Titanic is not the reason why I eventually pursued my dream of film criticism and writing, but if I honestly look back in time, it is one of many influential and contributing factors as to where I am today, some 15 years later. I remember being so taken by the film and the emotions it welled up within me that I had to see it a second time. On that second viewing, I liked it less. Seeing it alone, I remember dismissing it – “This is so manipulative.” “I can see right through all of this.” “Such obvious CGI…” I mean, I was 23, steps away from college and like most everyone, thought I knew most everything about everything. At the behest of my wife, we returned again – a third time for me and a second time for her, and I fell in love with Titanic all over again. The discussion we had in the car ride home became something which resembled the arguments and debates I encountered in my college film study courses and like virtually everyone who saw it, I became consumed by the movie for a long while.
When the Oscars rolled around, I had no expectation that it would win 11 of its 14 nominations and although I was rooting for Good Will Hunting to win Best Picture, I knew, as did those at our annual Oscar party, that the fated ship would likely rise one last time. I winced when James Cameron declared himself “King Of The World”. Months later, I witnessed the unyielding adoration for the film firsthand when I worked as a manager in a video retail chain, the day the film saw its VHS release. This particular chain, which has long since gone the way of the Dodo, stocked more than 600 copies of the film on its shelves and by the end of that first night, all of them were rented out. Every last one of them.
Back then, the window between theatrical release and home video release dates was much longer a span than today’s typical 3-4 month timeframe. Plus, Titanic appealed to all walks of life; a film truly transcendent of its genre trappings and in possession of that rare intangible that everyone could seemingly latch on to. People went 5, 6, 10, 15 times and if somehow you were not aware in 1997 and 1998 how big this film was, Titanic was the pop culture juggernaut of not just a decade, but a century. As time passes, films may make more money at the box office, but I cannot think of a film that captivated the world such as this one. Since that September day in 1998, I have seen the film three more times, and most recently in the last week, as the long-anticipated Blu-Ray has now arrived. Older, and I would like to pretend to be somewhat wiser, I still find myself in love with the film, and more cognizant of its flaws, but still able to understand that Titanic is James Cameron’s finest work to date, and likely one he will never top – no matter how hard he tries.
James Cameron is a good filmmaker, full stop. People will bristle at that very sentence, but all cards on the table here – he knows how to make entertaining films that look and feel crisper, bigger, and grander than anything else. He has bred a generation of filmmakers who have tried to out-Cameron the “King” and he still retains the crown. I completely acknowledge that his massive ego has contributed to people dismissing him as a hack or branding him the worst, most successful director of all time but look at the resume. You want to disregard Avatar and snub Titanic, then he also has Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Abyss, and True Lies in his quiver, as well as the 1986 benchmark science-fiction epic Aliens. Cameron knows how to make great films, so let’s move on.
The overriding issue that becomes most obvious with Titanic is that for everything that transpires, the heartwrenching mayhem of the final hour, the love story between Jack and Rose (Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet), the surplus of supporting characters and their storylines, the screenplay is just missing something. Six times I have viewed the film from start to finish and I cannot quite pinpoint where it misses exactly, but I hold to the contention that Cameron just missed making this truly worthy of its status as only one of three films to win 11 Academy Awards (Ben-Hur and Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King being the others). To sit and think about what is wrong with the film is a never-ending run on the hamster’s wheel for me, because I debate myself on what works and does not work depending on my viewing.
And to mention any flaws to people who love Titanic is akin to tripping someone inadvertently or making them spill a drink down the front of themselves. Always in discussions about the film with people who champion it as the greatest film of all time, I mention that the sinking of the Titanic seems like a completely different film than what preceded it. When pressed, I argue that the tone is too jarring and too out of kilter with how Cameron connects to the earlier happenings on the ship. People look at me like I have two heads. Seeing the film just recently, I find that the problem is not with how Cameron puts in motion the fateful events of the sinking of the ship. Rather, it is all the extraneous subplots that never really coalesce to the main romance of Jack and Rose or the tragic sinking and loss of lives with the downing of the Titanic itself. And yet, I cannot help but still become mesmerized by the film all over again. I find myself drawn to it, apologetic for its flaws, and blown away by how James Cameron destroys your heart in that final hour.
Say what you will about the screenplay, but there has seldom been a more harrowing conclusion to a movie than this one. The magnitude of the ship’s destruction is Cameron at his finest – balancing a confident eye on capturing, in unflinching detail, the popping of wood, the concussive avalanche of water, the people laying down and holding hands and praying, the ship breaking, turning vertical, and bodies violently cascading down into the water. Hooking us in to all of this is the fact that Jack and Rose are the focal point, a masterful technique, and Cameron engineers two fantastic performances from a youthful, and dare I say more innocent, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. How the Academy nominated Winslet, only to snub DiCaprio is baffling, because the two actors are absolutely convincing with their romance.
Bringing Titanic to present-day, the transfer and content on the 2012 Blu-Ray release is incredibly detailed with many of the special features offering more insight into how risky and adventurous this production truly was. Several commentaries, including one from Cameron himself, are from a previous release, but the commentary from cast and crew is an interesting medley of countless different thoughts and opinions edited together into one interesting listen (no DiCaprio however. Hmmm…).
The second disc offers a couple of feature-length documentaries. The first, Reflections on TITANIC, documents in four parts the effort to incorporate a romance and various fictionalized storylines on top of the backdrop of a historical tragedy. Capturing the response, the rapturous acclaim from audiences around the world, the piece does a nice job presenting a time capsule back to late 1997 and early 1998. Interestingly, the backlash is covered here as well, showing how people turned on the film, dismissed it as nothing special and yet obviously, as time has shown, still respect and love the film. The second documentary, TITANIC – The Final Word With James Cameron takes a more scientific analysis of what happened on the Titanic and becomes a 90-plus minute roundtable discussion and historical documentary about the truth surrounding the ship’s fated demise.
Additionally, there are 57 minutes (how long was this movie supposed to be?!?!) of deleted scenes, which I admit to not having gotten all the way through yet, countless short segments and vignettes that cover everything you could possibly imagine about the production of the film. Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning and much maligned “My Heart Will Go On” song and music video are featured (I still do kinda get caught up in it, I must shamefully admit), still galleries, trailers and teasers, and visual effects featurettes all complete what is an extraordinary and frankly, final stamp on Titanic the movie and pop culture phenomenon. Titanic is and was the rare film to become bigger than an industry and this Blu-Ray release captures all of that thoroughly and exhaustively well.
At the end of the day, Titanic is very easy to tear apart for people I think largely because of its success and the not well disguised holes which originate in Cameron’s screenplay. The performances from Winslet and DiCaprio are iconic, the love story is championed by millions of people still to this day as one of the greatest ever captured on screen, and Cameron’s ability to place you on that ship, with those both wealthy and poor, and then break your heart when it all comes tumbling down is something unparalleled for a mega-budget blockbuster such as this. I am and remain an unabashed fan of the film and seeing it in this glorious presentation only solidifies those lasting impressions it made on me as a moviegoer.