In late 2010, my friend Sarah and I went to a screening of a 70mm print of James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ at the Astor in Melbourne. By that point, the cultural dismissal of the film as a lame piece of Hollywood schmaltz had set in - mention its name, and film lovers rolled their eyes at it. I always maintained my affection for the film, but it had been many years since I’d watched it, and both Sarah and I wondered whether this assessment would be proved valid. Our experience that day came as a shock. At the intermission, we turned to one another with surprise, and she asked, "Has it always been this good?" By the end, we were heaving, sobbing messes, struck right in the heart by that final hour. It turned out it still was - and always had been - a truly great film.
‘Titanic’ was the first film I ever fell truly in love with. I turned 11 the day after the film was released, and had been obsessed with the sinking for years, the way a kid gets fixated on dinosaurs or horses. I’d seen heaps of films and documentaries on the disaster, from classics like ‘A Night To Remember’ (1958) to that terrible 1996 miniseries starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Peter Gallagher. I could tell you how long it was, how many people were on board, what time to the minute the ship struck the iceberg and what time it sank. None of that prepared by young brain for Cameron’s film though. Many go on and on about how accurate the film tried to be to even the tiniest detail, of the sinking and of that maiden voyage. Those details are part of the impact of this film, and something that took me completely by surprise. I remember sitting in the packed cinema with my mum and stepdad, and when the broken wreck transformed seamlessly to the ship standing at the docks of Southampton on the 10th April 1912, my little frame gasped and burst into tears. I was seeing something impossible, something I’d only seen in old photographs, Ken Marshall paintings or crappy film models. Suddenly, there it was in all its glory, a ghost from the past brought back to life. To this day, no matter how many times I watch it, that moment still sends electricity up my spine.
That ‘Titanic’ ever made it to the screen at all was a miracle. Whether it was the ballooning budget, the stories of a hellish shoot or Cameron’s distinct combination of perfectionism and ego, everything pointed to a car crash. Its enormous success and accolades at the time felt completely justified - this was something we’d never seen before, an old-style Hollywood epic of enormous length, with jaw-dropping special effects and two superstars at the forefront. What this meant was that the success - and the inevitable cutting down of that success - overshadowed what a truly extraordinary film ‘Titanic’ is. Sure, its screenplay isn’t the strongest, and the romance is laid on pretty thick, but if you go back and watch it, they’re the only real major criticisms. As a feat of filmmaking, it’s easily one of the greats. As a throttling emotional experience, it’s still one of the most potent. And as a document to this singular historical event, it is without peer.
What Cameron tapped into was the romanticism of the image of the Titanic. The historical narrative captures everything from human folly, the wonders and failure of technology and the final throes of an outdated social hierarchy, all set against the epic canvas of the largest man-made object on earth coming apart at the seams in the middle of an ocean in the dead of night. Everything was there, but while some films had aimed for historical accuracy, they always felt like documentaries. Other had left the historical detail behind and focused entirely on invented characters and scenarios, but that just made the whole thing feel like a soap opera. Cameron’s success comes from combining the two, setting the doomed romance of Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) amidst real historical figures and stories. Rose and Jack were vital to the emotional success of ‘Titanic’ because they offer us someone to connect and invest in. Cameron can control their story as well as put them at the right place and time for us to witness the countless other true stories that come with the event. Rose in particular becomes our way in, the eyes through which we see the tragedy - and without that connection, the film simply wouldn’t work. The screenplay might stumble on clichés, but Cameron’s story is pretty damn strong, and it’s far from the worst thing he’s ever written.
What ‘Titanic’ is, more than anything, is an experience, one that took all the tools at its disposal at the time and pushed them further than ever before. It is as significant to the evolution of cinema as ‘Star Wars’, ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘The Matrix’, with a visual and aural scope that has somehow never dated. Visual effects are used as an intrinsic part of the storytelling and world-building, as remarkable as the impeccable production and costume design. James Horner, already an established composer, crafted one of the most iconic and beautiful scores ever written, one that straddles our world and that of 1912, as if we were looking through a window to the past. I’ve never thought of ‘Titanic’ as a period piece, because it feels so immediate and dynamic. Cameron might not be a great writer, but he’s an astounding director, and his work in ‘Titanic’ is still an absolute fucking marvel. His careful, energetic approach to the first two acts earns the third, and you never feel the length at any point.
That last hour is a masterpiece of editing, cinematography, direction, design and performance, a perfect storm of epic cinematic storytelling and existential nightmare.
‘Titanic’ is a driven, dynamic film of impeccable artistry and extraordinary beauty, but its triumph comes in that final act. The sinking sequence is flat-out incredible, harrowing and nail-biting, thrilling and devastating, and so enormous in visual and emotional scale that it’s still almost impossible to comprehend. That last hour is a masterpiece of editing, cinematography, direction, design and performance, a perfect storm of epic cinematic storytelling and existential nightmare. Again, without Rose as our guide, we would feel detached instead of invested, with many of the images (water crashing into the bridge, plates sliding from their shelves, the destruction of the grand staircase, the Strauss’ clutching one another as water swirls around them) now forever burnt into our memories. And as the Titanic makes its final death throes, the stern crashing down (as Cameron describes in his screenplay) like the "heel of God", the enormity of the event hits you - an endless sea of bodies, screaming for help, the sound of metal tearing apart, the look of horror in Molly Brown’s (Kathy Bates) eyes.
On the 100th anniversary of the sinking, I went to see ‘Titanic’ at IMAX in 3D. As the sinking reached its climax, you could feel a shiver through the cinema. All at once, everyone watching the film realised that, likely 100 years exactly, this very event had happened somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a humbling, moving moment, and a testament to the level of detail and respect ‘Titanic’ has for its subject matter. Even if you want to dismiss the love story, the screenplay or the schmaltz, the sinking in the film is undeniably one of the great moments in cinema, and still one of the most devastating.
‘Titanic’ is still, and will always be, one of my favourite films. It was like a dream come true, a chance to see a moment in history that I’d only read about in books or seen inadequately on film. I felt like I’d been through it with Rose and Jack and the others, and no film had ever affected me that deeply before. Looking back, it still means the world to me, but for a different reason. After seeing the film, my 11-year-old obsession moved from the event to the film itself, now reading everything and watching everything I could about how they had made it. I discovered what a cinematographer was, what an editor was, what a production designer was. Their names meant as much to me as Winslet and DiCaprio’s. Horner’s score was the first I ever owned, and I played that CD till it wore out. Most importantly, I discovered what a director was, laying the seeds for the career I would later choose for myself. Thanks to ‘Titanic’, I was introduced to the magic of how film was made, and without it I never would have gone on to discover heroes like Kubrick, Hitchcock, Spielberg or Fincher. That film made me fall in love with cinema, and consequently changed my life for the better, and for that I’ll always be grateful to it.
So, I don’t care that it isn’t popular to love this film anymore. I don’t care that pop culture has picked over its bones until there’s nothing left. And I truly do not give a shit about whether or not Jack could have fit on that damn door. When I look at James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’, I still find that same sense of awe and wonder I found as a kid, awe at a remarkable filmmaking achievement built around an epic historical event that has never stopped haunting us. Whenever I look at this extraordinary film, I still think the same thing - ‘Titanic’ is a goddamn friggin’ masterpiece.