Was 'American Pie' More Influential Than 'Titanic'?

The epic marked the end of one era, while the teen-sex comedy arrived at the start of another.

titanic american pie 615 buckwalter.jpg

Paramount / Universal

In the late '90s, a screenplay made the studio rounds bearing the unwieldy title, "Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love." That's a cheeky move for a young screenwriter, risking having his work tossed on the thanks-but-no-thanks pile by overworked script readers fatigued with first-timers' glib attempts to catch the eye. But the script sold, and writer Adam Herz's modest little homage to the movies of his youth, and to his youth itself, ended up grossing nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide, spawning three theatrical sequels and four straight-to-video sequels, and providing the primary source of income for comic actor Eugene Levy for the past 13 years. That "Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy" was 1999's American Pie.

Two years before that, James Cameron made good on years of obsession with shipwrecks by dramatizing the most terrible wreck of them all, using the tragedy of the Titanic to frame a steadfastly old-fashioned epic love story. His Titanic aimed to be the millennial Gone With the Wind, with the doomed ocean liner making collateral damage of its young lovers as surely as the sinking confederacy helped scotch whatever chance Scarlett and Rhett might have had at a happy ending. Cameron's 1997 film struck audiences, particularly young women, like few could have predicted, and it held the title of biggest moneymaker in history for more than a decade.

'American Pie' was in the vanguard of a movement that has brought 'The Hangover,' 'Old School,' and practically the entirety of Judd Apatow's film career.

Both of these films are back on the marquee this week. Titanic, the box office behemoth and the Oscar juggernaut, has gotten itself a 3D makeover just in time for the impending 100th anniversary of the vessel's downfall. The more modestly proportioned American Pie brings back its original cast of sex-crazed hijinks-makers, now husbands, wives, and parents, for an American Reunion. Cameron's film is bigger in nearly every quantifiable sense. But more than a decade after their releases, which really looms larger on the cultural horizon?

In many ways, Titanic was among the last of a dying breed: the big-budget romantic epic, full of sweeping widescreen vistas, swelling music, and heartsick lovers. Budgets haven't gotten smaller, and studios still spare no expense to wow audiences with big stories writ bigger on cinema screens. But those dollars are now largely spent on special-effects-driven sci-fi, action, and fantasy pieces: Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, John Carter, and any number of super-hero films.

The stately charms of Doctor Zhivago or Out of Africa are largely things of the past, apart from an occasional anomaly like Atonement. Cameron's own Avatar, which knocked his earlier film from the top of the box-office heap, retains many of the familiar contours, but comes dressed up in sci-fi trappings and blue digital makeup.

If any successful modern films bear even a hint of Titanic's influence, it's a series one might not initially think of: Twilight. Get past the sparkly vampires and werewolves, and what do you have? Stilted dialogue; lovers separated by class (or, in this case, mortality); a floppy-haired, dreamy-eyed, honorable young hero willing to risk anything to save his love; and an indecisive furrowed-brow heroine eventually willing to give up all the conveniences of the life she was born into in order to be with her slightly dangerous paramour. All wrapped up in a package marketed to teenage girls. Sounds a lot like Cameron's very own ballad of Jack and Rose.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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