I want to preface this by saying that Titanic is a good movie
The costuming and cinematography were great, the visual effects were awesome, and I still enjoy parts of this film. It was Incredible to see the Titanic brought back to her former glory. This film was a massive undertaking and I know they couldn’t please everyone. I’ve watched Titanic multiple times since 1997 and re-watched it before sitting down to write this. I still don’t like this movie, but I don’t straight up detest it anymore. There are still some things about this movie that get under my skin, but I thoroughly enjoyed picking it apart!
Titanic premiered on December 19, 1997. The film won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Visual Effects, Best Director, and Best Costume Design. It also coincided with the peak of Leonardo DiCaprio’s heartthrob popularity. Kate Winslet had done TV and a few movies, but I honestly don’t recall anything other than Sense and Sensibility and Heavenly Bodies before Titanic. The other names I recognized were Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Bill Paxton, and Jonathan Hyde.
I was a 14 year old tomboy when Titanic graced the silver screen, and I hesitated to see anything that might turn into a romantic movie. That kind of cheesy wish fulfillment wasn’t for me. The fact that Leonardo DiCaprio was part of the cast didn’t exactly draw me in either. While my friends were fawning over DiCaprio and boy bands, I was over in my corner with a crush on Kevin Smith and listening to Marilyn Manson, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and Dream Theater, but I decided to see the movie anyway.
The TV spots, narrated by veteran voice actor Don LaFontaine (the big voice in movie trailers until his death in 2008), made Titanic look like a great dramatic movie with some good action sequences, like this scene where the water comes racing down the hall in an inescapable wave and the actual sinking of the ship. There was a little about Jack and Rose, but my 14 year old self couldn’t conceive of a movie about the Titanic, an immense tragedy with a huge number of casualties, turning into a story of the forbidden love of two people who just happened to be on the doomed ship. So, when I walked into the theater I was expecting to be blown away. However, I spent half the movie rolling my eyes and groaning because it had turned into a boy-meets-girl film instead of the action-packed drama I was expecting.
Upon re-watching Titanic, some problems immediately jumped out at me.
1. Petty Grievances
Sometimes little details drive me to distraction. When I re-watched Titanic there were enough of those uncomfortable moments to warrant a whole section on this list.
While I enjoyed the soft soprano vocals in the opening sequence, I found the overall score distracting. My problem with the score isn’t about the composition, but the volume. It is so loud and invasive that it’s distracting, and not just occasionally. Music is supposed to help the audience get into a particular mood, but it just gave me a headache. This portion, which occurs while the ship is headed out into open waters, is supposed to convey a sense of adventure and excitement; it’s a beautiful piece of music without being too extreme one way or the other. This piece happens during the chase scene with Lovejoy. It’s upbeat and makes the heart race, but it’s also incredibly loud, almost piercing. Yes, music is used as a device during mostly dialog-free scenes, but it was still distracting for me. This might also have been a problem with the theater where I had seen the movie, but then I noticed the same issue when I was watching at home. I had to turn the volume down for the instrumentals and raise it again during dialog. The drastic highs and lows were quite frustrating, to say the least. They could have turned down the volume a few notches and still had a great score with the impact they wanted.
Lewis is a jerk. He’s a member of Lovett’s crew on the Keldysh in 1996. His first line, said with laughter is, “You’re so full of shit, boss.” It’s good for a chuckle, but his limited personality quickly got annoying for me. When he’s piloting the robot into Hockley’s stateroom he hits the door frame twice after being warned to “watch the door.” He could have damaged the robot and crippled the expedition! After Lovett realizes that the necklace isn’t in Hockley’s safe, Lewis chimes in with a Geraldo Rivera/Al Capone reference that’s both suitable and aggravating. You don’t kick somebody when they’re down. He progresses to talk shit about a woman that he’s never met. He called her “a very old goddamn liar,” and assumed she was an old woman seeking money or publicity. While his skepticism isn’t entirely misplaced because of other frauds that have popped up, it just makes him look like a huge jerk. During the simulation of the ship sinking, he talks down to Rose like she’s an idiot. I don’t like that at all. He’s cocky, sarcastic, and shows a lack of respect that makes me want to slap him across the mouth.
Billy Zane’s Accent
What is with Cal’s accent? Where is he supposed to be from? It’s like he’s trying to have a posh, polished accent but falls just short of hitting the mark. After a little digging, I discovered that it’s the TransAtlantic or Mid-Atlantic accent. It was the hallmark of the upper class that was actually taught in New England boarding schools and sort of emulated parts of British speech. For example, dropping the R’s from the ends of words, using a pronounced, sharp “T” sound in words, and using longer British vowel sounds are all present in the TransAtlantic and Mid-Atlantic accent. It’s neither British nor American, but an amalgam of both. It's safe to assume that Cal was sent to a boarding school as a child because it was a common practice for upper class families. So maybe there’s justification for it, but it just hits the ears wrong.
Rose’s Erotic Moments
During the drawing sequence there is a brief flashback to the present and old Rose says, “It was the most erotic moment of my life…up until then, at least.” We really don’t need to know that and it’s kind of cringe worthy. I remember people in the audience sighing with joy while I was rolling my eyes and groaning at the whole scene. I still kind of roll my eyes at it, but it’s more at the older Rose’s comment than anything else. What is our basis for comparison? We know that she went on to become an actress and do all the things she planned to do with Jack, but we know nothing of her personal life. When she was an actress, did she have any affairs? Did she go wild after the Titanic sank and explore her sexuality in the gossip mill that is Hollywood? Where does the drawing scene rank in her top 10? If you’re going to rank it, we need more information! But, we don’t get that information because it isn’t pertinent to the story at hand.
2. The Male Leads are Worthless
For me, Cal and Jack are just in the film for Rose to play off one another. Cal spends most of his time obsessing over Rose and Jack is, we assume, wandering the ship whenever he's not with Rose. Their characters aren't any deeper than that.
Jack is Powerless
When we meet Jack, he’s in a pub playing a high stakes poker game to win two tickets on the Titanic so he can get home. That’s all we know about him until he and Rose start talking about his life in Paris as an artist. We see a brief glimpse of his interactions with other passengers, but once he meets Rose his life is completely engulfed by hers. He has nothing to offer and no agency aside from his own life. He even describes himself as a tumbleweed blowing in the wind. After he pulls Rose back on deck after her suicide attempt, he’s at her whim because she has all the power in that scenario. When the deckhands come running to see who screamed, they come upon him apparently looming over Rose and immediately assume that he was trying to rape her. She could have saved him or damned him. Jack is at Rose’s mercy every time they interact. She could say a word and have him arrested for any arbitrary reason. After he’s arrested for stealing the necklace, Rose has to come to his rescue while the ship sinks. The only valuable thing he really does is die so that she can live. He even gives her a little pep talk as he’s slowly freezing to death. Jack is nothing but a convenient plot device in the guise of a love interest.
Cal is a Pompous Ass
Cal’s treatment of Rose annoys me, especially since he’s just a cipher. He’s a rich pretty boy lacking personality, a dismissive snob who’s marrying Rose because he wants to get her in bed. During their lunch with Mr. Ismay, Mr. Andrews, and others, Cal orders food for himself and Rose. It’s only as an afterthought that he even asks if Rose likes what he ordered. You’re supposed to be marrying this woman but you don’t even know what food she likes? After her attempted suicide, Cal offers Rose the diamond necklace and says, “There is nothing I would deny you Rose…if you would not deny me.” Ew! Could you be more of a sleazeball, Cal? She’s coming off a suicide attempt (though Cal doesn’t know it) and he’s practically waving his penis in her face. Gross. This scene in particular disgusts me because of his attitude toward Rose. He’s also jealous and possessive of Rose and manages to come across like a petulant child crying “Mine!” any time Jack gets close to Rose in his presence. He even insists Lovejoy follow Rose around. Once it becomes apparent that Rose has a thing for Jack, Cal does everything in his power to keep them apart. He sees it as his duty since she is his fiancée and thus, his property.
In fact, Cal is dismissive and superior to everyone, not just Rose, throwing money at every issue that comes his way, in true wealthy person style. It begins on the dock when a steward tells him that he’s supposed to check his bags in at a different location. Cal hands the man what we can only assume is a large amount of money and says, “See my man.” Later, after Rose’s suicide attempt, he tells Lovejoy (his “man”) to give Jack $5 for his trouble. Also after this scene, he gives Rose the necklace. In effect, trying to buy her sexual favors she had thus far withheld. As the ship is sinking, he stuffs a wad of cash into one of the steward’s pockets for a place on one of the lifeboats. When that doesn’t work, he grabs a crying child and finagles his way onto a lifeboat. Gee, he sounds like a real winner, doesn’t he?
There are theories about Cal all over the Internet, most saying the he really wasn’t the bad guy and that we’re only seeing things from Rose’s perspective, but there are holes in those theories. Whether you choose to believe them or not is your choice, but that’s another topic for another day.
3. Rose and Her Assumed Plight
I find Rose to be the most irritating character in Titanic. Her main complaint in the movie is that she doesn’t want to get married to Cal and feels she has no power over anything. Now, I sympathize with Rose because her mother lays on the guilt in order to get Rose to comply, but she is all too willing to throw everything away for a young man she barely knows. She latched on to the first person that showed kindness without strings attached.
The Engagement and Rebellion
Early on in the movie it’s stated that Rose was 17 when the Titanic sank. She’s being forced to marry a man who is at least 30 years old. While not unheard of in the early 1900’s, it doesn’t sit well with me. She’s forced into the marriage to save her family’s social and financial standing. There’s a scene where Ruth (Rose’s mother) pretty much says that she’ll end up a seamstress if Rose doesn’t marry well. That’s a lot to put on a teenager. Rose resents her mother for this and she starts to rebel once on board the ship.
I mentioned Rose’s little rebellions on ship, like smoking, making a scandalous comment to Mr. Ismay (which I’ll talk about in part 2 of this article), and she used Jack in this capacity. Jack is poor and unlike anyone Rose has ever known, so all the better to piss off her mother. Now, you can say that she fell for him because he saved her and he’s a bit dangerous and exciting, but I don’t buy it. It may be part of it, but her little comments at the dinner with her mother and Cal and later when she sneaks away to the party in third class…it’s all teenage rebellion. So, they party in third class on the night of the 13th and spend most of the 14th together. They go to Rose’s suite where the now famous drawing scene takes place before they go on the run from Spicer Lovejoy. Allowing Jack to do a nude drawing of her and leaving it in the safe for Cal to find is not only an act of rebellion, it’s a little petty. There’s an inevitable sex scene in a car in the hold of the ship before the ship collides with an iceberg.
The Suicide Attempt
Rose’s suicide attempt and the follow-up conversation with Jack irritated me. Shortly before she’s seen running down the halls and up onto the deck at the back of the ship, there’s a scene where she talks about the futility of her privileged life. There were people who would have killed to be in her position.
Here she is bemoaning her situation when things could be so much worse. Jack steps in, talks her down and she nearly falls off the boat anyway. She screams, the deckhands come running and they automatically assume Jack was trying to rape her. He was just being a Good Samaritan but they’ve already labeled him as a pervert. In this situation any explanation given by Jack would seem like an excuse for what happened and he lets Rose take the lead. Rose has power over someone for the first time in her life and she takes advantage of it. And thus we have the beginning of their relationship. Fast forward to the next day and Rose has come to thank Jack for his help and discretion. She’s obviously nervous, and then she’s basically telling him her life story before getting offended at Jack for asking if she’s in love with Cal. There’s a little playful rudeness before she steals Jack’s sketchbook and starts flipping through them. This scene isn’t bad, per se, but I’m not convinced.
Rose Saves Jack, Only to Let Him Die
When Rose is racing back to the Master at Arms’ office to save Jack, she gets to an elevator and the operator tells her that the lifts are closed. She yells at him, “I’m done being polite, damn it! Take me down!” and the shocked man complies. I highly doubt that he would have listened. She finds him and cuts him free using an ax. An ax! One false move and he’d be missing at least a hand. In fact, if you watch closely, Rose does hit his hand but they play it off since it was so quick.
Flash forward to Rose and Jack in the water after the ship has sunk. Now, the issue of whether Jack could have fit on the bit of floating furniture with Rose is a polarizing one. James Cameron said he had designed it so that if Jack were to climb up, both people would end up in the water. I’m not sure if I buy that. Additionally, there were other survivors nearby that would have gladly pushed Rose into the water for a chance at survival. There’s even one point in that scene where a panicked man grabs Rose and nearly drowns her before Jack finds her. Either way, Jack froze to death so she could live.
Let’s talk about Jack and Rose’s relationship, if you want to call it that, for a minute. The entire voyage of the Titanic began at noon on April 10, 1912 and it sank around 2:20 am on the morning of April 15, 1912. The ship set sail and sank in less than 5 days. Jack and Rose see each other for the first time on the afternoon of April 12th and she attempts suicide that night. So, if you assume things began the night of the 12th, when Jack saved her, their relationship lasted around 48 hours. I’m getting serious Romeo and Juliet vibes, except the death toll on Titanic is much higher. It’s an even more unrealistic portrayal than Romeo and Juliet and its backdrop is so dark that it’s unsatisfying for me. Jack really doesn’t have anything to lose but his life and Rose stands to lose everything. It doesn’t make sense. I completely understand that they are placed in the movie so we have someone to become directly invested in, but it doesn’t hold up to me. The gap in their social status alone would make it difficult for them to relate to each other beyond mundane teenage things (even though Jack is in his early 20's). Their shared love of art is probably the most substantial point of interest, but what else do they have?
4. The Blame Game
Now here’s the kicker- the whole movie was a vehicle James Cameron’s alternate solution for why the ship hit the iceberg. Jack and Rose are to blame. When they come up from the hold, still running from Lovejoy, they’re laughing loudly and catch the attention of the men in the crow’s nest. These guys are supposed to be watching for ice but they decide to watch Jack and Rose kissing on deck for a minute instead. They only notice the iceberg when they turn back to their post. It’s already too late; the ship and everyone aboard is doomed. Our modern day Romeo and Juliet, which everyone seemed to idolize in the years following the movie’s release, were the reason more than 1,500 people died. Such romantic heroes.
Historically, we know that there were many factors which contributed to this disaster. There were problems with the construction of the ship, not heeding the ice warnings and continuing to move at high speed, and the list goes on. The sinking of the Titanic and the resulting loss of life were tragic enough, but to place the blame on these two just isn’t fair, Mr. Cameron.
Overall, my main issue with this movie was Cameron trying to wedge an implausible love story into it and then having it go on to be so popular. People got so invested in the love story that they couldn’t see the forest through the trees; Jack and Rose’s entire existence is arbitrary. The ship was going to sink whether they were the focus of the film or not. I can hear the shouts of “Blasphemy!” now, so I’ll end this by reiterating that Titanic is a good movie. Even if it’s not a great movie, it’s a watchable popcorn flick that was entertaining enough to keep people’s butts in the seats for over 3 hours. In the near future, I’ll post a follow-up article comprised of the things I enjoyed about Titanic.