Why Rewatching Titanic Is Different Now

Twenty-five years ago, the movie turned tragedy into romance. Today, that alchemy takes on a darker absurdity.

A still from "Titanic": Jack and Rose standing at the prow of the ship
20th Century Fox Film / Everett

The Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has a very good gift shop. Among its wares are sparkling replicas of the Heart of the Ocean necklace, T-shirts that read He’s my Jack → and She’s my Rose →, and, for the kids, tubs of electric-blue “iceberg slime.” In one corner, the visitors who have availed themselves of one of the museum’s main attractions—the chance to pose for pictures on a replica of the doomed ship’s grand stairway—pick up their photos. Next to sample images of grinning tourists stands a rack offering commemorative copies of newspapers originally published in mid-April of 1912. One of them reads, “NO HOPE LEFT; 1,535 DEAD.”

Time may heal all wounds, but Hollywood helps things along. For many Americans, Titanic now refers less to those 1,535 people than to just two: Jack and Rose. James Cameron’s semi-fictional film about the disaster—for a long while, the highest-grossing movie of all time—has taken on a memetic familiarity. Last year, a family re-created one of Titanic’s final scenes in a pool, playing Rose and Jack and an assortment of dead bodies; their effort went viral. The film changed the perception of the tragedy: All of those people, plunged into that indifferent sea, are now bound up with “I’m the king of the world!” and heated discussions about whether Jack could have fit on that door. Near, far, wherever you are—“Titanic” is, as a matter of memory, a horror story transmuted into a love story.

The movie that spurred this alchemy is now 25 years old. Timed to the anniversary, a remastered version of Titanic has returned to theaters; a new documentary about both the tragedy and the film’s portrayal of it is airing on National Geographic and streaming on Hulu. The films, at first glance, complement each other, relitigating the disaster from disparate angles: The first is a heavily sentimentalized work of historical fiction, the second a series of experiments about the physics of the ship’s sinking. In each, Cameron looms as auteur. In part because of that, and in part because the documentary flits indiscriminately between the historical Titanic and the cinematic version, the two works hint at our present even as they make their claims about the past. They are artifacts of a culture that is applying a choose-your-own-reality ethos not only to its news but to its history.

Cameron’s aim in making Titanic, he has long said, was to humanize the past, thereby making it more compelling to audiences of the present. The writer-director did that first by adding fiction to the historical story, and then by romanticizing the addition. Jack and Rose, the young lovers at the heart of the film, are inventions meant to summon a broader truth.

In that, they succeed. And Cameron achieved his goal in many other ways too. Titanic is, as a matter of pure craft, epic filmmaking at its finest, compellingly paced and cannily scoped and offering a symphonic blend of pathos and humor and romance and action. It is suspenseful throughout—a remarkable feat considering that even first-time audiences know precisely how it will end. In terms of its fictional story, too, Titanic is masterful. As Chuck Klosterman observes in The Nineties, the film’s central drama is devoid of complication or nuance, offering viewers a sense of moral ease even amid the portrayal of crisis. The heroes here are extremely heroic; the villains are extremely villainous. The stakes, whether life and death or love and loss, are straightforward. “The single most interesting thing about Titanic,” Klosterman writes, “is its total commitment to expressing nothing that could be construed as interesting, now or then.”

Klosterman is correct. But the film’s narrative vacuity is not necessarily a drawback; on the contrary, it helps explain Titanic’s artistic appeal and cultural durability. It gives us, in its leads, characters who are also tropes: Jack is the charming, vaguely Dickensian dreamer, limited in means but rich in every other way; Rose, his complement, is equally vital but constrained by wealth’s privations (“Poor little rich girl,” Rose says of herself early on in the film, neatly summarizing her circumstances). The two, together, embody familiar American myths: restlessness, self-reinvention, the refusal to cede to circumstance. Their pasts, for them, are tethers; they spend much of the film freeing themselves from them. Titanic is in that sense a morality play layered over a fiction layered over a history.

But one of the remarkable features of the film is the attention it pays to the details of the historical event that serves alternately as its subject and its setting.

Titanic is, technically, a film within a film: Its version of 1912 is effectively an extended dream sequence nestled within the “true” story of an explorer who is searching for treasure in the wreckage of the ship. The bounty hunter, played by Bill Paxton, embodies the callous narcissism of the present. He films himself offering gauzy pronouncements about the ethereal vessel, resting on the ocean floor after “her long fall from the world above.” “You are so full of shit, boss,” his colleague retorts. Rose, now 101 years old, will spend the rest of the film correcting the men’s ignorance—so that they, and by extension the audience, will come not merely to know what happened to Titanic, but also to feel it.

Part of the lore that has built up around the film, over the past 25 years, involves the lengths Cameron went to to ensure that the story would be as historically accurate as possible. He brought an etiquette coach to set to teach the actors about the mannerisms of 1912’s upper class; even extras received the training. He re-created much of the ship’s interior based on drawings and photographs, and made a scaled replica of the exterior. He placed the latter within a massive water tank built for the occasion. He enlisted the original manufacturer of a carpet that was on the ship to re-create the furnishing—18,000 square feet in size. He commissioned similar re-creations of sculptures and woodworks and ashtrays. He strove for photorealism. He applied auteurism to the facts of the past. “We wanted this to be a definitive visualization of this moment in history,” Cameron said in 2009, “as if you’d gone back in a time machine and shot it.”

This collision of analytical rigor and invention has become a familiar mode. It is the same kind of thing deployed by many more recent works of semi-fictionalized history. A show such as The Crown, for example—which shares the Cameronian premise that fiction might humanize the past in ways that history alone cannot—pays minute attention to historical details while fabricating many other elements of its stories. And many other recent series and films, from biopics to more loosely conceived works of historical fiction, have taken a similar approach. In bringing history to life in the present, they tend to merge the facts and the fantasies so skillfully that the two elements, after a while, become effectively indistinguishable.

Another work that engages in that blurring is, as it happens, the documentary meant to add scientific data to Titanic’s story. Titanic: 25 Years Later With James Cameron is framed as a complement to the feature film, purporting to answer some of the outstanding historical questions about the real ship’s demise. (At what angle did it sink? Would having more lifeboats on board have saved more lives?) Deploying computer models, scaled-down re-creations of the ship, and human test subjects, the documentary presents a series of experiments that aim to solve the mysteries. This makes for a jarring viewing experience, though, because even the experiments defer to Cameron’s vision.

Take the test that doubles as the documentary’s denouement: an experiment meant to resolve “once and for all,” as Cameron puts it, the long-standing debate over the end of the film: whether Jack could have fit on the door along with Rose, thus ensuring that both would survive. To determine the answer, his team places two stunt doubles—of the same height and body mass as the Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio of 1997—into a laboratory swimming pool filled with water meant to mimic the cold of the icy mid-Atlantic. The doubles are dressed in replicas of costumes worn in the film (high-heeled shoes for “Rose,” suspenders for “Jack”) and are connected to sensors that monitor body temperature, heart rate, and other biodata.

The subjects soon enter a state that the experimenters call “clinical hypothermia.” The man playing Jack begins shaking with cold. Cameron and his co-experimenter ask “Jack” and “Rose” to attempt different configurations on the door. Could Rose have given Jack her life vest to help to insulate him from the cold? The actors, shivering, give that a try. Could positioning the vest under the door have made it more buoyant, and thus better able to support two people? They try again. Most of their attempts fail. But some, including a configuration in which both parties stretch, horizontally, across the door, seem partially effective.

But seem is the operative word. “We can’t possibly simulate the terror, the adrenaline, all the things that would have worked against them,” Cameron says, speaking to the camera. And thus: “Final verdict?” “Jack might have lived. But there’s a lot of variables.”

Of course there are—this is the performance of science, summoned to justify the fates of fictions. (The Jack-on-the-door experiment’s inconclusive conclusion was foreshadowed by another test Cameron conducted, meant to measure the time it would take for one of the ropes tethering a lifeboat to be untied: Using a replica of the rope and a period-accurate pocket knife, Cameron saws away. His team records how long he takes to sever the fibers. But then the director muses, “I think I probably would cut faster if my life depended on it,” effectively nullifying the test result.)

Auteurism, as such, is a feature even of the documentary that is premised on physics. Cameron discussed the “Could Jack have fit?” question five years ago, for Titanic’s 20th anniversary; at the time, he gave a very different explanation of his movie’s ending. Jack had to die, he insisted, because that is what his character would do. He is the star of a romantic epic. Sentiment demands its sacrifices. “Obviously it was an artistic choice,” Cameron said. He added, of the inevitability of Jack’s demise: “It’s called art; things happen for artistic reasons, not for physics reasons.”

That earlier response is, in the end, the truer one. Cameron, the artist, is entirely within his rights to end his movie as he wants. And audiences are entirely within their rights to question—and debate—his choice. Five years later, though, the terms have changed. In the documentary, the “artistic reasons” and the “physics reasons” merge, and the result is familiar in its awkwardness. An experiment that promises to measure the biodata of fictional subjects: The absurdity resonates. Twenty-five years ago, Titanic turned a tragedy into a romance, and reaped its rewards. Today, its historical fiction has given way to the documentary’s speculative science. The genres blur. The historical event and the memory of it become ever more distant. “Now, we are talking about a fictional story, I do want to remind people,” Cameron says, as his new Jack and Rose shiver in the pool.

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