Film review: Titanic (1997/2012)

To coincide with the re-release in April 2012, and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship, here’s my review of Titanic.

It’s odd a story as predictable as the voyage of Titanic would at the time become the most commercially successful film ever. Director James Cameron’s film also had the biggest budget recorded at $200 million dollars in 1997.

Cameron has said on The Actors Studio, that he made Titanic, because he wanted to dive to the ship wreck, not because he particularly wanted to make the movie. There were many problems during the making of the film, injuries, illness, cold sea waters.

In the pitch to 20th Century Fox, Cameron said: "Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic"

For me, the encounter between Jack, a free-spirited artist (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Rose a woman to be married (Kate Winslet) was just as watchable as the effects. Without the chemistry, I doubt the film would have been as captivating for audiences.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed by special effects as when I watched Titanic in the cinema in the 90s, even today I don’t know how they managed to create the illusion of the Titanic sailing. The actual sinking didn’t impress me as much as panning shots of the length of the ship in the ocean, which may surprise some readers of my review.
Unsurprisingly, the film captured 11 Oscars. Cameron says on the dvd, that if you don’t appreciate the beauty of the ship, then you couldn’t appreciate the sinking. You have to appreciate it in the subjective terms that people viewed the Titanic in 1912, before they knew it was going to sink. What a pity that such an extraordinary vessel would meet it’s fate.

I love how Jack and Rose get to know each other, how we see the whole story through their eyes, so romantic and memorable, I wish I fell in love in the way they did! If I was to be a little cynical and unsentimental, it's conceivable that Jack is a bit of a playboy and finds it easy to charm girls he encounters. The romantic in me leans towards the opinion there are certain people you meet in life that bring out the best in you, who you would gladly go to hell and back to be close to.

I’ve read that Cameron was worried that it would neither be a romance nor a disaster film, he feels that he has straddled both genres, and that is probably the basis of its appeal.

Cameron sums it up:
"I would say it’s a story about love and death. These things happen to everybody."

Titanic (1997) has an old fashioned feel, I believed the maiden voyage took place aboard the Titanic in 1912 due to the sets and costumes. The magnificent ship is brought back to life that we never got to see.

The story of the Titanic still fascinates today, partly because all kinds of human behaviour could be observed during those fatal hours, bravery, cowardice, sacrifice, and human weakness. You almost forget sometimes that it really happened, the tale of the Titanic has a kind of storybook quality with lessons to be learned.

For whatever reason, Titanic is a tale that has captured the imagination of the world more so than other disasters. Titanic was a dream ship that turned into a nightmare. It was a symbol of an optimistic era that believed so strongly and blindly in technology that they famously called the ship unsinkable. Like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), it has that man versus nature theme going on, where man has become too arrogant and naive, and the grand order of things is putting us in our place again, as if nature is proclaiming, remember you are not gods and only humans.

Much has been written how there were not enough lifeboats for the 3rd class passengers, and theories of why the ship sank, and this was a lesson to future generations. The film is also openly critical of how true love is not based on class or money, but real emotions and attraction.

The makers of the actual Titanic, or so I’ve read, were competing with other ship building companies to create the biggest and most luxurious vessel. The shipping industry was flourishing and people felt safe onboard the ocean. During the construction, Titanic was nick named the floating castle, and was the most expensive ship of the era costing $7,5 million, a huge amount in the early 1900s. The delusion of grandeur amounted to more than just size and expense, also in terms of speed, wanting to break the record for a cross over the Atlantic Ocean, despite warnings of icebergs, they didn’t slow down. It's believed due to the weather conditions, icebergs had moved further south than usual. The Titanic disaster was kind of a warning about future technological and man-made disasters in the 20th century, such as the atomic bomb.

A lot has been said about the band onboard, who kept playing music right to the end, several interpretations I’ve come across talk about they continued in order to keep people’s spirits up. Or to show the ship it’s final respect. Or perhaps because it was their job, and they felt an obligation, if one member kept playing, then perhaps the others felt obliged to do the same.

Last year I watched the Bette Davis film Now Voyager, and judging from some of the dialogue, James Cameron was inspired by that 1942 film.

In the Charlie Rose roundtable discussion from 1996, a historian, a playwright, and others talk about the durability of the story. How we are all afraid of dying, and that there is someone among the classes on Titanic that we can all identify with. About timeless emotions of bravery and cowardness.

If you are expecting a documentary that follows historical events, then you will be disappointed by Titanic, Cameron has taken liberty with fictional characters and fictional dialogue. The only thing I might point my finger at is the length of the film, didn’t bother me, but 3 hours is a long running time to sit still. When I saw it in the theatre, there was an interval.

Cameron admits he was sensitive to the need of making Titanic historically accurate. He doesn’t like it when Hollywood takes liberties, although he admits that First Officer Murdoch’s behaviour is not completely accurate. The Murdoch family apparently complained that it’s a fiction and a slur on his memory.

James Cameron explains in Charlie Rose interview in 1997:
“The films that I loved as a kid were the big films, Spartacus, the Lean films, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The films that put something up there that you could not experience in your life. (...) We fall in love with Jack and Rose, as they fall in love with each other up on the screen. And then there’s a certain point when we realize we are on the ship with them as an audience experientially. (...) To use one of my favorite films as a teenager David Lean’s film Doctor Zhivago, it’s not really about the Russian revolution, it’s about these people in this event that’s greater than them, and I think my film Titanic is the same thing. (...)
You borrow energy from the chosen setting, and in some way I think that energy is returned as well, because by being subjectively involved through this love story, I think you have a more emotional appreciation of the event itself. (...) My model for the character of Rose was an artist in California, who is 103 years old. I wanted to meet and interview someone while I was in the writing stage, who was that age, and had a very exciting and passionate life, and I wanted to see what her memories were like, how vivid they were. Because this is really a movie about memory, what you take away from an event, and how you go on.”
You get an experience you might not otherwise have due to the level of ambition of the filmmaking. Not in the IMDB top 250, which I think is surprising.

And finally, who could forget the haunting music score? Granted, Celine Dion's song "My Heart Will Go On" is cheesy and has a lot of haters, but James Horner's score is what really worked for me and created a lot of the atmosphere.

My rating 9 out of 10, when viewed in the cinema. On TV I give it an 8/10.

Have you been to see it in 3D? Any thoughts on Titanic? I think this is the definitive film on the Titanic, hard to imagine anyone ever topping this?



James Cameron interview, Charlie Rose in 1997

Charlie Rose 1996, a panel discuss the sinking of the RMS Titanic

The Actors Studio, James Cameron


  1. "Cameron has said on The Actors Studio, that he made Titanic, because he wanted to dive to the ship wreck, not because he particularly wanted to make the movie." that's typical Cameron right there. For me the msot astonishing thing about Titanic is that Cameron made a good movie. It has everything, great story, execution and unforgettable performances. Great review!

    1. @Sati: Based on that quote I found, it is indeed amazing how well the movie turned out. I can’t think of a really bad James Cameron-directed movie post Terminator, so maybe even if he doesn’t always enjoy what he’s doing, Cameron is dedicated.
      We witness a romance we can root for, even if Rose is being disloyal, which speaks volumes about the chemistry and performances between Dicaprio and Winslet.

  2. Wonderful review, you really did a lot of research on the topic! When I first read that Titanic was to be released in 3D, I swore I wouldn't watch it, but as it's one of my favourite films, I don't think I can say no to this opportunity. It's so classic and not trailblazing at all, technically, but yet there's this special magic about it that also made it so famous, I think. And you're absolutely right; it wouldn't have been as famous without the great chemistry between Kate and Leonardo.

    1. @Mette: Thanks! I also hope to see Titanic in 3D soon, the opportunity may never be there again to see it on the big screen.
      Is unusual for an action director to make a film this emotional. I agree, there is a special magic about the film, words don't do it justice. Really is like we are back in 1912, and this is also because of how detailed the sets are.

  3. Great stuff man! Really enjoyed that! Cannot believe it's not in the IMDb top 250! DiCaprio and Winslet definitely have great chemistry and Cameron's footage of the wreck is worth the price of admission alone if you ask me! Also in total agreement about the special effects, from the sailing to the sinking, the mix of miniatures to the huge sets to CGI is nothing short of breathtaking!

    1. @Pete: I agree with everything you say. For me the script is underrated, and much better than the Avatar script. James Cameron can’t get enough of sea diving, he recently went on a solo sub dive for National Geographic to Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the ocean. Talking of footage of the Titanic wreck, I noticed there’s a new documentary I haven’t seen it yet:
      Titanic: Final Word with James Cameron (2012)

  4. I've never liked this film or 3D, but you make it interesting.

    1. @Chris David Richards: Thanks, Titanic is an interesting story. Too schmaltzy is what I often hear from naysayers, I disagree.

  5. As someone who has been on IMDB since April of 1997 I can tell you that there is usually a backlash against the Oscar winning films, especially if they have romance in them. People deliberately give "1"s to these movies over and over in order to knock them off the list. This happened to Titanic and also to Shakespeare in Love (which at one time was #4 on the list). The Oscar winners that stay on the list are guy-centric films like The Departed.

    1. @Chip Lary: Thanks for the info. The IMDB top 250 is kind of guy-centric, that is noticeable. Is a pity the list is gender biased. I suppose an answer would be to create a female list, but I don’t think it would work out, because lots of films are for everyone, and that list would get messed up too.

    2. Well, it's guy-centric simply because far more men than women vote for movies on IMDB. That shifts the ratings in favor of movies more for guys. You can see every movie's breakdown by gender by clicking on the number of votes on the movie's individual page. (It also breaks them down by age along with gender.) Of course, this doesn't create an easily accessible list of the top films. For what it's worth, both girls and boys under 18 tend to give the highest ratings and women over 45 tend to give the lowest.

    3. @Chip Lary: Good points you make. IMDB is complicated, but is useful for me to get an idea if a movie's worth watching. With experience you understand how the voting tends to work in terms of gender, and also for certain genres: TV-shows getting extremly high overrated scores, while movie comedies and horror often very low ratings. Then there are many new releases that start out with a high IMDB score, and gradually drop to a more realistic number, which can fool you initially.

      Considering the 3D release, Titanic has been surprisingly stagnant in 2012 and remains at 7.5 on IMDB, I was expecting a little fluctuation.

  6. I'm sorry, but there's no way Titanic in 3D is anything other than a grab for cash - there's no artistic merit in it whatsoever. You've certainly highlighted key areas in which Cameron's epic falls flat: Jack and Rose's romance, which you label as "romantic", is anything but - they have zero romantic chemistry on-screen, and I remember thinking in the cinema about half way through, how anxious I was to see the damn ship hit the iceberg just to get to the action.

    Of all the iterations I've seen of the Titanic story, I've yet to see it played as it perhaps SHOULD be: a straight-up action/adventure yarn, eschewing the romantic pap and just getting to the "man vs sea" angle Cameron only touched on in his version. Remove all the romance and stuff with Billy Zane, and get straight to the action and you'd have an even better film!

    1. @Rodney: Well, I respectfully disagree. You are entitled to the opinion that Titanic lacks chemistry between Leo and Kate, but you don't say what is wrong with their performances, so I can't really comment furthur. The film is the 2nd highest grossing film in history, I think a few people found it romantic. If you don't want a romance on a ship, then you should see an action film instead. For me, the romance and early build-up made me care about the passengers, and appreciate the beauty of the ship. If you jump straight to the sinking, the viewer would be indifferent to who lives or dies.

      Regarding the 3D conversion, I have not seen it, so will refrain from comment. All I know is Titanic in 1997 impressed me a lot in the cinema in terms of spectacle. I think the film should be viewed on the big screen at least once. Watching on TV is not the same.
      Thanks for commenting, even though I disagree with most of what you say!


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