Don't get me wrong. It holds up as a movie, remarkably well, given that it set a standard that other Hollywood tentpoles have been trying to meet ever since. Only Cameron's own "Avatar" has topped that "Titanic" bar--at the box office at least--via premium 3-D ticket prices. But there's a reason "Titanic" stayed number one at the box office for 15 weeks (beat only by "E.T."), grossed a total $1.8 billion worldwide, and won eleven Oscars, one of only three films to reach that milestone (along with "Ben Hur" and "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King").
"Titanic" is an intimate period romance set against an epic historic disaster that viscerally shoves audiences into the dramatic events of that night, via two fictional lovers, freewheeling artist Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and corseted upper-crust Rose (Kate Winslet). And everyone who participated in making that film gave their all. It was extraordinarily difficult to complete. You can see it in the details that cram every frame, from Jack and Rose embracing on the prow of the ship and Rose frantic as she sloshes through flooded hallways to save Jack when he’s trapped in handcuffs as the freezing water rises, to the climactic rush to the lifeboats as the ship slips into the icy Atlantic.
Only exacting engineer-writer-director Cameron, now 57, could have pulled it off. He did so at an extraordinary cost to himself and his crew and the studio paying for the most expensive movie ever made. With his historic solo dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench fresh in our minds, it was Cameron who talked Fox into funding his Mir sub exploration of the real Titanic complete with robot cameras--footage that anchors the film and lends it weight and authenticity. (He talks to NPR.)
It's hard to remember that "Titanic" was supposed to be a box office dud. Back in 1997, when I was west coast editor of Premiere Magazine, we covered the movie like a blanket. Delayed and massively over-budget, the film was shaping up to be a financial disaster for Twentieth Century Fox--domestic distributor Paramount had capped its investment at $65 million, leaving its producing studio partner to front the rest of the $200 million cost.
Cameron was putting his crew, cast and 150 trained period extras (who played the extra parts throughout the movie) through their exacting paces, flooding tanks in Rosarita, Mexico with rushing water and creating dazzling computer-rigged crane shots to swoop out from a digital Titanic composited with live actors. (The reissued HarperCollins coffee table book "James Cameron's Titanic" recounts how the film was made.)
No one had ever done anything like this. Cameron, who was a partner at VFX house Digital Domain at the time, worked with visual effects supervisor Rob Legato ("Hugo") to create a digital ship plowing through digital water, with little digital moving figures on the decks. During the dramatic sequence when the ship splits in half and bodies tumble down the decks, Cameron intercut between a rocking live-action gimble and CG figures.
I was one of the first media people to see the completed movie, as Cameron showed a pristine print to several Premiere players at the LucasFilm screening room in Marin. He told us where to sit in the center of the room and I felt his eyes boring into the back of my neck during the film. We were suitably effusive afterwards---but he knew what he had.
Computer graphics have come a long way since then. But remarkably, except for one weird shot with Leo and Kate's heads superimposed on stunt bodies in a flooded corridor, the VFX hold up.