I've never seen Titanic – here is my review 25 years after its release

Just before the four men were plunged into the icy water below, violinist Hartley turned to his fellow bandmembers and said, ‘Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.’

And I got goosebumps. 

The quote had been paraphrased and spoofed in everything from Apollo 13 to The Simpsons movie, but the hauntingly profound message was totally lost on me until I watched James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster hit Titanic last week in honour of its anniversary.

December 19 marks 25 years since Rose DeWitt Bukater refused to budge up and share her makeshift raft to save her beloved Jack Dawson.

Since the movie’s release, Titanic has comfortably sat in the highest-grossing film charts, breaking countless records (and hearts) in the process, as well as becoming one of the most iconic blockbusters of all time.

The tale of forbidden love roped in 11 Academy Awards and made Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet immediate household names.

However, until just days ago, I hadn’t actually watched the movie. This fact horrified my colleagues, so much so that they insisted I watch it at once – and I’m so glad I did. I went into it skeptical, totally expecting it to have been massively overhyped, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I missed the movie when it first came out as it was released the year before I was born. 

By the time I hit the recommended age rating of 12 in 2010, I felt like I already had the gist of the movie through – in true Gen Z fashion – exposure to countless clips, memes, and parodies, and never really felt the need to sit down and watch what I thought was little more than a three-hour sob-fest.

The movie has become so ingrained in our pop culture that you don’t have to actually have seen it to know what it’s about.

Or do you? To mark the movie probably becoming too old for Leo to date, I sat down to watch James Cameron’s so-called magnum opus.

What I wasn’t expecting was how much of the film is set in the ‘present day’ (I say present in quotation marks because the hefty camcorder, telephone cables, and dials on the tiny countertop TV immediately dated the movie in the mid-1990s).

I knew about ‘Old Rose’ from the movie-quote-turned-viral-meme ‘It’s been 84 years’ – usually used in reference to how much time has passed since Rihanna last dropped an album.

However, what I wasn’t aware of was the sub-plot of the modern-day treasure hunters seeking Rose’s priceless Heart of the Ocean necklace, which was gifted to her on the day of the sinking by fiancé Hockley (we’ll get to his eyebrows later).

Was it just me who caught a vibe between Brock and Rose’s granddaughter, Liz? Starting a petition for their love story to be explored in Titanic 2: Revenge of the Ship.

Our first sighting of the titular ship isn’t until the 21-minute mark, and the establishing shot wasn’t exactly worth the wait as the CGI just hasn’t dated well – I had to check we hadn’t cut to a Let’s Play of The Sims: Bon Voyage.

Between the (let’s face it) boring 20-minute sub-plot and the god-awful graphics, I had a sinking feeling that the movie had been massively overhyped.

But all fears I had were swiftly swept away when Rose and Jack hit the screen.

Something I particularly enjoyed learning was that Rose was a far deeper character than the clips, parodies, and memes had given her credit for. All I knew about her before was that she made ditsy comments about flying and refused to budge up on the door – but Winslet’s Rose gave us so much more than that.

Like a classic Jane Austen heroine, she has a love of art and psychology, and doesn’t fit in with the shallow conversation and endless balls offered by well-to-do society.

Much like the Titanic helplessly veering towards the iceberg, Rose has no control over the direction of her life. She’s stifled into playing the part of an upper-class woman, destined to marry a godawful man she doesn’t love as a result of her family’s poor finances.

As a woman, she’s at such dire straits that she finds herself standing over the rails of the ship ready to jump – only to be stopped by the boyish charm of a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

From there, Rose and Jack embark on a whirlwind romance, where he opens her eyes to just how whimsical and fulfilling life can be when liberated by the social restraints of aristocratic life (skimming over quite how tough it can be to be penniless…).

You truly believe they are falling madly in love with each other, and it’s a genuine delight to watch their story unfold.

From the moment they catch eyes, the pair immediately fall into the most Hollywood-ist of Hollywood romances. Despite clocking in at over three hours long, the movie wastes no time on a slow-burn romance, spellbinding us with the full forbidden love fantasy and Leo’s floppy golden hair.

That’s not to say the movie was perfect. I’m not sure if it’s the foreknowledge that the ship will sink, or the fact that ‘I’m the king of the world’ and ‘paint me like one of your French girls’ have been overly quoted to death, but the film itself felt entirely predictable.

What Cameron may have thought of as clever foreshadowing ended up feeling like a big neon sign pointing to the word ‘exposition’.

Through conversations that feel incredibly unnatural, you learn that there are less than half the lifeboats needed for everyone on the boat, the captain has ordered the ship to go too fast, and a lot of the watchmen lost their binoculars weeks ago.

Jack’s first chat with Rose was peppered in with dialogue like ‘I’m a lot more concerned about the water being so cold.’ and ‘I’ve got you. I won’t let go.’

And, surprise surprise, the less-than-subtle hints all come to play in the second act disaster.

A side note I want to add here is that I think Cameron missed a trick by calling the film Titanic: if he had hidden that the ship they were on was the Titanic until a dramatic reveal at the very end, then the sinking and detrimental fallout would have had way more shock value.

Like the Remember Me reveal where we learn that Robert Pattinson’s character was inside the Twin Towers on 9/11 – but, like, done well.

Mr Cameron, I am available for consultation.

Another gripe I had is that while we spent time learning about Rose’s inner psyche and desires, I felt that Jack actually felt a little… flat.

What do we actually know about him? Why was he in Belfast in the first place? How does he know the lovely Fabrizio? What does he see in Rose other than a pretty face? He gives his life for her time and time again, but why?

Jack blows open her whole world, empowering her to want more and strive for cards she’s been dealt, but what does she offer in return to him?

I totally understand that he is meant to be an enigma – it’s even suggested that his name wasn’t really Jack Dawson as there was no record of a man with that name – but he felt like more like an idea, just a character, than a living breathing person.

Cameron manic pixie dream girled the crap outta him.

I will note here that Jack’s shortcomings are nothing to do with Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, which, like frankly everything I’ve seen him in, was faultless.

Jack wasn’t the only underdeveloped character in the movie, and not by a long shot – other than the odd anomaly (Molly and Mr Andrews, my heart will go on for you) the poor people were good and the rich were bad, nothing more and nothing less.

But why was Hockley such an arse – was it because someone messed up his eyebrows at the salon? Was it the cakey foundation plastered on his forehead that caused him to steal a crying child? I didn’t know I could detest a man wearing eyeliner, but Cameron somehow managed it.

And then (spoiler) the ship starts to sink. As Gen Z say: that iceberg hit different.

The sinking itself takes up the entire second half of the film, around one and a half hours – but, it really didn’t feel that long.

I spent the entire time gritting my teeth and gripping my cat for emotional support as the ship filled with water and people were horrendously flung port and starboard.

Children were crying, people were getting shot, and one of the ship’s chimneys dramatically fell, squishing Fabrizio and countless others.

After escaping the lower decks, Jack and Rose make their way to the highest bit of the boat as Jack says they need to stay out of the water for as long as they can. When the boat sinks, Jack tells Rose that they need to kick as hard as possible as the boat ‘will suck us in when it goes under’ – both of these suggesting Jack has a level of education or an interesting backstory that we’re never privy to.

Through the entire sinking scenes I couldn’t help but feel that Jack and Rose slotted themselves into the stereotypical gender roles you get in action movies – he as the white knight with all the bright ideas and her as the clueless damsel in distress.

I’m going to skip over doorgate as, controversially, I actually don’t think Jack and Rose could have both fit on that door.

And then that moment comes, the one I was dreading. The one I had preemptively grabbed a box of tissues for.

Spoilers: Jack dies.

The death itself was somewhat ruined for me, but it was no fault of Cameron’s – I had badly timed it to coincide with an England World Cup game, and so the immersion was somewhat broken by my housemate’s cheers in the other room.

My tear-jerking moment came a little while later, when the camera scans over Rose’s deathbed and rests for a second on a picture of her on a horse, ditching riding sidesaddle for mounting it with legs on both sides.

A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail that references a comment Jack had made earlier in the movie, I was incredibly moved to learn that she continued to live a long life liberated by the shackles of societal expectations of women, all because of a boy she fell in love with 84 years before.

Sure, some of the performances were stunted and the dialogue didn’t always hold up (Rose comparing her Titanic crossing to being ‘in shackles’ on a ‘slave ship’ set my teeth on edge), but ultimately I was pleasantly surprised that I was still able to enjoy a movie I had thought was spoilt beyond saving.

Outside of all the iconic moments, there are small intimate details that haven’t made it to the mainstream consciousness that I indulged in throughout the feature. I don’t even remember my life before sweet Fabrizio or funny Molly.

And famous clips like the ‘I’m flying, Jack’ scene lose some of their cheesiness and have a whole deeper meaning once you gain better context of the characters and the moments that lead up to that line.

So, was it worth the 25-year wait? As the sinking violinist said, ‘Gentlemen it’s been a privilege’.

The movie still holds up all these years on, and I can truly say that without the bias of nostalgia. It’s cheesy and romantic, while still being gripping and intense where it needs to be.

I won’t be rushing to rewatch it as three hours is a long time to dedicate to anything – but perhaps in 2027 I’ll give it another whirl.

Now time to finally watch The Godfather…

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