Near, far, wherever you are, people will mock you for saying you like Titanic. Jamie Cameron’s 1996 blockbuster has a bad rep, what with pretty boy Leonardo DiCaprio and stunning starlet Kate Winslet swanning about the screen in a metaphorical – and, later, literal – sea of emotion. But it’s an impressive piece of film-making that nobody should be mocked for enjoying. After all, who doesn’t love a film about a boat run by Captain Birdseye?
Contrasting public history with a private fling? It’s the only way a film about the HMS Titanic could work – and Cameron confidently nails that cliche square in the middle of the head.
For those who have never seen it (or have repressed their memories of seeing it), Titanic kicks off in the modern day, with a crew of film-makers going down into the sea filming the wreck of the ill-fated vessel. Headed up by their director, the team dive down to search the ship for big fat jewel The Heart of the Ocean. “It still gets me every time… to see the sad ruin of the great ship after her long fall from the world above,” laments the director. “You’re so full of shit, boss,” comes the reply. (No, this isn’t director James Cameron we’re watching. It’s Bill Paxton.)
Then, along comes Rose (the late Gloria Stuart) to tell everyone the story of her affair with Jack Dawson (DiCaprio). The two meet when she (played by Winslet) tries to jump ship, because she’s unhappy with her life. It’s hard to work out why she’s so unhappy, given that she’s about to marry the sexiest man alive: Billy Zane. She even spends a lot of time whining about how Titanic wasn’t a “ship of dreams” but “a slave ship” taking her home in chains, which is clearly not true.
But when Jack saves her life, she stops feeling blue and goes all luvvy-duvvy over him instead. It’s no surprise, really. How can she not fall for Leonardo DiCaprio? After all, he is the second sexiest man alive, after Billy Zane.
As The Incident approaches, the sexual encounters between the pair increase, while Billy Zane’s evil butler (played by David Warner) walks around looking scary. Every few minutes, rich people say ominous things, such as: “God himself could not sink this ship!” That oh-so-subtle dramatic irony, coupled with the movie’s colourful depiction of Irish life, immediately ranked Titanic as one of the most spectacular motion pictures of the 1990s, if not cinema history.
Cameron fans obviously love it – it shares many themes with Aliens (we’ll think of some to put in here later) and it massively predates Avatar. The blue sci-fi epic, for example, steals bits of dialogue from Jack and Rose: “You have a gift, Jack. You see people,” she says. “I see you,” he replies, with all the mysticism of a baby-faced Na’avi warrior.
But while the script occasionally clunks, you can’t fault its presentation. The period detail, absurdly extravagant model work and use of CGI are all brilliantly realised (even 20 years on, it often looks better than Cameron’s Avatar, which replaced Titanic as the most expensive movie ever made). The lavishly reproduced costumes and sets are completely convincing, with each mahogany fitting and shiny button only reinforcing the societal distance between our couple. The cast, meanwhile, make sure the emotion behind the story is actually engaging. A star-crossed romance across social divides? A woman out of a poor man’s reach? An expensive jewel given as symbol of prized ownership? Titanic’s just as much Moulin Rouge! as it is Romeo and Juliet and it’s all the better for it. (By the time Jack’s handcuffed to a pipe and sinking underwater, you’ll be genuinely concerned about whether he’ll make it.)
Under Cameron’s eye, the elements all combine to make for one irresistibly soppy package (and it’s no mean feat to stop a project this large becoming an uneven mess). But if people snort derisively at you when you say all this, inevitably quoting the “I’ll never let go, Jack!” moment, try throwing this fan theory about why Rose has no problems letting her love slip away back in their face: what if Jack is dying? What if he’s told before the opening credits that he only has one week to live? And what if Rose takes pity on the boy and pretends to leave her future husband? Then, when he’s about to kick the bucket with a smile on his face, she kindly jettisons him into the ocean and gets back to playing with her rich jewels. The end. If they’re not moved by the tale of a wealthy woman’s efforts to make a sick man happy, they really are dead inside. But at least they’ll stop mocking you for liking Titanic for a few minutes.
Titanic is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.