90s Movie Challenge Week 15: Titanic (1997)
All aboard, 90s lovin’ chums! This week in #90sMC Paul Childs takes us back to 1997 for a grand voyage, as we carry on with our Awards-Season themed look-backs at the most influential and biggest films of the 1990s. Speaking of biggest, not only was this week’s film’s the top-grossing film of all time for over a decade, but it’s also the longest movie on our list.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. This week’s film is so big, so monumental, so gargantuan, that one might say it’s (Don’t you do it, I’m warning you, Ed)…
Yes, it’s Titanic. (You’re fired, Ed.)
As always, some spoilers follow. Hint: It sinks. (Security! Ed.)
Don’t work with children or animals, that’s what they say isn’t it? Well, unless you’re Ed Harris, Michael Biehn or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Following the hair-raising stories of behind the scenes shenanigans on the set of The Abyss, I can imagine they might very well add both water and James Cameron to that list.
Apparently, James Cameron wasn’t content with having made the most expensive film of all time in 1989 with his Close-Encounters-Of-The-Wet-Kind adventure. Officially the budget of The Abyss was $40 but unofficially, it is believed to have spiralled beyond $70m, equalling Who Framed Roger Rabbit from the year before. The only other films that came close were Rambo III at $58m and Tango & Cash and Superman II at $54m. No, he constantly had to one-up himself with each consecutive movie he released.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day, True Lies and of course, this week’s movie, Titanic, all broke records for how much they cost to produce. Avatar, however, for all its technical achievement was actually cheaper to make in 2009 than Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince and, from 2007 both Spider-Man 3 and the third part of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, which is still the sixth most expensive film of all time despite having been made – brace yourself for this – fourteen years ago!
Titanic now sits at number 45 in the Most Expensive Films Of All Time chart, nestled between Black Panther and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. However, those two films are relatively recent. In one year’s time, Titanic will be celebrating its quarter-century (Stop making me feel old, Ed.) and what you have to understand is that in 1997, $200m was a colossal, stupendous (Don’t you start now, Ed.) amount of money. Even notoriously expensive films of the 1990s like Waterworld and Wild Wild West didn’t come close ($175m) to the amount of money James Cameron threw at his historical epic disaster movie.
A LOT was riding on its success. Turns out they needn’t have bothered worrying though.
Titanic broke all kinds of records, both financial and at the Oscars. Not only did it go on to become the most successful film of all time, and remain at the top of the all-time box office for over a decade before being dislodged by Cameron’s follow-up, Avatar, it was the first movie to earn over $1bn at the box office and still remains at the time of writing one of only five films to earn more than $2bn.
And then there’s its awards success. It’s only one of two films to be nominated for fourteen awards (the other is All About Eve) and shares the top spot for the most wins – eleven – with Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Ben Hur.
When putting the list for our 90s Movie Challenge together we wanted to come up with a good mix of films that have had both a financial and cultural impact. Titanic was the first film I added to the list. Love it or hate it (and many do disagree, as with last week’s film, Forrest Gump, with it being awarded the Best Film gong) you can’t deny its impact on popular culture.
But let’s stop talking facts and figures and talk about my experience with the film itself!
When it came out I was a big James Cameron fan. The Abyss is still one of my favourite films and I daily bemoan the lack of a decent HD home video release. The Terminator was the first VHS tape I ever bought and is probably the film that changed me from someone who watches movies into a movie fan. Therefore, a new Cameron film was a must-see.
And see it, I did. It’s rare one can remember the exact date that they went to see a film over twenty years ago, but I remember the first time I saw Titanic quite vividly. It was a Saturday afternoon, February 14th 1998, at Preston’s Odeon cinema. Valentine’s Day. I persuaded my wife to go to see this with me, stating that it was supposed to be a romantic epic that happened to be set during those fateful events of the 14th April 1912.
*** SPOILERS THAT ARE ABOUT SOMETHING OTHER THAN IT SINKING FOLLOW ***
We entered into Titanic with a pretty good idea that not everyone was going to get out of it alive. We were prepared for one or more of the main characters to meet their wet, icy maker. And rather annoyingly we both actually knew which of the characters would die. Less than a week earlier we told the vicar of our church that we were going to see it for Valentine’s. He, it appeared, had already seen it and offered us this gem of a review:
“Ah, Titanic. I loved that film. But it’s so sad when you see Leo sinking beneath the waves at the end.”
So we entered into it knowing that young Jack Dawson was doomed from the outset. Maybe he’d be lucky enough to find a seat on a lifeboat, share a piece of flotsam with someone (he COULD have fitted), be plucked out of the water by rescuers when the Carpathia arrived or, for all we knew, swim all the way to New York. But no. Now we started the film knowing he sinks beneath the waves.
*** END OF THE SPOILERS THAT ARE ABOUT SOMETHING OTHER THAN IT SINKING ***
Actually, I’m going to go off on a little bit of tangent here, as I feel that I have to get something off my chest. That church, which I was a member of for over twenty years, had form for spoiling massive blockbusting movies. But at least the Titanic incident was restricted to just my wife and me. Another member of the leadership team did something so much worse…
Skip forward almost six years, to the 2003 Christmas Eve family service, at 6.30 PM. That service was always THE big event of the church’s calendar. It was the one time in the year that the building was not only packed, but it was packed with people who didn’t often come. It was our opportunity to do something really special for the community. There would be music, puppets, the lighting of the Christingle candles which was always really lovely with all the lights off, and mince pies and mulled wine in the hall afterwards. The main events however were the Nativity play, performed by the children, and the big Christmas sermon, where the preacher would talk about the lessons we could learn from the Christmas Story.
Pretty standard Christmas service fare so far.
Now, the big film currently in cinemas was the aforementioned final part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whatever your beliefs, I’m sure you can agree that the movie’s subtitle was an absolute gift to those in the preaching business at a time when their audience is all but guaranteed to be massively inflated. So of course the priest on duty that day (not the same one as above) decide to entitle their sermon Return of the King.
Perhaps because the books were almost sixty years old at that point, that story should have been spoiler proof. However, unlike me and a small handful of people in the church, not everyone had either read them or even knew how it ended. I watched on from my pew in horror as I realised that the preacher was going to reveal everything needed to spoil that Christmas’s big blockbuster movie for around three hundred gaping people.
OK, that’s my tangent over (I thought you said it was little, Ed.)
Back to Titanic then.
So, we saw the film on Valentine’s Day. But I have to admit it was a massive misjudgment on my part. Of course, it made us cry, we knew it probably would. The fictional romance at the heart of the story was only a part of that. If you’ve seen it, you know that way the fates of various different characters are revealed toys with your emotions like a cat with a ball of string. For example:
It didn’t just make us cry. It made us ugly cry, like Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker in a Spider-Man film. On the way out of the film, I wiped away the light sprinkling of tears (and probably a little snot too), threw the tissue in the bin with my popcorn box and turned to my wife to hug her and then say “There, there. Feeling better now? Right, now let’s get some food on the way home.”
However, my mistake was thinking she’d just wipe her eyes and move on as I had. She didn’t. She carried on crying, all the way out of the screen, all through the foyer, out of the front of the cinema, all the way to the car. Then as the tears began to dry up she got angry. Very angry.
She doesn’t like being sad, you see (Who does? Ed). And I’d taken her to see something that not only had made her sad but that I had more than likely known in advance would make her sad. Therefore I was to blame for her not feeling very good right now. All the way home I was “in trouble”. She eventually calmed down when we got back, but the meal out we’d planned became a bag of chips eaten in silence. Nearly twenty years later La La Land would have a similar effect but luckily, I was spared the blame that time, as that one had been her choice.
I, however, had loved it. Yes, it made me sad, but in a way that I was okay with. Yes, it manipulates your emotions, but isn’t a good weepy romance supposed to do that? For a while, I would say that Titanic was my favourite film so I wanted to see it again. But I knew my wife would not. As it wasn’t the kind of film you went to see with your mates, a few days later I decided to take a day off from work and go to see it on my own. That was a big deal for me at the time – it was the first time I had ever been to see a film solo. It was also only the second time I had been to see a film twice in the same run – the other being Ghost, and I told that story back in week 5 of our #90sMC.
I still remember that cinema trip (although not the date). It was at the Liverpool Showcase. I went there by train and bus. It was chucking it down as I walked to the cinema from the bus stop and I was drenched when I arrived. All the way through the film I was, like pretty much the entire cast of characters on screen, cold and wet. The nachos I’d ordered with cheese and jalapenos had upset my stomach and I was also bursting for the toilet for the last hour of the film (at both ends, I’m sorry to admit). But I was afraid to miss any of the film. And I swear it was getting colder in there like they were pumping ice-cold air in through the A/C or something, which was making me need to go more. By the time the credits rolled I was freezing, still soaking wet and I had to very quickly squelch my way to the loos. I felt like:
It was not an enjoyable experience, which also gave me a horrible cold for days after. Despite that, I had enjoyed the film again.
The other day though, I was warm and dry, in the comfort of my own home, watching it on Blu-Ray. Although I have also owned the film on VHS and DVD, it was the first time I’ve seen it in HD since that last cinema trip above. Also, I didn’t eat any nachos, and if nature called, I could just pause the movie. When people wax nostalgic and say “It’s not like the old days,” they are clearly idiots.
It’s been a good ten years or more since I last watched it so the question is: Does it still stand up?
Well, yes and no.
First, I felt no connection with Jack and Rose’s story this time. I’d have happily watched three hours of the different survival (or not) stories of the various crew and passengers. Perhaps it’s because it’s been done many more times since (like with 2001’s Pearl Harbor) but I just didn’t care for the fictional characters dropped in amongst real historical figures. When I first saw Titanic I was fascinated to see Rose and Jack meet people like Captain Smith, Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews and William Murdoch. This time, however, it really jarred with me how often Rose or Jack were standing within earshot while those characters and others like them discussed real-life issues.
For example, the scene where Andrews and Rose discuss the lifeboats and how their capacity is nowhere near sufficient for every passenger felt forced. The foreshadowing is not at all subtle, which is odd because we already know what’s going to happen – we don’t need reminding of it over and over. Similarly, Rose and Jack just happened to walk past as Andrews reveals the impending fate of the doomed liner.
“Remember what I told you about the boats,” says Andrews to Rose, an hour or so later in one of the film’s most on the nose, exposition-heavy examples. Victor Garber, who played Andrews might as well have done this:
I was reminded of one of my favourite moments in Wayne’s World which mocks this trope: “For a security guard, he had an awful lot of information, don’t you think?”
This time as NON-SINKING SPOILERS Jack sank beneath the waves END OF NON-SINKING SPOILERS I felt nothing. Actually, that’s a lie. I felt annoyed because there was DEFINITELY ROOM FOR TWO ON THAT DOOR!
I still enjoyed the film, largely because it is still a massively impressive technical achievement. I won’t go into behind the scenes details – there are DVD extras and YouTube videos for all that – but, it still, for the most part, looks great. Cameron has produced a beautiful looking movie. The level of detail is fantastic. There is one shot which looked off to me, as the bow of the ship tips up into the air and water streams off it into the thrashing crowds below, the slow-motion was a bit off – it looked jerky. That’s the only effect I take issue with. I never noticed it on my VHS or DVD copies – I suppose that’s the curse of having HD in the home. But that small niggle aside, the flawless mixture of model work, CGI, forced perspective and life-size sets really gives a feeling of the sheer scale and opulence of the ship.
Technical achievements aside, I do feel that Titanic also still works as a cautionary tale of near-Biblical proportions, warning us about the dangers of humanity’s narcissism, pride and sheer hubris.
More than once I found myself thinking back to the various avoidable disasters and human tragedies that have occurred in the hundred and nine years since that fateful night and saying to myself “Do we never learn?”.
Did it deserve the Best Picture Oscar? Possibly not, but then cinema is a hugely subjective matter and one person’s Casablanca is another’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. Whatever you believe you can’t deny Titanic is still a massively important film in the history of movie-making and quite rightly deserves a place on our 50 Greatest Movies of the 1990s.
Additional: I was also going to talk about James Horner’s groundbreaking score and the subsequent million-selling power ballad from Celine Dion, but I think I’ve gone on long enough – perhaps that can be a piece all of its own for another day.
Come back next week for more Oscar-worthy 90s fun as our lovely friend Karen White (in her debut piece for this site) pours us a chianti, serves up the fava beans, gives our perfume a good sniff and cranks up the hose as she takes a look at 1992’s Best Picture winner – The Silence of the Lambs.