Throughout the 1990s, I had an unintended but still well-maintained habit of missing the big Oscar-sweeping prestige picture of the year, especially the ones that nudged the three-hour mark and made a billion dollars. I've still never seen Dances With Wolves. I only caught up with Braveheart a few years ago. (Same goes for 2000's Gladiator.) And I completely missed out on Titanic. Not once did I grumble to myself "Well, if it's that popular, it must suck. I ain't a-gonna see it. Kids these days, and their blasted crap entertainment, muzza fruzzle wumble grmp. Get offa my lawn." It was more like "Well, Titanic is the number-one-grossing movie in America for the 15th week running. Eh, I'll get around to seeing it eventually. It's obviously still going to be there." And so it was—the IMDB notes that it was the first movie released to VHS while it was still playing in theaters. That statistic about it being the number-one movie 15 weeks in a row isn't an exaggeration; it actually happened. Titanic remains the number-one box-office draw of all time, both in the U.S. and abroad: more than $600 million in America, $1.8 billion internationally.
And yet I still never got around to watching it, maybe because Titanic fever was so high that I felt like I had watched it already. Without actively seeking out any details, simply by dint of being on the Internet and seeing the ads and watching the Oscars and being exposed to the parodies, I wound up knowing every major plot point, from the present-day framing story to the few twists of the core plot. And I wound up seeing certain shots—Jack's "I'm the king of the world!" moment, Jack and Rose "flying" together in the Titanic's bow, various special-effects moments where pinwheeling bodies fell from the raised stern of the ship to the icy waters below—over and over and over. And then there was "My Heart Will Go On," which I'm fairly convinced was pumped directly into the air and the water back in 1997; even for someone who doesn't live by pop radio, that song was inescapable. Titanic overkill fever hit me early and kept me away from theaters.
I don't respect people who hate something just because it's popular. At the same time, there's a certain degree of exhaustion and irritation in being told repeatedly that you just have to experience something, because absolutely everyone is, and you just have to love it, because absolutely everyone does. Especially since it's in the big corporations' interest to make sure that there's a new everybody's-into-this, you-have-to-catch-up product every day. Eventually, exhaustion sets in, and it tends to hit me with the big everybody-loves-this movies and albums.
But it's been 11 years, and Titanic fever has cooled down a wee tad, and yeah, when I mentioned in an A.V. Club production meeting that I'd never seen it, I did get the "Whaaaaaat?" treatment from my fellow critics, so obviously it was time. So I sat down and watched it.
And I mostly found it to be a glossy, empty experience. I went in half-braced to hate it, and I didn't. I went in half-expecting to be completely, shamefacedly caught up and overwhelmed in the love story that charmed millions, and I wasn't. I came out thinking "That was a technically well-made movie that spent an incredible amount of money on special effects, and you can see exactly where the cash went." And that was about it.
There were a handful of things I really, really liked about Titanic, and one of the biggest was the structure. A zillion jokes have been made about spoilers for this movie ("Hey… the boat sinks!"), and writer-director James Cameron took that attitude into account. Anyone going into the movie either knows Titanic's history already, or had a lifetime's worth of World War II movies spoiled for them last week when some loose-lipped wag online pointed out that Hitler did not conquer the world in the '40s. So he puts it right up front, with a video simulation hosted by a creepily enthusiastic computer geek:
There. Now the audience knows not just that the ship sinks, but exactly how, and how long it took, and they're all primed up not just to accept how it happens later in the film, but to anticipate each stage of the disaster, and cringe at what they know is coming. Granted, that doesn't explain why the entire crew of a fortune-hunting ship is gathered around a computer to explain to a Titanic survivor how the Titanic sank. Do they think she doesn't know?
But that's just being bitchy. The point is, this scene leads directly to what became my favorite part of the movie, the point where the ship has hit the iceberg, the "watertight compartments" are filling with water, and the designer knows the ship is eventually going down, but no one else does. The iceberg strike felt like a minor bump, the ship seems fine, everyone's oblivious, and then he comes in shrieking like a prophet of doom, with his crazy story about how the ship is going down. As yet, there's no disaster-movie running around and panicking—no one but the crew knows what's happening, which gives that crew ample time to sit still and contemplate just how bad things are going to be. This is a kind of quiet, creeping horror rarely afforded to $200 million disaster movies.
From there, the movie goes into a heightened surrealism that says a lot of entertaining things about how people approach catastrophe, with confusion and denial and outright bureaucratic lies. The scenes where the upper-crust passengers refuse to stand out on the cold deck, or get into the scary lifeboats, and stand around in the salon listening to music and ordering drinks and bitching, were some of my favorites in the film. And once things really start to fall apart and the ship is obviously sinking and Titanic becomes a flat-out disaster film, it's as well-made as 11-year-old special-effects extravaganzas get.
But before we get to this point, there's close to two hours of setup and love story to get through, and that's where Titanic just didn't sell me at all.
The story in ultra-brief, more for the sake of form than because I actually believe there are people reading this who don't know anything about it: Kate Winslet plays Rose, a "spirited" aristocrat who's miserably engaged to puffed-up bad guy Cal (Billy Zane). She sees her whole life stretching out drearily in front of her as an endless series of boring parties, so during the Titanic's maiden voyage, she flirts with suicide and is rescued / met cute by Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio, at his charmingest and floppy-haired-iest), a poor boy who won his third-class ticket in a poker game. Much to Cal's chagrin, Rose is charmed by and then infatuated with the free-spirited Jack, who listens to what she says, doesn't talk down to her, and doesn't, say, make smarmy cracks to her mother about limiting her reading material in order to curb her individualistic impulses. Also, Jack teaches her to spit like a man.
For me, the whole Jack-Rose-Cal plot read like the ur-chick-lit novel. It's just about the most basic possible expression of a romantic female fantasy. (Also like a remake of 1994's Reality Bites, but with fewer rooftop Schoolhouse Rock sing-alongs and more mass death.) If only every woman in the world was periodically forced to choose between two fantastically beautiful men—one rich and civilized yet stuffy, and one poor but free and capable. Then we wouldn't have to keep seeing that plotline over and over again, because everyone would be so bored from dealing with it in real life that it wouldn't be the stuff of clichéd dreams.
As love stories go, this one was serviceable enough. I enjoyed the performances. Billy Zane as the comically awful bad guy seems to be having loads of fun even though he lacks a mustache to twirl. Everyone is extremely pretty and smooth and they all project passion—passionate love, passionate anger, passionate sorrow—fervently on cue. I just found it hard to care about their story, perhaps because it's all so heightened and polished and poreless. In fact, the film is so polished that it periodically reminded me of another well-known period piece: Newsies. Particularly during the shots down in the engine room, where people in surprisingly clean, well-made clothes run around surprisingly clean, polished machinery in a surprisingly crisp, well-coordinated dance. (Yes, it was the ship's maiden voyage, and everything hadn't had time to get properly dirty. Even so, nothing down there looked particularly real.)
Something else frustratingly unreal? The sheer weight of the movie's cheap irony. Every few minutes, someone says something that we're meant to laugh or cringe at because we know history well enough to know just how wrong the characters are. Jack repeatedly talks about how very, very lucky he was to get a ticket on Titanic. Various people claim the boat is unsinkable. A friend tells Jack that he'll never in a million years get to be close to a lady as beautiful as Rose. Cal displays his ignorance by sneering over a Picasso painting, and saying "Picasso? He won't amount to a thing. He won't, trust me!" A lady in steerage tells her sweet moppet not to worry about the fact that all the third-class passengers have been sealed up below decks with the water rapidly advancing—they're all going to get onto lifeboats once the upper-class people are rescued. It's like foreshadowing and mean gags at the characters' expense all rolled up into one.
Still, it's hard to argue with the movie's majesty, with the sheer weight of the visuals: The size and sweep and scope of the ship as it stands in dock or pulls out of the harbor. The incredible opulence of the set. The massive crowd of gorgeously costumed extras. The money that almost literally drips off the screen. There's always something to look at in this film.
So there's a lot of romantic hoo-rah where Cal is mean to Rose and Rose gets on her high horse at Jack and Jack is the smoothest, charming-est charmer who was ever smooth, and she falls for him and Cal says snide things about him. And Kate Winslet gets naked, which was probably worth the price of admission for an awful lot of people reluctantly dragged to the big romance boat movie. And the lovers are repeatedly denied, which was good for a bunch of pained yearning back in Shakespeare's day, and is good for a bunch of pained yearning now. And then eventually—you read the spoiler at the beginning, right?—the boat sinks.
And then Titanic becomes a really compelling disaster movie, as dread turns, painfully slowly, to panic. This was where the movie finally grabbed me. But it didn't grab me because of Jack and Rose and their romance—I was entirely absorbed by how real the ship looked, going down, and how easily I could feel what it would be like hanging onto what had once been a gigantic, solid island, and had suddenly become an upended chunk of wood sinking into a pitilessly freezing sea. Yeah, the effects are a little dated at times, 10 years out—if nothing else, it's often clear exactly when the "ship" Cameron is panning across is a giant computer graphic covered with tiny CGI people—but the ship-sinking is still amazing. There are some weird sequences that veer way off tone—the segment where Rose gets the axe to try to cut Jack out of his handcuffs felt like a wacky small-scale comedy with oddly symphonic, serious music behind it—but often, the film is fairly scary, what with the looming sense of inevitable tragedy and impending horrible death.
And then there's the flat-out morbidity that overtakes people when they realize the end is coming. I felt a lot more for the couple that chooses to lie down in bed together and await death, or the engineer who snaps and ends up carefully adjusting the time on a clock as his ship goes down, than I did for the heroes.
Overall, though, I personally found Titanic to be a fairly patchy experience, absorbing in some segments but losing me entirely at others, a wee bit cheesy when it really shouldn't have been, and drawn in big, broad strokes that didn't much appeal to me. So am I saying that hundreds of millions of moviegoers who beat me to watching it are wrong? No, I'm really not. But when it comes to the question of whether I was better off seeing this movie late than never… well, I could have given it another decade, honestly.
But there's this. One reason I'm glad I saw Titanic is because I can finally appreciate all the stories about how it was made. The IMDB trivia section on this film is staggering: It was, at the time, the most expensive film ever made, and some of the money went to places that simply boggle the mind of lesser mortals. One particularly bizarre tidbit: the part about how only one side of the boat was actually constructed…†but it was the wrong side of the boat for the scene in port, so all the extras were given special reversed costumes (with the men's suit handkerchief pockets on the opposite side, for instance) so the whole scene could be shot and then reversed without anyone noticing. Stories like that are a lot of what fascinates me about the magic of filmmaking, even when I didn't find the film all that magical itself.