When it was released 25 years ago, James Cameron’s Titanic was enormous. It made stars of its two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Reviews overwhelmingly heaped praise not only on the technical aspects of the film but also the acting and storyline.
In 1997, Titanic was, in the oft-quoted line from the film, “king of the world!”
At the time we were all swept up in the romantic tale of Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater, the star-crossed lovers whose infatuation on the doomed ship ended when Jack made the ultimate sacrifice, freezing in the icy Atlantic to save his truly beloved.
But over the years, critics and audiences alike have re-examined the film and found, like the ship itself, it is a bit of a wreck.
When it was originally released, a small number of critics deeply disliked Titanic.
Today, more and more people are re-evaluating their originally positive response to the film and are changing their opinions. From the characters, to the story, to the ending, there are a number of issues with Titanic that appear questionable at best, and deeply unsettling at worst.
It’s even gone far enough that some critics are calling it the worst film ever made – but that may be taking it too far.
An unhealthy obsession
At the beginning of the film, we find upper-class Rose being forced into marriage with “Cal” Hockley by her widowed mother, Ruth, to save the family fortune and keep their status in society. So unhappy with her situation, Rose decides to jump from the ship. She is rescued by the penniless drifter, Jack.
So begins the plot of the film as the pair constantly run and hide from the authorities to be together.
Jack’s relentless pursuit of Rose around the ship is obsessive. We learn virtually nothing about the character of Jack Dawson apart from him being a poor orphaned artist, he wants Rose, and he will do anything to have her – even though they’ve only known each other for a few days.
Is this a healthy relationship?
Rose is only 17 years old and possibly too inexperienced to identify a stalker or manipulator. Influenced by Jack’s charm, Rose turns against her mother, fiancé and pretty much everyone else in her life. And how could she not? On board the Titanic, almost every wealthy and upper-class person is portrayed as a villain while the people in third class, or steerage, are shown as a salt-of-the-earth, decent and virtuous. Rose’s fiancé is at every turn just a mean, callous man who cares nothing for Rose or for anyone but himself.
Even when the ship is sinking, the officers on board discriminate against the steerage passengers, ensuring only the well-to-do board the lifeboats – just one of the many historical inaccuracies.
All of the upper-class characters we meet on Titanic get little screen time, apart from when they are being desultory, cruel or malicious. They appear two-dimensional, lacking meaningful emotions.
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One of the main themes of the film, that true love goes on beyond death, also appears overly sentimental and simplistic in modern times. We understand young teens often lack maturity in relationships and often mistake lust or infatuation for love.
Would Jack and Rose’s relationship have lasted if Jack had survived? He was broke with no visible means of support. She was 17. Their love affair is a fantasy of no responsibility while on board the ship. Where would it have gone in the real world?
This directs us to another issue. Rose survives the sinking and goes on to marry another man and have a family with children and grandchildren. However, when Rose dies at the end of the film her “spirit” descends to the wreck of the ship where she is reunited with the “love of her life” Jack.
Surely this is a slap in the face to her deceased husband and family. She lived her entire life with these people, yet the film ends up with Rose in the afterlife with someone she knew for a few days.
Filled with holes
Often, critiquing films with modern sensibilities can be unfair. However, Titanic includes a fair number of issues that, even considered with the social mores of the time in which it was made, appear problematic.
This does not take away from the enjoyment many people have gained from the film over the years, and its technical brilliance. But it does give increased weight to the critics who spoke against the film in 1997.
Like the ship itself, the film Titanic is a relic of a different time. Revisiting it can make you wonder why you never noticed the holes in it in the first place.
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