Titanic hasn’t aged a day since 1997. That’s not just because it still dominates cultural discourse (that damn door), or inspires popular parodies, or just became the third highest–grossing film ever (again!), but because it still somehow feels completely revolutionary. More than ever, it's the antithesis to “modern cinema,” which relishes in self–referential storytelling and superhuman power fantasies. Titanic may be big, but it displays a reverence for human emotion—and for human lives—that you’ll never find in a superhero movie. A restored version of the film in 3D has just returned to theaters, and it amplifies the ways in which Titanic was groundbreaking in the first place. It was Hollywood’s last completely inescapable original piece of drama, and there’s a reason it still resonates.
Modern audiences seem to either love (or love to hate) Titanic, and reevaluating it is a casual pastime for the average film critic. It’s been called everything from the greatest movie of all time to a 3.5 hour commercial. When it first premiered, the popular criticism leveled against it was that it was 50% corny romance and 50% incredible disaster movie, with many critics taking umbrage at what they felt was a one–two punch of cringey dialogue and unconvincing performances. However, the second half has consistently received universal praise. Rewatching it, the difference between the teenage love story and the epic disaster film may seem jarring, but it doesn’t seem wrong.
These criticisms, while understandable, ignore the real point of Titanic: It’s a perfect melodrama, one that actively engages with the collision between its vulnerably romantic beginning and its technologically destructive ending. It’s both silly and serious, intimate and impossibly big. It’s a miracle that this film worked, and while we could compare it to every other blockbuster or mega–romance on the planet, Titanic truly does stand in a class of its own. It’s every single kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore—an enormous original studio blockbuster romance helmed by performers just becoming movie stars with ridiculously good special effects that look just as innovative today as they did yesterday, all tied together and set triumphantly at sea. This is no run–of–the–mill, rushed CGI Marvel movie. The special effects in Titanic don’t just serve as backdrops for cheaply made action figures to smash into each other; instead, they represent James Cameron’s commitment to bringing historical accuracy and emotional authenticity to the spectacles that are so commonplace to modern audiences. It’s a genuinely transformative and seismic achievement.
In one of the film's first scenes, modern–day shipwreck explorer Bill Paxton narrates his excavation of the wrecked Titanic to a camera. He’s in the middle of lamenting “the sad ruin of the great ship sitting here, where she landed at 2:30 in the morning, April 15, 1912, after her long fall from the world above,” when his assistants start laughing at him. “You're so full of shit,” one of them crows, and thus, the spell is broken. Paxton’s character is minor to the story, but he’s clearly both the stand–in for the audience and for Cameron himself. He’s a cynical treasure hunter, bored by the monotony of disaster and unaware that he’s about to have his heart broken by a love story. Titanic isn’t just the story of Jack and Rose. It’s also about us—about the capacity of cynical and overstimulated 21st century audiences to still be swept away by emotion. Titanic may actually be the greatest melodrama ever set sail.
A quick definition: A melodrama is a story with exaggerated events, characters, and narratives, all guided by pure emotion. Perhaps no film since Titanic has ever asked us to surrender completely to a story like it did, to let it just wash over us. In an era where our biggest films are snarky, self–referential, superhero movies, Titanic’s sincerity is a breath of fresh air. In what is perhaps the film’s most famous and romantic moment, Jack and Rose hold each other while standing at the bow of the ship. Jack tells Rose to close her eyes, and when she opens them, she feels like she’s flying through the waves. Backed by a glorious sunset and endless blue ocean, they kiss. Celine Dion plays. The audience gasps and swoons.
But James Cameron doesn’t just ask us to surrender to the emotional potency of the teenage love story; he also anchors it to an unimaginable human tragedy—and he does it fantastically. Upon a rewatch of this film, you’ll realize how much time we spend with ordinary passengers in the second half. Jack and Rose take a backseat to the horror of watching musicians play until their deaths, watching a mother read her children a story while the water rushes in. The captain’s death is given long moments of pathos and so is John Astor’s guilt at sneaking into a lifeboat. By submerging the intimate, perhaps corny, love story inside historical tragedy, the film gains an epic, mythological quality.
And this basic story of star–crossed lovers becomes iconic. Each character, from Rose’s maid to Rose herself, is given a space and a moment of their own. At the end, when their ghosts crowd the staircase in its iconic final scene, you feel the power of so many lives and so many deaths. The emotions are big, and the people cast long shadows.
It’s this reverence towards people—people rather than technology—that gives Titanic its spark. After Rose has finished her tale, Bill says that even after all this time chasing the grand ship, he’s never really understood the Titanic. Seeing the human cost behind the computer model and the old hunk of ship metal has moved him beyond anything else. Modern audiences are so rarely confronted by the emotional weight that powers spectacle, and special effects are rarely used to do more than dazzle. This is why Titanic resonates with modern audiences, now more than ever. There are absolutely bigger, more spectacular movies, but none that are so human. When Spiderman fights Thanos in space, the action is bloodless, the set is all computer–generated, and the status quo is always safe. Compare that to James Cameron, who literally built an ocean to submerge his vision in.
Fewer and fewer films truly transform us and the people around us. Even fewer really want to. But Titanic does. It wants to break your heart, consume your imagination, and keep you coming back for more, even 25 years later.