Retro Review: Titanic

looks at the legacy of one of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters

Image: Paramount Pictures

Back in 1997, in Britain at least, there was an air of change around the country. Tony Blair and New Labour stormed to a landslide victory in the General Election of that year, ending 18 years of continuous Tory government; the Britpop phenomenon dominated the country’s music charts, replacing the manufactured pop that had so long reigned supreme; and a new film smashed all pre-existing box office records, grossing in excess of £69 million in the UK, a record that stood for the next 12 years. That film was Titanic.

Upon its release, the movie, famously chronicling a fictional love affair between Rose Dewitt-Bukater and Jack Dawson (played by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio respectively) on the RMS Titanic’s doomed maiden voyage, received critical acclaim, plaudits, and a barrage of awards nominations. And these nominations proved largely fruitful; Titanic won a record-equalling eleven Academy Awards, including the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for James Cameron. Box office figures around the world were in line with the figures for the UK; in excess of an unprecedented $2 billion.

Renowned US film critic Roger Ebert described the film as ‘flawlessly crafted’ and ‘spellbinding’, and the movie still has an 88% “approved fresh” rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Boxoffice magazine even went as far as to describe the film upon its 1997 release as ‘one of the most magnificent pieces of serious popular entertainment ever to emanate from Hollywood’.

However, in spite of such glittering accolades, there has been a marked and growing dissent amongst movie fans and critics alike regarding the extent of Titanic’s lauded status, and its legacy. Many have cited the script and story as weak, unbelievable, and ultimately, just more than a bit corny. Esteemed US film-maker and five-time Academy Award nominee for Best Director, Robert Altman, emphatically branded Titanic as ‘the most dreadful piece of work [he’d] ever seen in [his] life’.

Something that becomes more and more noticeable when looking into opinion and success of Titanic is the sheer immensity of discrepancies between those opinions in different countries. In particular, the response to the film here in Britain.

While, as already mentioned, Titanic achieved major box office success here, feeling towards the picture was, even in the 1990s, anything but uniform. When everywhere else was almost sycophantic in their presentation to Titanic of every award, accolade and 5-star review they could muster, reaction in Britain was somewhat more reserved. This is tellingly obvious by the film’s performance at the BAFTAs in 1998 – from ten nominations, Titanic received zero awards. UK-based movie magazine Empire also later revised their 5-star review of Cameron’s “epic disaster-romance”, bringing their rating down to 4 stars.

This, in fairness, may be explained by the evident British connection any film made about the RMS Titanic would undoubtedly have. The ship was built in Belfast, registered in Liverpool and sailed from Southampton, and its sinking claimed the lives of more British people than any other nationality. There was in Britain, maybe, a feeling that Hollywood had cynically stolen what was a majorly British disaster and turned it into a fanciful – and highly profitable – love story.

However, it seems, more and more, that as the years have passed, the backlash against Titanic and its brand of glitzy, overly-emotional Hollywood drama has grown even larger and more widespread. It has even been suggested that the film is responsible for a diminishing of respect for the Academy Awards, the Los Angeles Times staking its claim that the only reason it won so many was because of the monumental box office figures.

And yet, as a piece of cinema, Titanic remains remarkably prevalent to this day. The blockbuster is constantly screened on television in prime time slots, and its influence and impact on the cinematic world are plain to see, with a plethora of epic dramas crossed with romance flicks appearing since its 1997 release. This notably includes Cameron’s own Avatar in 2009 (incidentally replacing Titanic as the highest-grossing movie of all time).

Clearly, Titanic is a polarising film, but, in spite of its many detractors, one inextricably engrained in the cultural psyche of just about every first-world resident of planet Earth. It has, somehow, become something of a guilty pleasure for film fans, who perhaps baulk slightly at admitting their love of a movie where the prevailing memory is that of Rose promising ‘I’ll never let you go, Jack’ before letting him plunge to an icy grave at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Guilty or not, its significance cannot be denied. Empire magazine best describe Titanic’s legacy in 2010, upon reinstating their 5-star rating of the film: ‘It should be no surprise then that it became fashionable to bash James Cameron’s Titanic at approximately the same time it became clear that this was the planet’s favourite film. Ever.’

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