If ever there was a film that embodies the term “blockbuster” it is James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. The film had an astounding worldwide box office haul of over $2 billion dollars. It held the record of the highest grossing film of all time until another Cameron film, Avatar, made more money in 2010. The film was epic in terms of its box office take, production budget ($200 million), and the scope of production. It also managed to be both a critical, audience, and awards show success. Titanic was nominated for fourteen Academy Awards and won eleven (including the coveted “Best Picture” and “Best Director” trophies). The feat tied Ben Hur (1959) for the most trophies brought home by a single film. With a pedigree like that, it is impossible to deny the impact Titanic has had on the film industry. The big question is whether or not a huge box office and awards haul elevate a film to stand among the best of the best. Is Titanic a classic?
Should this film be considered a classic? Titanic has moments of incredible brilliance. It is a technical masterpiece that stands up well even when watching an old DVD copy fifteen years after the movie hit theaters. The detail that Cameron and his crew put into the production really does make it feel like you are walking through the ballrooms, staterooms, and engine room (plus many more incredible sets) of a ship that slipped below the icy waters of the Atlantic over a century ago. The transitions from the shots of the wreckage of the ship to the recreated sets of the ship are amazing to watch. The heartbreaking scenes of the ship hitting the iceberg and sinking capture both the chaos and the courage (and sometimes the cowardice) of the final moments of the Titanic. The interior shots of the ship filling with water as people try to escape the icy onslaught are among the more terrifying things I have seen in a movie. This is because these are not scenes from a made up disaster flick but reflect the actual terror of being caught in a sinking ship and knowing that many real people faced that very terror on a cold April night in 1912.
So with all that reflection on the technical achievements of the film, you’d think I’d quickly slap the label “classic” on it. I can’t do that. There’s more to a movie than just the technical. The script is cliche ridden and seems to be written with teenage girls in mind. The acting by the two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, is often laughably bad. Most of the side characters are not only more interesting but also better written and acted! Plus there are some scenes that are absolutely cringe inducing. “I know! Let’s lob snot rockets off the side of the ship!” “How about a slow motion jaunt through the engine room, Rose?”
With that in mind, I would call this film a “technical classic” but not a “true classic.” This movie will continue to be seen and appreciated down through the ages not because of a great script and memorable performances but because of what it depicts and how it depicts it. You see, the true star of the film is not Leo, Cate, or Jame Cameron. The true star of the film is Titanic herself. It is the recreated grandeur of the ship and the gut wrenching knowledge of knowing what is inevitably going to happen from the moment the first frame hits your eyes. If you watch it as a film about Titanic then it is a powerful story about a doomed ship, her passengers, and their final moments. If you watch it as a historical romance it is, to put it bluntly, weak sauce.
Would I own this film? No. When I watched it for this review it was only the second time I had seen it. What drove this film to the heights of box office success was not the amazing effects or the desire to relive history. This film was driven to fame by teen girls watching it over and over and over again. If Cameron had crafted the story with the same care he crafted the sets, effects, and camera work Titanic would be an undeniable classic. Instead, it is a breathtaking technical achievement about a terrifying moment in history that is told through the eyes of hormonal teenagers. Imagine what this film could have been had the writing been stronger, the characters more mature, and the main actors more gifted (thankfully both Kate and Leo are much better at their craft now)? If you are like me, you see the potential for true greatness in this film. Unfortunately, it is only potential.
Here is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It is incredibly powerful and shows the talent of Cameron, some of the secondary cast, and the film at its best.