It was right at the opening credit sequence. That haunting footage of the various passengers embarking on the ship, with a sorrowful version of the theme playing in the background (a version that inexplicably was never been included on the soundtrack CDs back in 1997/1998) As the cheering crowds gave way to the ship's watery grave and the title unfurled on screen, I leaned over to a friend and whispered "I already love this movie". It was a symbol right there of what made Titanic great and what separated it from the likes of Pearl Harbor or The Day After Tomorrow: the film openly acknowledged that every single life lost on that ship was every bit as tragic and unfair as the eventual fates of our leads. And, as the film played over the next six months, when you asked people what part they cried at, it wasn't anything to do with Jack or Rose. It was the mother reading to her children so that they might be asleep as they drowned in her arms. It was Victor Garber setting the clock just right before the water came pouring in. It was the ship's band leaving and then returning to play it out. For those primal moments, for the brilliant first-act demonstration of exactly how the ship sank so that we understood what was happening two hours later, for James Horner's achingly powerful score, and for any number of reasons that I arguably shouldn't have to reiterate fifteen years later, Titanic is still a splendidly powerful bit of moviemaking, one of the best films of the 1990s, and one of the best pure blockbusters of our time.
I've written a lot over the last three years about 'blockbuster backlash' (HERE), whereby any movie becomes automatically uncool upon being embraced by the mainstream and/or becoming a larger-than-expected box office success. Titanic is arguably the most obvious example of this absurd phenomenon. Titanic earned rave reviews prior to release, parlayed overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth into a now-unthinkable 15-week reign atop the box office to become the world's highest-grossing film by a $800 million-margin, and won eleven Oscars, including Best Picture. Yet try convincing today's geek blogger and jaded film critic/pundit that the film was about anything other than its special effects and/or its pull on teen girls during that winter of 1998 (because any movie that appeals to women and girls is automatically inferior to a film that appeals to boys and men). Titanic was a gloriously entertaining and uncommonly powerful drama before it became the world's highest-grossing movie of all-time, so there is no reason that its astounding popularity should diminish its artistic achievements. I don't care that LA Confidential was arguably better. I don't care that the Celine Dion song "My Heart Will Go On" got overplayed to the point of self-parody. I don't care that Billy Zane is just a *touch* over-the-top. I don't care that the film doesn't have hipster-quotable dialogue, and I don't care that the film is un-apologetically melodramatic. It is blockbuster filmmaking done right, with an emphasis on character and story above spectacle, even as said spectacle is presented in both breathtaking horror and technical perfection.
James Cameron's Titanic is, warts and all, grand-scale movie-making as its supposed to be: epic in scale while intimate in scope and nearly perfect in balancing the two. It was and still remains an all-time classic. But rare is the movie that lets you know that it's going to be an all-time classic within the first ninety-seconds.