The weekend Titanic hit theaters in 1997, it earned $28.6 million at U.S. box offices. It then spent a record-setting 15 consecutive weekends as the top-selling movie in America, and stayed in cinemas for almost 10 months. In other words, between December 19, 1997 and October 1, 1998, pretty much everyone and their grandma saw Titanic at least once.
Except for me, that is. I saw it this past Sunday. Whoops.
I know I'm exactly 15 years late to the I-Love-Titanic party, but here I am: Titanic, despite all its famous faults, has both heart and remarkable guts—and I don't know that I would have been aware of those virtues had I seen it the first time around.
I had just turned eight when James Cameron's historical-romance-disaster epic arrived, and when it happened, my whole world suddenly became a swirling, squealing maelstrom of tweenage hysteria and stuff with Leonardo DiCaprio's face on it. I was, after all, squarely in the demographic cross-section most earnestly and passionately obsessed by Titanic: school-age girls. It was the first movie most of us had ever cried over, and somehow, that made us feel like grown-ups. Plus, Leo. Duh.
But at my house, Titanic was off-limits. Too sexy, my parents said, for a second-grader.
Humiliatingly, I was soon the only girl at my lunch table who hadn't seen Titanic. When I explained my predicament to a concerned classmate, she thought for a moment, then nodded sagely. "I guess you do see Rose's boobs."
It was pretty devastating. But thankfully, it wasn't many months before the intensity of Titanic Mania began to wane. By the end of my second-grade year, we had all collectively broken up with Leo Di-Crappy-o, and "I'll never let go, Jack!" soon became something my boy cousins screeched just before deliberately dumping me off of a blow-up raft at the pool.
Around the same time, something similar started happening nationwide. Though Titanic went on to become the second highest-grossing film ever and won a record-setting 11 Oscars, its audience seemed to slowly abandon it in the following years, transforming it from a universally adored Hollywood love story to a scoffed-at, overblown James Cameron vanity project, and then to a snicker-worthy pop-culture punchline.
By the time I reached the ripe old recommended minimum viewing age of 13, Saturday Night Live had thoroughly skewered Titanic, and Britney Spears had bizarrely re-appropriated it for a music video. "I'm the king of the world!" often echoed through my middle school—usually emanating from kids leaning, arms outstretched, over the second-floor balcony railing.
And that's how 15 years went by without my ever having seen Titanic: After a while, I didn't feel like I needed to anymore. Titanic was, it seemed to me, a thing you could be familiar with just by being alive at the time. The parodies and tongue-in-cheek references had become just as embedded in everyday culture as the original film.
So when I decided to celebrate Titanic's 15th birthday by, you know, actually seeing it, I had the (admittedly unfair) advantage of already knowing that it's widely considered a bloated, big-budget weeper that may or may not represent everything wrong with Hollywood in the modern era. That's one reason I'm so glad I waited all these years to see Titanic: I had the pleasure of seeing it for the first time having already made peace with its obvious flaws.
Another reason is that I'm old enough now (by most accounts) to appreciate some of the more grown-up touches I probably couldn't have as an eight-year-old kid. Back then, I couldn't have admired the class-defying act of cultural rebellion in Rose's barefoot Irish dance; I would have completely missed the fact that the "No, the Chippewa Falls Dawsons, actually" exchange is a tiny, droll comment on the brittle self-importance of the American aristocracy.
And I'm glad I waited until I was old enough to recognize that what propels Titanic's doomed romance is the restless energy of adolescence—a phenomenon I only recognize and empathize with now that I've lived it. Titanic may be a gaudy, larger-than-life disaster movie, but what binds it all together so effectively is a sad, sweet tale about two good-hearted college-age kids, whose sole sexual encounter literally starts with some clumsy second-base gropage in the back seat of a car. I'm glad I waited to see Titanic at an age when I could finally appreciate the tasteful subtlety of that single clammy hand on a foggy window. An age when I was old enough to know that Rose's storied boobs are a thing to behold reverently, not squirm or snicker at—or worse, have blocked from your vision by your mom's hand.
Yes, some of the dialogue is silly and wooden. Yes, it's too long and too heavy-handed and too frustrating (now I totally get the "That door was big enough for two people!" meme). But despite its flaws, Titanic certainly did make me feel. I found myself beaming all the way through the dizzying Irish dance party below deck; I shielded my eyes and braced myself for blood just before Rose frees Jack from his handcuffs with that one miraculous, haphazard whack of the axe. And when it was all over, I let the credits roll all the way through the ridiculous Celine Dion power ballad I used to love when I was a kid. Afterward, still curled up and sad and kind of exhausted, I even debated playing the song over again.
Maybe when I revisit Titanic someday, I'll feel differently. Perhaps the second time I watch those screaming passengers slide off the deck of a sinking cruise liner into the icy Atlantic, I'll feel a little more jaded and make some disapproving remark about the outdated special effects. This first time, though, despite my best intentions, I found myself tense all over, my knees drawn up to my chin on the couch, hoping against history that the ship would somehow miraculously right itself and sail home.
Back when I was eight, pretty much every dramatic movie I watched got me worked up like this. So if I'd seen it as an eight-year-old, Titanic would have become inextricably linked in my memory with other films I found good-but-kinda-sad-and-scary at the time—like Armageddon and The Lion King. But now that I'm a little older and I've seen a few more movies, visceral and outward reactions aren't so easy come by anymore. Now I know that when a single feature makes me grin like an idiot, chuckle despite myself, cower behind my fingers, and set aside some time afterward to wallow in overwhelming bummed-out-ness, like Titanic did, it's a truly special piece of cinema.