It is regarded as the biggest blockbuster of-all-time! But why does James Cameron's epic Titanic make us choose to "never let go?"

By Jonathan Reed

4 June 2019

The first images of the £125 million Chinese replica of the doomed ocean liner Titanic were revealed this week. The project adds to a long line of constant fascination into one of history’s most tragic man-made disasters, but before the Chinese tourist attraction was even a concept, a certain homage in 1998 took Titanic’s infamy to astronomical heights.

It was all the brainchild of filmmaking genius, James Cameron. The veteran director, who had already achieved success with Aliens, Terminator and The Abyss, decided to step away from the sci-fi genre he had come to be celebrated for. Instead he took the story of the ill-fated ship, deemed ‘unsinkable’ shortly before striking an iceberg and foundering to the dark seabed of the Atlantic Ocean, and transformed it into the biggest-movie-of-all-time.

© 20th Century Fox

But not everything was plain sailing for Titanic. Cameron famously overspent the budget by a whopping $100 million and due to countless mishaps and costly delays, many believed that the movie would be a large-scale disaster in its own right. Add in Cameron’s famous temper and need for absolute perfection, and the making of Titanic could be a movie all in of itself.

And it wasn’t just the studios who were unhappy with the destination Titanic was heading. Film Critics wrote scathingly about the project before a single film cell was even seen. A critic for the Sunday Times infamously wrote that “Cameron’s overweening pride has come close to capsizing this project,” to which he labelled “a hackneyed, completely derivative copy of old Hollywood romances.”

Reading these quotes now, it is hard to see how Titanic became the dominating success story it is. But given that the movie is now twenty-one-years-old, what has made this eleven-time Oscar winning movie an iconic staple in blockbuster filmmaking?

Firstly, what is truly ironic about the early criticisms of Titanic, is the comparison to ‘old Hollywood romances.’ The truth is, everyone loves a love story and it is hard to find one in recent times that rivals the relationship between Jack and Rose. It was the archetypal Hollywood romance; two people from different backgrounds falling in love and then forced to face an unimaginable threat. It is to the credit of Cameron and his storytelling intellect, that he had the understanding that to capture an audience’s attention, you have to have the root for something. And that certainly was the case.

With the release of Titanic, the entire World went Jack and Rose crazy, making overnight stars of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Queues over 3-hours long lined up at cinemas to see the film, and with those queues came a vast amount of money.

Up until the release of Avatar (another James Cameron masterpiece), Titanic was the most successful film ever made! And whilst it’s overall Box Office takings of $2.187 billion may have been surpassed by Cameron’s epic return to sci-fi, for many Titanic is still the best. And when you look at the movie through the looking glass of a film maker, you can see why.

Titanic is, quite simply a masterclass in filmmaking. From the script, cinematography, casting, production and state-of-the-art Special Effects, Titanic sets the bar. Cameron purposefully tried to make the film as historically accurate as possible, leaving no historic stone unturned. Even when the movie was re-released to cinemas in 3D in 2012, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ocean liner, he changed the night sky after an Astrologist stated that, unlike in the original release in 1998, the sky was not clear but full of stars.

It is this dedication to the authenticity of the tragic event that pulsates through every frame. Every set piece, from the Grand Staircase, to the costumes was painstakingly researched. Cameron even dived to the actual wreck twelve times for reference.

But it wasn’t just Cameron behind the camera that became integral to the success of Titanic. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio were the beating heart of the movie. Cameron always stated that he hit the jackpot with both actors as their chemistry was through-the-roof, and it shows onscreen. It is of no surprise that twenty-one-years later, both are still incredibly close.

© 20th Century Fox

Though perhaps what became Titanic’s ultimate success story was the thing critics call ‘the balance.’ We’ve seen many films fail to achieve this. ‘The balance’ I refer to, is the equal time a film spends on substance and style. Many movies pick one or the other and go for the overkill. Take the Star Wars prequels, for example. Critics savaged the trilogy for choosing an excessive indulgence in CGI, and thereby forgoing story. Titanic didn’t make this mistake. It had enough spectacle moments to render you speechless, whilst never forgoing the relationship between Jack and Rose.

The final sequence showing the of the sinking, whereby the 52,310-ton Titanic splits in two from deck to keel, is still today an iconic piece of film. Yet, the heart-breaking ending where Rose realises her beloved Jack has died, hits just as hard – ‘the balance’ achieved.

Titanic is one of those movies that are once-in-a-lifetime. It fits into that rare realm of films that should never and could never be made again. It was as if the stars aligned. Yes, the production may have been difficult. Yes, the critics were far-too harsh. But twenty-one-years and two-billion dollars later, Cameron managed to prove everyone wrong. He created more than a simple movie, he made a piece of history. Titanic will always be remembered, referenced and celebrated. It will, years from now, find its way back into cinemas where a whole new generation of audiences can fall in love.

Our relationship with Titanic can best be described by its very own flame-haired survivor, Rose “I’ll never let go.”