Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Over the period since it originally hit theaters, it has become exceedingly fashionable to bash 1997’s Titanic. I suppose that's an inevitable but somewhat ironic turn of events. After all, Titanic started life as an example of everything wrong with modern Hollywood. With a final cost of about $200 million, it went over-budget. A planned late summer 1997 release was delayed by about four months, so it went over-schedule. It also came with a bloated 194-minute running time.
All of this meant Titanic somehow became something of an underdog by the time it finally appeared on December 19, 1997. I think that's because it seemed as doomed to fail as the original ship. Based on its cost, Titanic had to make something like $500 million to turn a profit. $500 million for a movie more than three-hour movie about a sinking ship? There must have been someone out there who thought it would happen, but that person would have been in the minority; Titanic had to become one of the highest grossing films ever released to accomplish this goal.
Titanic didn't become one of the highest grossing films ever; it ended up as the highest grossing film of all time. It grabbed a good but unspectacular opening weekend take of about $30 million, so it looked like the movie'd do okay but not fantastically. However, Titanic just kept going after that. Week after week, it snagged between $20 and $40 million and maintained a stranglehold on the top of the charts. Nothing would depose Titanic from the number one spot until the start of April when Lost In Space arrived.
In the end, Titanic set a tremendous number of records. US gross: $600 million, which is $140 million more than Star Wars, the second-place film. Worldwide take: $1.835 billion - yes, that's right, billion - which almost doubles the gross of the second-place film, Jurassic Park and its $920 million. Let's consider that last figure for a minute: Titanic outgrossed Jurassic Park by nearly a billion dollars. That's just spooky!
(By the way, if we factor in dollars adjusted for inflation, Titanic does drop on the list, but not far. It goes down to number four as it trails Gone With the Wind, Star Wars and The Sound of Music. Those figures are for US income; I don't know how the worldwide grosses would compare when adjusted in this way.)
This much success inevitably had to inspire a backlash, and Titanic got hit hard. Yeah, it went nuts at the Academy Awards - its eleven wins tied Ben-Hur for most ever, and its fourteen nominations tied a record established by All About Eve 47 years earlier - but many started to turn on the film. While director James Cameron's abrasive-at-best personality didn't help matters, I think it was just a matter of reflexively attacking the big guy.
Stupidly, lots of folks derided the excessive hype that surrounded Titanic. The problem with this argument stemmed from the fact that very little hype had accompanied Titanic. You wanna see hype? Look at The Phantom Menace. The hoopla about Titanic, however, was a true grass roots occurrence. We heard a lot about the film because a lot of people loved it and wanted to know more about it. A movie doesn't succeed with the long-term consistency of Titanic if it's all hype.
I also tired of hearing people opine that Titanic did well not because it was a film that appealed to a lot of people across a diverse demographic. Some felt that only teenybopper girls went to the film to ogle Leonardo DiCaprio. Hooey! Teenybopper girls can't produce these kinds of numbers or anywhere near it; if they could, we would have seen a Backstreet Boys movie in the Nineties and it would have grossed $400 million.
It takes all sorts of people to enable a movie to make $600 million, not just one demographic. Face it: with little going for it at the start – it certainly didn't enjoy "event movie" status like Phantom Menace - Titanic found an enormous audience that really loved the picture.
And for good reason: Titanic is a terrific film. It's not my favorite movie directed by Cameron - Aliens seems destined to hold that spot forever - but it's a solid second or third; I can't quite decide if I prefer it or Terminator 2). I saw Titanic during its opening weekend, and the thing truly kicked my butt. While I wanted to see it, I wasn't too excited about it. I mean, a nearly three and a half hour film for which I already knew the ending? I felt certain much boredom would result.
Happily, that feeling never hit me, even though half of the flick is almost entirely a love story, which isn't exactly my favorite genre. Titanic was an extremely long movie that almost flew by; it never felt like a three-hour picture. I was captivated by the story and the characters and zapped by its emotion. I found it to be a tremendously moving and compelling film.
All of the criticisms aimed at Titanic were and remain accurate. Yes, the dialogue is awkward and stilted. The first lines spoken by our hero, Jack Dawson (DiCaprio), are "When you've got nothin', you've got nothin' to lose." While these words worked well for Dylan in "Like a Rolling Stone", they simply seem hackneyed and cliché here. And the dialogue doesn't get much better from there.
None of the acting is terribly special. Kate Winslet (as heroine Rose De Witt Bukater) and Gloria Stuart (as older "modern day" Rose) garnered Oscar nominations, but neither really deserved them. Stuart seemed stilted and flat. Winslet was good but not great; her spirit helped carry the film, but she did nothing award-worthy.
Notably excluded from any honors was DiCaprio, a fact that apparently prompted his famous snub of the Oscar ceremony. He has a point; he was better than Stuart and at least as good as Winslet, so his omission from the list of nominees made little sense. DiCaprio seems generally spirited and warm in the role, and he and Winslet maintain a nice chemistry.
Despite the fact that neither lead actor offered a great performance, the way they meshed is what made Titanic such a hit. Yes, it really was the love story aspect of the film that let it succeed. Cameron took the right path by taking this enormous tragedy and personalizing it on a small and human level. Rather than go the traditional "disaster movie" route ala Towering Inferno or Poseidon Adventure - which focused on the fates of a vast number of characters - Cameron stuck almost exclusively to Jack and Rose. Sure, we saw many other participants and grew to care about them, but this story was about the two leads and little else.
If Winslet and DiCaprio hadn't worked together, the film would have died. As the focal point of such a long picture, they needed to maintain our interest and our passion, which they did wonderfully. Individually, the two deserved no awards, but as a pair, they met all criteria for positive recognition. The success of the film really does lie heavily upon its stars.
That's not to diminish the work done by Cameron. In fact, while the work of his leads made the film's enormous success possible, none of this could have occurred without Cameron's passion and skill. He took a nearly-overwhelming effort and made it live and breathe. He also made Titanic a competent and compelling film that neatly balances two seemingly-mismatched halves, from the almost-pure love story of the first half and the tragic disaster of the remainder.
That's because despite all of the horror happening all around them, Cameron maintained focus on Jack and Rose. We experienced the terror through their eyes. Of course a fair amount of melodrama accompanied this, with some subplots that added various kinds of conflict between the characters, but none of this detracted from the movie's impact. While occasionally stilted and unnatural, Titanic offered such warmth and heart that it earned its justly deserved success.