Hollywood can keep churning out movies month after month, year after year, but it’s unlikely another cultural phenomenon like James Cameron’s “Titanic” will ever happen again.
There are many reasons to blame for this beyond the fact that the three hour and 30-minute drama revolves around a heterosexual white couple. It would be impossible to explain to teens today just how much “Titanic” captivated the nation’s attention for months.
Whether they loved it or intentionally avoided “Titanic” for being so popular, everyone knew about the moment Rose croaked, “I’ll never let go, Jack. I’ll never let go,” just before watching her young love sink into the icy abyss.
I was 13 years-old when “Titanic” came out and am only slightly ashamed to admit that I saw it seven times in theaters and cried through every single showing. I was so obsessed with the story of the poor young artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) falling in love with first-class passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) that a classmate actually wrote in my yearbook that spring, “The boat sank. Get over it.”
I wasn’t the only one swooning. Though it had a bit of a slow start at the box office, “Titanic” remained the number-one movie in America for 15 consecutive weeks and earned over $2.2 billion. None of this was guaranteed; in fact, some critics feared the overly ambitious, over-budget film would sink faster than the ship it was based upon. It could have been a colossal failure just as easily as it was a success.
In the end, “Titanic” was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won 11, including awards for Best Picture and Best Director. The film managed to impress audiences as much as critics for several reasons that would be almost impossible by today’s standards.
First and foremost is society’s extreme lack of attention span. Movie hype today won’t ever reach “Titanic” heights because people are constantly seeking the next big thing, which leads to movie studios cycling through sequel after sequel to constantly have something new to share. Superhero franchises have the best chance for success with the current model.
Audiences are likely to latch onto the hot movie of the moment, but the concept of that production remaining at the top of the charts for four solid months is almost inconceivable. Also, would audiences even sit through a movie that was more than three hours long?
Another thing “Titanic” had going for it was widespread appeal that just doesn’t exist anymore. There were definitely teenage girls like me who already had posters of Leonardo DiCaprio hanging on their walls before the movie came out and could therefore be expected to buy tickets for multiple showings just to see him on screen.
But Cameron’s epic historical drama held appeal for a much bigger audience, including history enthusiasts who were fascinated with the real-life sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and moviegoers who appreciated big-budget productions which benefited from surround sound and giant screen.
In the ’90s, people were less likely to have state-of-the-art theaters in their basements and would therefore be drawn to movie theaters to see a blockbuster like “Titanic.” In present day, theater attendance started dwindling before the COVID pandemic and has yet to recover from closures that dragged on for months in its wake. A Gallup poll from last year found that Americans watched an average of 1.4 movies in a movie theater, while a record number of people (61%) didn’t go to the movies in a theater once.
At least one publication credited “Titanic’s” popularity with the rise of hater culture due to the number of people who despised it purely based on its popularity. They called Cameron’s film overhyped and overdone, cheesy and performative.
In many ways, they hated the hype surrounding the movie more than the actual film – which they swore they’d never watch – and pegged it as proof of how gullible people would always just follow a crowd.
Today’s backlash would be very different. In no time, critics would note how the ill-fated ship didn’t feature a single person of color despite the fact that the real Titanic only had one black passenger. Mainstream outlets would further complain about Jack, a straight white male, falling in love with Rose, who is also straight and white. They’d lambast Cameron for failing to meet LGBTQ representation quotas and accuse him of being a blatant transphobe, homophobe, and possibly racist.
“Titanic” wasn’t perfect. But the narrative did focus on the concept of sacrificial love, which is no longer a popular concept. While modern cultural institutions promote self-satisfaction at any cost, the world of “Titanic” at its core featured a man who would give his life for a woman. The main villain in the movie was Rose’s intended fiance, Caledon “Cal” Hockley, who pretends to be a father so he can secure passage on a lifeboat that was meant for women and children first.
Possibly the saddest thing about “Titanic” reaching the milestone of 25 years is realizing how much the world has changed for the worse since the day it premiered. In a world where it’s no longer cool to be impressed by anything, this historical drama managed to defy expectations and convey feelings of awe, sorrow, joy, sacrifice, love, and redemption. The boat sank, but maybe we’ll never get over it.