My first viewing of Titanic left me shocked. I was born in 1982, so I missed out on seeing Indiana Jones, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and other big-budget crowd-pleasers on their initial theatrical runs. I recall Tim Burton’s Batman provoking cheers during a jam-packed screening and Jurassic Park literally making people leap out of their seats. Still, Titanic invoked a different reaction: stunned silence.
At one point, during the search for survivors scene, the audio in our cheap theater failed — no one made a sound, save for a few gasps at the sight of a frozen baby. Then, when the credits rolled, everyone remained in their seats, processing what they had just witnessed. The only other time I remember a film leaving people shell-shocked was Saving Private Ryan.
As we staggered back into the light with our fellow audience members, all I could think about was the spectacle, the action, the romance … Titanic had it all. In the following weeks, I returned to the theater five more times to partake in the movie event of the decade, each viewing offering its own reward. Titanic had me in its grasp: I bought the soundtrack — both of them! — the poster, the screenplay (with all of Cameron’s notes), and even a tiny model I ruined with red spray paint. When the VHS arrived in September of 1998, I scooped it up, ran home, and immediately watched it on a school night. I couldn’t get enough.
It wasn’t any one thing that did it for me, either. The historical angle was fascinating, the love story enchanting, the action thrilling, and the struggle for survival enthralling. Most films do one or two things well, but Cameron’s epic checks all the boxes. To this day, it remains one of the most astonishing blockbusters ever created — a holy s—, I can’t believe he made that kind of movie you only experience once or twice per decade (the other being Cameron’s own T2). To quote old Rose, Titanic was called the ship of dreams and it really was.
Now, some 25 years after its release, Cameron is unleashing his Academy Award-winning epic on the big screen once more. Whether you’re a nut like me who has seen the film multiple times or a youngster with no concept of history, now is as good a time as ever to experience Titanic.
James Horner’s Score
As a Horner junkie growing up in the 90s, my excitement for Titanic largely stemmed from his involvement. A November article in our local paper mentioned that Horner’s work would likely garner the Oscar, which fueled my enthusiasm even more. When the first few notes of his now-iconic score rumbled over the theater sound system (mixed with Norwegian singer Sissel Kyrkjebø’s haunting vocals), the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Goosebumps, kids — a feeling I still get to this day. I can’t wait to hear Horner’s score rumble across state-of-the-art sound equipment, particularly in the last third of the picture when the music hits operatic levels as the disaster escalates into pure chaos.
The Ship of Dreams
While Titanic is primarily known as a disaster flick, the first hour and a half spend a great deal of time lovingly gazing at every aspect of the ship’s impressive details. We visit first class, take a walk with Jack and Rose around the promenade deck, and get a good look at glamorous dining areas and third-class living conditions. Cameron’s characters serve as our tour guides. We cover every last inch of this magnificent vessel, right down to the boiler room where beleaguered workers stuff massive furnaces with coal.
What’s more, none of these explorations feel contrived. It feels like a natural story beat when Jack and Rose lead Lovejoy on a merry chase through the ship’s bowels. Cameron wastes no time with Titanic, which, at over three hours, is damned impressive. Nowadays, most TV screens can convey the film’s grand scale, but theaters offer the best chance to see this behemoth in all its glory.
Kate and Leo
Sure, some of the Jack and Rose story beats are a little silly, but that’s the point. In its first half, Titanic weaves a fanciful tale about two teenagers who connect for one of those spontaneous romances that typically go nowhere. They flirt, bond, kiss, have sex, and live off the fumes of their youthful impulses. Note how they never say, “I love you,” but spend plenty of time talking about things they could do once the trip ends. Neither Jack nor Rose truly believes this will last forever. In fact, I always felt that Rose would have succumbed to her mother’s rule and ditched Jack the moment they hit America.
Except, their fates intertwine when the Titanic hits that damned iceberg. Ironically, the thing that seals them together for eternity is the same thing that ultimately separates them in life. Their romance exemplifies the spirit of this awful catastrophe during which countless fortunes were drastically altered in a few hours.
As an aside, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are terrific in Titanic. Each actor has strengths and weaknesses, but they convey an appropriate amount of charm, fear, panic, and determination in the face of horrible circumstances — could anyone else have pulled this off? Their magnetism deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Also, a shout-out to Billy Zane, whose ruthless Cal is also quite complex. As Roger Ebert noted, he “reveals a human element at a crucial moment (despite everything, damn it all, he does love the girl).”
The first half of Titanic has its highs and lows. It’s certainly entertaining, if not predictable, offset by some clunky dialogue and questionable acting. Still, the movie hits the gas when Cal flips out over Rose’s adventures below deck and never lets up. We get the iconic flying sequence and the drawing scene, and then the action starts and doesn’t stop for nearly an hour. Titanic’s final two acts are incredible. We know what’s about to happen and must watch in horror as our beloved characters slowly realize the truth and react uniquely. Sure, it’s all spectacular, but the sinking is downright terrifying.
Despite the immense special effects and action-driven spectacle, Cameron keeps his lens focused on the characters. We only care about the sinking because we’ve gotten to know Jack, Rose, Cal, and many passengers and crew over the last three hours.
Seriously, this is a hard film to make. While many find fault in the simplicity of the story and melodrama, these same machinations make Titanic so accessible and one of the main reasons it went on to cinematic glory.