diamond of incredible value. The framing device of Titanic is effective for a multitude of reasons; if nothing else, it’s a platform for Cameron to show off the undersea technology that he is so fond of, to give a glimpse into his passion for the ocean, to see the ship at the bottom of the sea floor, its ultimate resting place. On another level, it provides the audience with some basic information that we’re going to need later; most importantly, Cameron shows us a simulation of the RMS Titanic sinking, and we’re introduced to an elderly Rose Calvert, nee Dawson (a clever misdirect), a living survivor of the wreck, who claims that a drawing that Lovett has unearthed is of her when she was young. As she begins to tell the story of her journey, we flash back to the moment when she boards the ship.
Rose (Kate Winslet) is unimpressed by the opulence of the Titanic. She’s a repressed woman from an “old money” family that no longer has its wealth, and as a result has been betrothed to a wealthy jackass of a businessman named Cal (Billy Zane at his most sneeringly heelish). For Kate. this voyage represents the next step in a lifetime that’s already been set out for her, that she has no desire for.
Shortly thereafter, we’re introduced to Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young artist who lives by the seat of his pants, only getting tickets for the Titanic at the very last minute, a man who has nothing to his name but the clothes on his back and his art supplies. Jack and Rose couldn’t be more opposite – but isn’t that always how it goes?
Cameron’s incredible leap of faith is borne out by way of a true-to-life recreation of what life on the RMS Titanic might have been like before it sank. This is necessary to appreciate the depth of destruction and chaos that is to come, but in its opening visions of sheer grandeur and opulence, it’s hard not to be taken in by the illusion. We, as an audience, know that the RMS Titanic is destined with a fatal brush with an iceberg – and yet, in Titanic, we see a floating city, filled with love and life and vitality, and it’s painfully clear why so many thought the RMS Titanic was unsinkable.
There’s so much going on, so many unexplored stories for all the other thousands of passengers, and James Cameron does a good job of reminding us of this fact with side characters, both historical, like Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) and Captain Smith (Bernard Hill), and fictional, like Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) and Tommy Ryan (Jason Barry). Although these characters never become the focus of the story, Cameron’s investment in them will later pay off. There are lengthy intervals during the depiction of the collapse of the ship where we don’t see Jack and Rose – and because Cameron has done the due diligence to invest us in these side characters, we still appreciate the stakes of the moments.
The story of Jack and Rose is something of a cliche, something of an obvious and traditional narrative – but it’s completely the right choice for Cameron to have made. The relationship between Jack and Rose is so charming to watch that it draws the audience in fully. The incredible charm and charisma of Jack, the way he’s able to draw Rose out of her shell, and the defiance she finally shows to Cal, and to her mother, makes us all but forget that inevitably this voyage is doomed. It’s an absolute stroke of genius filmmaking to structure the film this way – as with many historical films, we already know what happens in the film, and yet Titanic’s expertly constructed narrative allows us to create emotional connections that a more straightforward disaster film might lack, and an emotional investment in an all-but-foregone conclusion.
Of course, not every filmmaker gets the opportunity to tell a story over three hours, but James Cameron takes full advantage, filling the story with moments small and large. Smaller moments, like how Jack deftly deflects uncomfortable attention at a fancy dinner, or the moment when Jack and Rose show off their surprising dancing skills to eachother, and bigger, iconic moments, like “I’m the king of the world!” and “I’m flying!”, fill our memory. Titanic takes its time to build to its emotional climax, as well as to its climactic setpiece, the utter destruction of the ship – but when it gets there, the payoff is so judiciously earned that everything preceding it is an investment well worth making.
Titanic was an investment well worth making, a successful payoff to a lifetime of James Cameron’s obsession. It is a vast, epic, ambitious masterpiece, the kind of movie that pushes filmmakers to try for more, and push themselves. It’s a truly effective film, and even after twenty years of imitators, of cynical backlash, of parody, it truly stands the test of time.