James Cameron’s epic (and I do mean, epic, as it cost a record-at-the-time $200 million to make and clocks in at 3 hours and 14 minutes) love story Titanic signs in at #83 on our list.
The film begins with a crew looking for a lost diamond necklace in the wreckage of the RMS Titanic in present-day. The crew’s lead, Brock Lovett (the late, great, Bill Paxton) uncovers a charcoal drawing of a woman, but no diamond, but gets a call from a woman who claims to be the woman in the picture and the original owner of the necklace. Most of the rest of the film is a flashback to her experience about the Titanic.
Jack Dawson (Leonardo Dicaprio) is a part time hustler and starving artist who wins his passage on board the RMS Titanic in a poker game.
Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a seemingly rich (although secretly going broke) aristocrat who is engaged to the wealthy Cal Hockley (Billy Zane).
Jack and Rose meet when Rose nearly commits suicide by jumping off the ship, depressed that she is to marry a man that she does not love and with her dislike for the upper class society of which she is part. Jack saves Rose and convinces her to come down and then convinces her family and friends that she had accidentally slipped and he had caught her.
Jack is invited to dinner as a thanks and then sneaks off with Rose for a “real party” which Cal finds out about and freaks out.
Rose sneaks off again to see Jack and the famous ledge scene happens followed by a kiss. Rose asks Jack to draw her in the nude, which he does. They narrowly escape one of Cal’s servants then sneak down to the cargo hold and have passionate sex in a car down there. Rose says she is going to join Jack when the ship docks. Cal’s people catch up with Jack, plant the diamond necklace on him and have him arrested for stealing.
The ship hits an iceberg and begins to sink….and oh does it take a long time to sink. Rose refuses to get on a lifeboat, telling Cal that she wants to be with Jack: “I’d rather be his whore than your wife”. She goes and finds Jack and cuts him loose and the two scramble for a way out. Cal finds them, and Cal and Jack convince Rose to get on a lifeboat, but she ultimately jumps off of it. Jack and Rose embrace and then Cal loses his mind and starts shooting at them, but misses. Later, her realizes that she has the diamond, since he gave her his coat, which is where they had planted the diamond on Jack.
Lots of panic, chaos and death ensue. Cal sneaks his way onto a lifeboat by grabbing a child. Rose and Jack ultimately wind up with Rose clinging to a piece of wreckage and Jack hanging on along side.
Jack is killed by the cold water but Rose survives. Cal looks for Rose the next day but she hides from him, not wanting him to know that she is alive. We flash forward and learn that Cal went on to marry another woman but committed suicide during the Great Depression.
Rose gives her name as “Rose Dawson” and arrives in New York. We learn that Rose later married but never told her husband about Jack. The last scene shows present-day Rose dropping the diamond into the water.
Let’s start with what I like very much about the film. It is visually stunning – from the costuming to the stages to the special effects, almost every moment of the film is absolutely beautiful. The film, despite primarily being a romance, actually does a good job weaving historical facts around the sinking of the ship (too few life boats, too small a rudder to avoid icebergs, poor execution on maximizing the lifeboats when evacuating, etc). DiCapprio is fantastic in the film. Winslet is adequate, but not that impressive. And the first two thirds of the very long film zip right along with solid pacing. Moments of the love story are quite touching. The soundtrack is fantastic. The nude drawing scene is incredibly sexy without being explicit.
Now for the things that I don’t like. The last third of the film is painfully slow, an ongoing and out-of-place view of carnage tacked on to a romantic drama, I was begging for that darn ship to sink by the end of the film. The character portrayals are painfully stereotypical – rich people are pompous assholes with no redeeming qualities, struggling artists are 100% noble and wonderful. The film could have been so much better if Jack had a dark side or some dark history or if Cal had some redeeming noble qualities that made Rose conflicted. Kathy Bates is totally wasted as a new money, noble Kathy Brown, who is an interesting and promising character who is barely used.
I remember the first time I saw this film, 23 years ago. I was 19, home from college and saw it with Caroline, a should-have-been girlfriend who never quite worked out. Life worked out fine for me (and hopefully for her too, I lost track of her about 20 years ago), but maybe my own failed romance made me a little more poisoned to the telling of a pure love story. But I think that there are better love stories that have been told in film (Annie Hall comes to mind) and even far better romances told against a backdrop of historical events (Forrest Gump comes to mind). As a purely visual work, it is stunning, but less so than Avatar or even Star Wars. In the end, this just feels like an overly simplistic romance set against the backdrop of some cool costumes and special effects.
So does Titanic deserve a spot on this list? I understand why it made the cut – beautiful epics have a special place in film makers hearts. But if I were stranded on a desert island with 100 films (a bit of a stretch of a construct, but you get the point), this wouldn’t be one of the 100 that I would take.
Production Quality 10/10
Rewatch Value 6/10
Total Score 30/40