King of the World – Titanic 20 Years Later and the History of the Unsinkable Movie

In the late fall of 1997, we didn’t know what was about to descend upon us in the movie theaters.  For the most part, it had been a largely lackluster year, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned.  The summer had given us some laughably over the top action thrillers like Con Air and Face/Off, as well as some outright embarrassments like Batman & Robin.  And amidst all the talk of Hollywood movies becoming nothing more than overly expensive junk food, there was this fascinating side story bubbling up about this runaway movie production about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  Directed by action film auteur, James Cameron, the movie Titanic would arrive in theaters in the middle of December 1997 already burdened by negative press about it’s bloated production budget (a then record $200 million) and long delayed development.  Believe it or not, the movie was originally intended to be a summer release, but it was held back for 5 months due to the fact that Cameron was not able to finish it on time.  So, couple those production problems with the fact that it was an action film director trying his hand at an epic, period romance for the first time as well as the fact that it boasted an unthinkable 3 hour and 15 minute run-time, and you can imagine that the executive at 20th Century Fox who bankrolled it were pretty nervous on the date of release.  The studio, no stranger to out of control productions like Cleopatra (1963), even sold off the domestic distribution rights to Paramount, just so they could brace themselves for the inevitable fall.  So, the day of release finally came, and as it turned out for everyone involved, everything turned out more than just okay.  Titanic not only managed to become a success, it became a new high water mark for all of Hollywood, not just at the box office but in terms of acclaim, popularity and influence in the years ahead.  Now, 20 years later, we are once again reminded of just how big an impact this movie left on the industry, and how unexpected that result really has been.

Titanic broke pretty much every record that you could think off for a single Hollywood film.  In an era of blockbuster entertainment, it defied all precedent.  Three hour plus movies just didn’t make money any more, because they reduced the amount of showtimes available throughout the day, and yet here was a movie that managed to continue to pack houses every single day and make more money than movies half it’s length several times over.  Not only that, it had better longevity than any other film Hollywood had seen at the box office.  It remained number one at the box office for a still unbroken record of 14 weeks, eventually adding to a final tally of just over $600 million domestic, and $1.5 billion worldwide.  Those record numbers stood unchallenged for over a decade, but have since been topped twice by James Cameron himself with Avatar (2009) and by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).  But, it wasn’t just box office numbers that set Titanic  apart.  It ended up sweeping through awards season, eventually picking up a total of 11 Academy Awards out a total of 14 nominations (tying the record on both accounts) including the coveted Best Picture award.  The movie, regardless to say, hit bigger than anybody ever thought it would, and for something that is in essence a disaster movie, the result proved to be anything but.  But what is interesting is how the film stands now far removed from the frenzy that surrounded it’s beginning.  Did James Cameron’s epic really stand the test of time, or was it just a flash in the pan that hit at the exact right time.  There’s a lot to take in about the legacy of Titanic, especially with regards to the legacy it left behind on the industry of Hollywood.  In many ways, it brought much needed success to areas of the industry that really needed it, and at the same time, made some things a tad more difficult as well.  Especially when you look at the way the movie impacted the people involved, the technology behind it’s making and the movie-going public as a whole, we begin to get a sense of just how monumental a movie like Titanic has been over the last 20 years.

The first thing that revisiting the film makes you think about overall is why; why the Titanic?  How did this then nearly century old tragedy inspire this big of a production and why did it become such a huge hit?  It’s interesting looking at the inception of James Cameron’s ideas for the film.  Already, people knew of his passionate obsession with deep sea exploration, something which he had already indulged himself with in the movie The Abyss (1989).  At the same time, the mystique of the Titanic tragedy was already starting to take hold in our culture.  In the mid 80’s, the sunken wreck was finally discovered in the North Atlantic, preserved just enough 2 miles below the ocean surface to give us a look into the distant past and help piece together the events of that fateful night.  From this came numerous publications detailing the storied history of the “unsinkable” Titanic cruise ship, as well as renewed interest in the personal stories of the still surviving people who sailed on it.  There was even a hit, Tony winning musical that brought the story of the ship to life.  And out of this renewed interest, James Cameron made his rather bold pitch to 20th Century Fox.  According to the director himself, his entire pitch was simply showing the executives a picture of the Titanic and saying “Romeo and Juliet on this ship.  That’s my next project,” and miraculously he got the green-light.  Naturally, the love story aspect was what appealed to the studio chiefs, but when you look at the movie as a whole, and the person who James Cameron is, it’s clear that his intention was to recreate the events of the Titanic sinking, putting the viewer right in the thick of it as it happens.  This of course is easier said than done, and as the production went along, it became clear the actual scale to the whole venture that Cameron had in mind, and all of it was very, very expensive.

As the production went into full force, it quickly outgrew what Fox had available.  A whole new facility was constructed in Baja California, Mexico just to construct the massive out door sets that Cameron needed.  The most remarkable of these was a near full-size replica of the port side of the ship itself, as well as a recreation of the Southhampton dock that it would have launched from.  The amount of detail indeed pulls off Cameron’s vision perfectly, putting the viewer on the ship just as it would have been back on it’s maiden voyage in 1912.  Even more impressive than this is the remarkable way that Cameron created sets that not only were detailed and suitable for filming any variety of scenes, but could also be dipped and sunk under water in a massive tank thanks to a colossal set of gimbal lifts.  This not only gave the sets authenticity in their recreation, but it allowed us to see what the actual effect of the ship sinking would have felt like in person.  The amazing thing watching the film is knowing how much of the amazing visual effects are done in camera.  Cameron actually did take his massive outdoor set and tilted it at a 45 degree angle, recreating the final moments of Titanic in frightening detail.  When you see the extras clinging to the railings of the Titanic set for this film, they are doing so much in the same way that the real life passengers would have.  There is no question that Titanic is a triumph of screen direction, showing an unprecedented level of craftsmanship the likes of which may never be topped.  Cameron’s tactics of directing may be shaky, because let’s face it, Titanic has it’s low points too (particularly with the love story) but it’s clear that he triumphs when it comes to drawing drama out of the tragic events of the sinking, and does so with an enviable sense of detail.  That more than anything is what holds up over 20 years later.  James Cameron wanted to bring the Titanic to life, and that he does, in a spectacular way.  You can’t watch the film today and not be awed by the remarkable artistry that went into crafting it; the costumes, the sets, the cinematography.  Even the primitive CGI effects somewhat hold up, especially the sweeping wide shots of the entire ship.  Those are the things that really build the legend of this movie in the long run.

But, the other interesting aspect of Titanic’s history in the long run is in how it’s been affected by it’s own success, particularly with regards to the negative aspects.  Titanic in a way became too big of a movie for a while, which led to an inevitable backlash.  For a time, the movie was mocked for it’s shortcomings, and parodied incessantly for everything from it’s sometimes laughable script, to it’s awkwardly inconsistent performances, to just the obsessive way that fans were reacting to it.  James Cameron himself was often a good sport about it, and would even participate in a comedic bit about the movie too.  I recall a MTV produced skit where Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn try in vain to pitch a sequel to Cameron that’s very funny, as well as one other bit where James Cameron from somewhere else where Cameron lights up a cigar with a burning $100 bill.  At least he’s got a sense of humor.  But, for a while, it became almost the cool thing to put down Titanic for all it’s flaws; even to the point of outright hating it.  Honestly, I was even finding myself falling into that same mindset for a while, almost being ashamed that I enjoyed it in the first place.  In retrospect, that reaction is a little harsh, but some of those critiques have never really gone away.  I hate to say it, but Titanic has a really lackluster script, and is only salvaged by the sheer brilliance of the direction.  Perhaps Cameron, who both wrote and directed, didn’t have quite the necessary tools of basic screenwriting to match the intensity of the moments he’s trying to convey, but at the same time, I’ve come to accept this as a part of his film-making style.  He’s a man more comfortable in the director’s chair, crafting extravagant set pieces that push the boundaries of cinema.  He can’t bring that same focus into his script, however, and that’s why Titanic is saddled with one-dimensional characters and cringe-worthy dialogue.  But, as time has gone on, these same faults also give the movie character.  Yeah it can be predictable and childish, but it comes with a certain level of charm.  It also could have been a lot worse, especially if you look at the scenes that Cameron cut from the film.  It’s clear that Cameron found his right tone in the editing room, as the movie had even more hokey and horribly out of place humor (like a cut gag of Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown asking for more ice for her drink as the giant iceberg passes by in the background).  The movie has had ups and downs, but in the end, the strengths win out.

Another interesting impact this movie has had is on the people who were involved with it.  James Cameron himself has worked through the highs and lows of his career triumphs, and has seen two of his movies break records at the box office, including ones he set himself.  At the same time, he is a man almost burdened with too much expectations because of the success he’s had.  It took him 12 years after Titanic to finally release his follow-up, Avatar, another movie that also suffered a backlash due to it’s inescapable presence.  And like after Titanic, he has struggled to get his next project off the ground, as it’s now been 8 years since Avatar and all we hear about is him continually trying to tinker with that world in further sequels.  But, at the same time, he has taken his passions to very enviable levels of achievement.  He has continued to invest his time in deep sea exploration, including revisiting the wreck of the Titanic multiple times, with it culminating in the remarkable achievement of reaching the bottom of  Challenger’s Deep, the lowest part of the ocean, a feat that only he and two other men have accomplished, and doing so in a submarine vessel that he engineered himself.  The cast of the movie as well has taken interesting routes in the years after Titanic.  The backlash towards the movie probably affected the two leads of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet more than anyone else.  For a while, DiCaprio was the most talked about heartthrob in the world, and it caused him to somewhat retreat a bit from the limelight for a while, just due to the enormous pressure.  Kate Winslet also found it hard to follow up her Oscar nominated role and was for a time unable to match the exposure that Titanic had given her.  But, what I believe ended up being a positive result of the negative backlash that both actors faced was that it motivated them to challenge themselves as actors.  Their careers over the last two decades are marked by one risky and punishing role after another, and today both Leo and Kate are celebrated as two of the best performers of their generation, with Titanic almost taking a backseat in their respective bodies of work.  The one thing that both take away from the film is the friendship they’ve developed, which continues to this day, even leading them to work together again in the less beloved Revolutionary Road (2008), playing husband and wife.  While it’s been tough going for some of those involved, Titanic still has left a positive impact on the careers of many of Hollywood’s top talent, and indeed, helped a few rise to the prominence that they were due.

The one thing that I do admire Titanic for in retrospect is that it marks a turning point for Hollywood.  It was both the start of a new era in Hollywood, as well as the last of it’s kind.  Titanic for one thing revolutionized the use of computer generated effects in movies, something that is still advancing to this day in Hollywood to varying degrees.  It also broke new ground in the industry, with regards to how a movie is marketed.  Not only did we see a shift in how a movie like this is publicized to the public, with the titular ship being pushed to the sideline in favor of showcasing the two leads in much of the marketing material.  In fact, even today, new re-releases show only Leo and Kate on the posters, taken mostly from the iconic “I’m flying” sequence on the ships bow, and with none of the ship itself in view.  The movie is also the first of it’s kind to have a pop song attached to it, which itself became an inescapable phenomenon; the Celine Dion featured “My Heart Will Go On.”  If you think Frozen‘s “Let it Go” was overplayed in 2014, you obviously don’t remember the days when this song was on every radio station for a solid year and more.  So, there was a lot that Titanic changed in the industry, but because of it’s success, I also lament the fact that it also diminished something that had existed for years prior in Hollywood.  The sweeping historical epic had always been a staple in the industry, especially as a means for the industry to earn some awards prestige.  This was evident in iconic films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970), Gandhi (1982), and The Last Emporer (1987).  The 1990’s became the last decade to see these types of movies, as productions became more expensive over time, and studios impatient with overlong running times.  Schindler’s List (1993) and Braveheart (1995) managed to achieve critical acclaim with 3 hour run times, but they were making big money.  When Titanic managed to do both, it felt that the industry recognized that this may never happen the same way again, and the historical epic somehow disappeared over the years.  By hitting it’s zenith with Titanic, we saw the last great hurrah of the Hollywood historical epic, as the same kind of scale would later shift to movies in the Renaissance of fantasy and comic movies that are made today.  Sure, Hollywood tried to copycat Titanic unsuccessfully with Pearl Harbor (2001), but it was clear, Titanic brought a culmination to a type of movie that could never be recaptured again.

And so, 20 years later, we see how much of a legacy that Titanic has left behind on Hollywood.  It revolutionized so many things in the industry, but also deconstructed some of the old foundations that led to it’s creation in the process.  I don’t think we’ll see anything remotely like it ever again, and if so, certainly not from the same people.  James Cameron achieved what he wanted to with Titanic and has since returned to the sci-fi world that he feels more at home within.  Regardless, it’s an achievement in direction that stands the test of time, as many of the on set mechanics used to recreate the Titanic and it’s tragic sinking are still mind-boggling impressive.  There are some things about the movie that are weak, and are worthy of lampooning, but the sum of the whole is still noteworthy in the whole of film history.   Watching the film again recently, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe once that iceberg hits and the events that follow unfold.  When it comes to driving up the tension as the great ship sinks slowly into the water, the movie is unmatched.  I can hardly imagine any other movie that feels as authentic to it’s moment in time as the final half of Titanic feels.  You do, in the end, feel like a passenger on the ship with these people, and because they are relatable enough to make us care, we feel the same emotional roller coaster that they do.  It’s those devastating moments of helplessness that Cameron conveys so well, and that, overall is what I believe helped to bring people back to the theater again and again for weeks after it’s premiere.  We all want that kind of a connection to a movie, whether it makes us happy or drives us to tears.  I may not respond to it emotionally the same way over time, but 20 years later, this movie still carries a sense of wonder for me.  The craft on hand is monumental on screen, and it certainly earned every award it was given; yes even Best Picture.  The sad thing is, the movie ended up being so huge that no other movie like it could ever come close to matching it, and it diminished a genre of films that in many ways defined the best that Hollywood could offer.  I for one love a good 3 hour epic, and while Titanic is far from my favorite, it’s one that I can appreciate as something that’s just like the ones they used to make.  If you haven’t revisited Titanic recently, or are one of the few that’s missed it altogether, give it another look.  Twenty year on, and it is still a movie unlike any other before or since, and something that represents the true power of what cinema is capable of.  It’s got a heart that continues to go on.

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