Directed by: James Cameron
Written by: James Cameron
Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane and Kathy Bates
Looking back 15 years to when Titanic first came out brings back nothing for me except being left with a babysitter while my parents went and saw it. That’s just it, though. In 1997, Titanic was the movie worth getting a babysitter for; a cultural touchstone that became almost as famous as the disaster it depicted. My first experience with the movie was on my first airplane flight, though the humor of showing a disaster movie in that scenario never struck me until a few years later.
What I did notice during that initial viewing was the last hour of Titanic, which was up until that point one of the most gripping things I’d watched on a screen. James Cameron’s massive epic enraptures the viewer in a state of panic and despair during that sequence, and it’s a feeling that still pours over into my viewing of the film now.
Titanic is an immortal moviemaking accomplishment not because of the revolutionary innovation that went into its story, but the way James Cameron films such a simple narrative on such a colossal scale. That’s been his directorial MO in films spanning from Aliens to Avatar, but he often complicates his movies’ simplicity with a science fiction mythology.
Examining the doomed maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic is period filmmaking at its most straightforward and melodramatic. Thrown into that mix is of course the timeless love story of the peasant Jack (Leonardio DiCaprio) and the aristocrat Rose (Kate Winslett). Since Titanic these two performers have grown into two of the most talented of their generation, though their performances here should be recognized as career-boosters instead of ranked with their finest work.
During the film’s more than 3 hour running time, Jack and Rose board the doomed vessel, find each other, fall in love and are torn apart when the dreaded ice berg punctures holes in Titanic. The first two hours are mostly character-driven; a class-oriented romantic comedy of manners. This was new territory for Cameron, as evidenced by the hit-and-miss narrative’s ability to engage.
If you’re able to put the disaster movie finale out of your mind, Jack and Rose’s courtship is an endearing, somewhat engaging experience. DiCaprio and Winslet work wonderfully together, and memorable supporting performances from Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher and Victor Garber help create an ensemble we’ll care about when chaos arrives to undo their finely polished exteriors.
The modern-day sequences that filter Titanic‘s perspective through an elderly Rose’s (Gloria Stuart) retelling are easily forgotten in the wake of history coming alive (at times way more alive than it ever actually was), but Cameron brings a level of realism to this setting that almost feels like a documentary at times. It’s a lived-in world of obsessive underwater excavators who rummage through Titanic’s remains in search of a priceless blue diamond necklace. A nude portrait of the woman wearing it is the whole purpose of the story we’re being told, though it’s easy to lose site of that as the movie establishes that it will be telling us every last detail.
Analyzing Titanic for anything more than technical achievements is almost besides the point. James Cameron is the cinema’s premiere maximalist, and if he approached a movie like Titanic with anything but utter sincerity it would be laughably stupid. His aesthetic prowess far outweighs the types of stories that he tells, though he knows to choose performers who can bring characters to a crucial level of humanity. Despite the loud, extraordinarily captured sinking sequence, the moment that resonates about Titanic the most is its beautifully conceived conclusion that restores the ship to its majesty and reunites the doomed lovers. Even after an exhausting three hour experience, you almost don’t want to let go.