Why Titanic Works

By: Anna Cox

Titanic (1997) is turning 25 this year, which prompted a 3D release in theaters. I have gone to see it on four separate occasions because of how much I love this movie. After going to watch it many times, I’ve started thinking about how weird the concept of Titanic is. In theory, Titanic shouldn’t be a good movie. The movie blends two popular genres of the 90s: CGI-packed disaster blockbuster and melodramatic romance movie. But, despite the vastly different genres and doubt from the public that James Cameron wouldn’t be able to pull off writing a compelling romance, the movie was one of the most successful movies to ever hit the box office. At the time it came out, it was both the most expensive –with a budget of $200 million–and highest-grossing–it made over $2.236 billion dollars at the box office– film to ever be made. Now, I know that the cost of a movie and its popularity isn’t a tell-tale sign that it was a good movie (see Avatar); however, I’m sure the 14 Academy Awards nominations and 11 wins would help prove the validity of the movie. Considering that Titanic is practically two movies in one, it is odd that it was such a cultural phenomenon. But, nevertheless, Titanic remains a beloved, quoted, and remembered gem of the 90s. 

*This is riddled with spoilers, so if you don’t know how Titanic ends, I’m sorry, that’s on you.*

When people think of Titanic, they tend to think about the innovative technology used by James Cameron. But, what a lot of people don’t realize is how historically accurate the set pieces and characters are. In 1985, the real sunken RMS Titanic was found and explored. At the time, James Cameron was making a movie that satisfied his obsession with deep-sea diving called Abyss. Titanic is a movie you can tell a lot of love was put into the making of, and that isn’t only because of the large budget. The details in the movie, from the specific way that the ship wrecks, to the use of real life Titanic passengers as background characters, made this a well-researched movie. Some even hail it to be one of the most historically accurate period films ever made. But, those details were not initially what drew people to watch the movie. It was the use of effects, both CGI and practical, that was the main draw for moviegoers. The process of filming this movie is so interesting that videos showing the behind the scenes of the sinking get millions of views to this day.

Titanic is a unique movie in its ability to create an emotional connection with the audience. The most famous discourse about the movie involves whether or not Jack could’ve fit onto the door at the end of the movie (pro-tip: he could’ve fit, but the door would have gone under if they were both on it). People will tell you that Jack not being on the door was dumb and that the worst part of the movie was that they think he could’ve survived. This is such an insignificant argument in the grand scheme of the movie. People don’t have much to complain about in regards to the plot, but they are so connected and attached to these characters that they want them to get out of the situation. The movie is also able to form connections with unnamed characters. If you ask people what the saddest part of Titanic is, most will tell you the scene where an old couple holds each other as water rushes under the bed or the mother that tells her kids a bedtime story as the ship around them wails and goes under. But, the movie also manages to make the ship its own separate character. The first 25 minutes of the movie are spent exploring and talking about the ship, which weirdly enough makes the audience care for the ship. So, when it eventually sinks, the audience is sympathetic.

When a movie is popular, there are always going to be people who say that the movie is bad. The cinephiles can’t help themselves. So, it is not a shocker that people started to find critiques for Titanic when it surged in popularity. And, some of those critiques are true, but they don’t necessarily make the movie bad. Some say that Titanic is melodramatic, but guess what, that’s the point. The movie and actors have never claimed that it isn’t sappy and melodramatic, mainly because that is the audience that the romance aspect is appealing to. Also, melodrama isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If approached the proper way, melodrama can be an important tool in crafting a compelling, tragic story. Titanic blends melodrama with actual high-stakes situations, making it fully crucial to the movie. Another main critique of the movie is critics thinking that the dialogue was lazy; yet in my personal opinion, I don’t think it was lazy; I think it was simple. And, in its premise, Titanic is not a simple concept, but a simple story. It’s just Romeo and Juilet if it took place on the Titanic. Sure, there are some complexities when breaking down deeper themes, like the ideas of the patriarchy and class, but to say the Titanic doesn’t handle those in an effective way is just nonsense. Not every script needs to feel like you are googling a new word every other line. James Cameron’s dialogue has never been philosophical or hailed by critics as amazing, but that doesn’t mean it is bad. He writes in the way that real people talk, which is beneficial to Titanic. It makes these characters feel like they could’ve actually existed, and it even represents the real people aboard the ship. The only critique, in my opinion, that holds some truth and weight is the performances of some of the actors. This does not include Billy Zane, who some say is too cartoonish without considering that the story is told from Rose’s perspective. So, it makes sense that she would see him as a caricature of himself. Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet have grown into some of the best actors of modern Hollywood, but Titanic is an earlier movie for them. Both were in their early 20s acting alongside seasoned actors, so of course it may have been a little inconsistent. But, their acting is still great enough that it doesn’t distract from the actual movie.

Cameron’s masterful blending of two genres that are so different from each other make Titanic a modern classic deserving of its accolades.


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