1912. It's a time of opportunity for Jack Dawson. A few nights ago he was sleeping under a bridge, and just look at him today! After a well-played portside card game, he ends up a passenger on a beautiful cruise liner, the ship of dreams, the Titanic. And he's taking an ocean voyage back to America.
But even that serious stroke of luck doesn't live up to what happens next: Out of the blue, he meets the girl of his dreams.
Who woulda believed it? She's definitely out of his league. He's a drift-about adventurer/part-time artist and she … well, she's Rose DeWitt Bukater, a young beauty his pals would probably call highfalutin. But Jack just calls her … perfect.
Sure, she's got a few problems—one of them being a smothering engagement to a wealthy, controlling snake named Cal Hockley. On the other hand, even though Jack would just as soon the snobby Hockley take a hike, he's glad of him. 'Cause the guy drove Rose right into his arms. Jack was at the right place at the right time and stopped Rose from doing something stupid. But that's how fate works, right? Someone steps out on a ledge, and somebody else is there to help.
And now, as he walks on the deck of this gorgeous ship—sun on his face, Rose on his arm—why, everything seems possible. When they land in America, they'll run away together. Work their way around the world, owing nothin' to nobody. This is the beginning of a whole new life for both of them. Can't you feel it? Jack's the king of the world!
(You did know that this movie is about the Titanic, right?)
At the root of Jack and Rose's relationship is the question of freedom. Rose is wealthy but so locked in to the future marriage that her mother and fiancé have devised that she feels completely without choice. The free-spirited Jack is penniless but has freedom and choice in spades. He continually tells Rose that she can have those things too—with or without him. Even in the most dire of times, when it looks like they both might perish, Jack spurs his love to fight for a life she can live richly. "You must promise me that you won't give up. No matter what happens," he tells her.
She doesn't. In her old age, we see her appear to still be pining for Jack from across the years. But the camera also pans across her life that's been captured in a series of photos, illustrating just how fully she's enjoyed the years, her family and her children.
In the midst of the shipwreck disaster, Jack and Rose both put their lives on the line for each other and for those they come across in need. The film also takes the time to point to others on the ship who face their deadly circumstances with as much bravery and love as possible: A mother calms her children with stories of family and home. An elderly couple embrace and whisper words of love. Crewmen stay below decks aiding the stragglers, even as the waters rush in. And right up to the point of the final devastation, the ship's string quartet plays comforting tunes and hymns to calm the frightened passengers.
Passengers sing a hymn during an onboard service. The musicians play "Nearer, My God, to Thee." A scared passenger is intoning "Yea, though I walk through the valley of death …" when Jack steps up behind him and snorts, "You wanna walk a little faster through that valley!?" A priest comforts passengers by reciting passages from Revelation. Long before, an overconfident man boasts that "God himself could not sink" the ship.
Elderly and frail, Rose passes away in her sleep, and we watch as her younger self walks up Titanic's once again pristine grand staircase. She's welcomed by Jack and all the other people who died.
When Jack reveals to Rose that he's a struggling artist, he shows her some of his sketches, including several female nudes that the camera studies closely. Then, as a sign of her rising independence, Rose requests that he sketch her in the same way. She walks out of her bedroom in a see-through black robe that shows her nakedness underneath. She then opens the robe, fully revealing her breasts and quite a lot of her midsection. As she reclines on a couch, posing for Jack, the camera returns repeatedly to a shot of her face and chest.
Rose's reclining nude sketch subsequently becomes a central part of the story, and we see it several times. We also see a painting of Picasso's that features abstractly rendered topless women.
Rose and Jack caress, kiss repeatedly and ultimately have sex in the backseat of a car in the ship's cargo hold. Most of this interlude takes place offscreen; we see Rose place Jack's hand on her clothed breast, saying, "Put your hands on me, Jack." The camera returns to the panting and nearly naked couple afterwards.
Class distinctions are a big part of this film. So we'll break the violence down into two classes: fisticuffs and full-on calamity.
Cal yells angrily at Rose, knocks their table over and grabs her roughly by the chin. He later viciously slaps her across the face. Cal's valet punches Jack in the stomach. Men struggle for survival by pummeling one another. Rose punches a panicked crewman, bloodying his nose.
At about 100 minutes in, the Titanic hits the iceberg we all know is approaching. And for the next 80 minutes the disaster unfolds, breaks apart, gradually rises in intensity and then sinks below the icy waters. The terror is disturbingly realistic. Violent moments find panic-stricken passengers falling from great heights. They're electrocuted, drowned or crushed by toppling smokestacks. A nervous armed guard attempting to control the crowd shoots a man, then kills himself.
When the ship's stern is thrust high into the air, its weight causes the vessel to break in two—and crash down on the folks already flailing in the water below. Once both halves of the doomed ocean liner disappear below the surface, a lone lifeboat navigates the silent sea of dead, frozen bodies bobbing in the night tide.
Crude or Profane Language
"There's no need for language, Mr. Huxley," Rose's mother tells her daughter's fiancé. And though she's absolutely correct, it seems the movie's scriptwriters paid her no mind. Dialogue here contains an f-word, a dozen s-words and a handful each of "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "b‑‑tard." God's and Jesus' names are misused more than 20 times. God's is paired with "d‑‑n" at least 10. Regional profanities include the Irish/Scottish version of the American s-word and "a‑‑," along with "b-gger," "b-llocks" and "bloody." Rose makes an obscene finger gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The wealthy folks in first class are regularly seen smoking cigars and drinking champagne, wine or brandy. And when Jack steals Rose away to a steerage-class party, the partiers there are tossing back glasses of beer and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Jack and Rose share in all of the above.
A man drinks from a hip flask, and one beer drinker gets falling-down drunk. The well-known historical figure Molly Brown tells a story of her husband once coming home "drunk as a pig."
Other Negative Elements
The big secret of Rose's family heritage is that her father passed away leaving them nothing but debt. Rose's mother uses that fact and several tons of guilt to try to force Rose into a loveless marriage that can save their family's fortunes.
Cal accuses Jack of stealing a diamond necklace after having the jewelry planted in the young man's pocket. When Rose reveals that half the people onboard are destined to die, Cal retorts, "Not the better half." He calls Rose a "whore who runs to a gutter rat." She spits back, "I'd rather be his whore than your wife!" Cal picks up a crying child and uses her as a way to claim an open spot on a lifeboat, even though the seats were intended for women and children only.
Jack and others gamble.
It cost the White Star Line $7.5 million to build the RMS Titanic. It cost Paramount Pictures $200 million to make a movie about it. It was a huge risk to launch a ship so big in 1912. It's an even bigger risk to tell its story in 1997. Scores of books and movies had already come and gone before James Cameron latched onto the idea—the idea to tell a story that everyone who buys a ticket for or purchases a video of would already know what happens at the end. And I haven't mentioned yet that the movie lasts 3 hours and 15 minutes. It took less time for the grim disaster to play out in real life.
But everything director James Cameron touches seems to turn to gold. And he made sure he packed his ship of dreams with quite a bit that's worth watching. There are enormous and fantastically elaborate set pieces that lend a broad grandeur to the adventure. A Romeo-and-Juliet romance involves a brash scruff from steerage and an upper-crust beauty who longs to escape her gilded cage. You've got cowardice and arrogance, bravery and compassion. And he wraps everything up with one of the most spectacular, protracted disaster sequences every captured on film.
Those still considering whether or not to take this fated cinematic ocean journey—for the first time or the fifth—however, should also realize that there's more to run into here than a single hull-slicing chunk of ice. Some of the death scenes are grisly. Some of the language is as icy blue as the frozen bodies floating in the water. And some of Rose's clothing choices—or lack of clothing choices—go far beyond what you'd expect in this kind of film.
What do we learn, beyond fictionalized glimpses of the real history behind Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage? That the joys of freedom surpass those of wealth. And that selfless courage is a virtue almost beyond all others. But also that impulsiveness bests discretion. And that youthful love and desire should never be checked or shortchanged.
"This is crazy; it doesn't make any sense," Jack says in the midst of his impulsive sexual romp with Rose. She responds, "I know, that's why I trust it."
That kind of philosophy, grabbed onto like a life vest and lived out with the fervor we see modeled here, is guaranteed to hit a few icebergs of its own. Which is why Rose is wrong. We can't—shouldn't—completely trust it.
A 3-D UPDATE: Titanic was a huge film to begin with—both visually and at the box office. And the three-dimensional rendering (in April 2012, exactly 100 years after the actual ship sank) of the ship's living grandeur and violent death heightens the sad story's emotional impact even further. Whether it's Jack and Rose standing on the bow, the ship's mighty pistons plunging up and down or the broken hull slipping beneath the waves, watching Cameron's cinematic take on the Titanic's tragedy in 3-D detail reinforces the film's already realistic feel.
Cameron says he felt little compulsion to reshoot any scenes for the big encore. He told Entertainment Weekly, "There is an impulse to want to revise it. But I think every film should represent the time when it was made—both the technology that was available and the state of mind of the filmmaker and the actors. I could have redone half the shots in the film and made them look better, but what's the point? Everybody's got to set their own ground rules for themselves." He did, however, make one exception, though even the most eagle-eyed Titanic fans will be hard-pressed to spot it. Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson questioned the positioning of the stars in the night sky at the moment the ship sank, and he urged Cameron to correct them. Cameron responded, "'All right, you son of a b‑‑ch, send me the right stars for the exact time, 4:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, and I'll put it in the movie.' So that's the one shot that has been changed."