Does “Titanic” Sink or Swim 25 Years Later? A POPSUGAR Editor Revisits the Iconic Film
“Titanic,” which reentered theaters in celebration of its 25th anniversary on Feb. 10, came out around two months after I was born. Because of this, I – of course – have no memory of the public’s reaction to the movie’s premiere, but I do vividly recall watching it many years later, around age 10.
That inaugural viewing was with my cousin, who fittingly also showed me my first R-rated movie (“The Hangover”) and introduced me to a great deal of other milestones in my coming-of-age experience, including my first sighting of a young Leonardo DiCaprio. My cousin is now married, and DiCaprio is now famous for breaking up with people right as they approach my current age. But back in the day, we were just two tween girls, and 21-year-old DiCaprio was a towheaded dream guy leaping around the boat of dreams.
I went to see “Titanic” in theaters for the first time this week and bought a ticket for the 4DX showing, not knowing what to expect. As it turns out, 4DX involves seats that shake back and forth, shoot out bursts of slightly chemical-scented mist, and occasionally punch you (lightly) in the back. I thought I might need to leave during the Marvel commercials, which involved far too many sudden plummets for my liking, but once “Titanic” started, the seats calmed down.
I hadn’t remembered that the movie began with submarines visiting the sea moss–drenched wreck of the Titanic, which looked even more haunting now on the giant screen, its colors refurbished and its caverns made even deeper looking by a hint of 3D. The teenagers behind me cackled at the real footage of the ship departing from Belfast in 1912 as horns blared. I found myself smiling too. There is something campy about the movie, I thought, which spawned an early meme at the same time it was becoming a cultural touchstone and, according to Entertainment Weekly, helped launch hater culture. I assumed the teenagers were there to make fun of it.
But then Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio appeared on screen, and everybody stopped laughing. Say what you want about the movie – which definitely does contain moments of trite dialogue and over-performance and is as cliché as its critics have always complained – but its two leads are exquisitely cast. Their chemistry sizzles on screen from the moment they first make eye contact. I quickly found myself thinking about what a shame it is that the pair’s well-documented friendship has never escalated into something more.
DiCaprio is deeply charming from the get-go, and I was transported back to the girl I’d been when I’d first watched “Titanic,” so completely infatuated with his tousled hair and Parisian artistic sensibilities. He wasn’t having the same effect on me now as he had once, though. I wondered if that’s because I couldn’t unsee DiCaprio today – the real DiCaprio, not the naive and charming Jack – and the lists I’d worked on for this very website about his past, fleeting romances. There’s a line in the movie where Rose points out a man who’s dating a woman decades his junior, calling it a terrible scandal, and I couldn’t help thinking it seemed rather prescient.
But it’s not just DiCaprio. I’m also different. Just before seeing the movie, I’d come from a dinner with a friend where we’d both agreed that we were now interested in pursuing thoroughly boring relationships. We’d both done our time with people who seemed – like Jack – enchanting from the start, if a bit dangerous, and it had not gone according to plan. Now, we said, we were looking for someone with a steady job and a steady personality.
I wondered for a second if Jack was actually a manic pixie dream boy, only there to save Rose from herself, and if the pair would never have actually made it. Was she idealizing him and his poverty as a romanticized way out of her unhappy life? Would they start fighting about money and realize they barely knew each other shortly after arriving on shore?
As the movie went on, though, I realized that there is something pure and sweet about Jack and Rose’s love. They both seem wise beyond their years, and Jack even tells Rose he cannot save her – only she can do that. They both know money isn’t everything, and they both value treating people with kindness. They’re also both clearly willing to do whatever it takes to make it.
Well, almost whatever it takes. Of course, Rose doesn’t actually even really try to see if Jack can fit on the large, ornate door she floats on as Jack freezes after the ship’s infamous demise. In December 2022, Cameron revealed that he actually tested out whether they both could have fit on that now-iconic door. He claimed forensic analysis disproved the naysayers and revealed that one of them had to die – though it certainly looks like there’s room enough for both the way the scene is shot.
Watching the movie’s protracted conclusion, I realized I’d forgotten how much death and destruction there is at the end. The 4DX seats added to the dramatic effect, pulling you along and jerking back as the ship breaks in half. Another thing I’d forgotten: the movie is really a rather scathing commentary on class that does everything “The White Lotus” does on the same topic and more. Ultimately, it thoroughly condemns the wealthy – who, in this case, leave the poor to drown – as well as the systemic carelessness that resulted in their deaths.
It’s a pretty progressive storyline, though overall there are a few dialogue moments that wouldn’t really hold up to today’s standards of ethics. I found myself thinking of Cameron’s newest movie, “Avatar: The Way of Water” – which, in addition to garnering a fair amount of criticism, also centers on the ocean’s beauty and power and also warns of excessive industrialization. In the end, the Titanic tragedy happened because its creators tried to make something too big to fail without accounting for the actual lives they were putting at risk. (Rose even drives the point home during the first half hour by mentioning Sigmund Freud’s theories about men’s obsession with size).
In “Avatar,” humans try to destroy Pandora for their own gain without caring about the consequences for the people already living there. Ironically, in creating movies about the danger of oversize success, Cameron is behind some of the highest-grossing blockbusters ever. Whatever you think of the director, it’s hard to deny that he knows how to make a lot of money by allowing people to disappear into things – like romance and natural beauty – that money can’t buy.
As I watched, though, I found that instead of dwelling on Cameron’s filmography, I kept thinking back to the first time I saw “Titanic.” I was at my grandparents’ house in Maine, watching on a VCR on a TV so grainy the pixels were prominent, listening to the sound of the ocean right outside. My cousin, the viewing companion, married her high school sweetheart in Maine this summer. She debuted her wedding dress for my grandparents right in that same room where we’d watched the movie so long ago.
A few months later, my grandfather grew very sick and briefly lost much of his memory and ability to speak. Through it all, he was still asking for my grandmother and holding her hand. Jack and Rose’s relationship hearkened to theirs – 60 years long this year, and while it hasn’t all been easy, they often reminisce about the first time they saw each other, when he walked in and spotted her working on an early computer that took up an entire room.
Time comes for us all, as the scene where Jack stands watching the clock in the doomed dining room reminds us. Ships sink, seas rise, but some things can last – memories, in particular, as Rose’s story shows us, as well as first love. Though my ideas about love have changed since I initially saw the movie, I found myself thinking that maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t be so jaded.
It’s far too easy to dismiss the things tween girls love as shallow and unrealistic – even when you were once one – and the fact that adolescents made up a lot of “Titanic”‘s original fan base definitely triggered a lot of the hate and backlash the movie originally received. But in a world of perpetual online irony and endless reboots that definitely should not exist, some stories are worth retelling. As we left the theater, I heard some of the teenagers saying to each other, We should make this a weekly thing. We should do this again.