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Titanic at 15-years-old improved with age

Weekly Columnist

Published: Sunday, November 25, 2012

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 16:08

Blackness. Then two faint lights appear, close together... growing brighter. They resolve into two deep submersibles, free-falling toward us like express elevators. One is ahead of the other, and passes close enough to fill frame, looking like a spacecraft blazing with lights, bristling with insectile manipulators. tilting down to follow it as it descends away into the limitless blackness below. Soon they are fireflies, then stars. Then gone.”

This December marks the 15th anniversary of the theatrical release of “Titanic,” almost universally considered one of the greatest films ever made. Beginning with those opening screenplay lines, the film made an impact rarely seen before and certainly unseen since, earning its place in the collective conscience as one of the preeminent works in American culture. Reflecting a decade and a half, several aspects demonstrate how the film is one of the few to actually improve with age.

15 years’ passage helped the film’s storyline, which combined the ultimate elements of disaster, historical, and romance genres. The finished product was essentially two films combined into one, with the ship not even hitting the iceberg until approximately halfway through. A massive sinking ocean liner featuring thousands of deaths was the attraction primarily drawing people into theaters, making for stunning visuals to showcase in preview trailers. But the film also stands among the greatest love stories and works of historical fiction to ever grace the big screen.

Among films released since “Titanic”, which rank among the top 100 grossing of all time, how many even took place during the past? It depends how you tally – does the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy count as being in the past if the entire universe was fictional? – but by my count, only three did: “Dead Man’s Chest,” “Passion of the Christ,” and “Curse of the Black Pearl.” And how many would be classified as romances? By my count, zero.

15 years’ passage saw the two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, become arguably the biggest stars of their generation. Both were sensational in “Titanic,” but since then DiCaprio has been nominated for six Golden Globes and two Oscars while Winslet has been nominated for seven Golden Globes and four Oscars. DiCaprio’s blockbuster “Inception” in particular is already generally considered one of the modern era classics. By contrast, some of the biggest hit films ever made did not produce a single future star.

15 years’ passage held up the film’s production values and special effects. “Titanic” is perhaps the first film whose special effects truly hold up today. Even slightly earlier ‘90s films like “Jurassic Park” and “Toy Story” seem slightly unnatural and jerky by modern standards. Perhaps it was because of the film’s record budget: only one film since cost more in inflation-adjusted dollars to produce, 2007’s “At World’s End.”

Speaking of which, 15 years’ passage validates its tremendous box office statistics. “Titanic” is the fifth highest grossing film ever, behind only 1939’s “Gone with the Wind,” 1977’s “Star Wars,” 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” and 1982’s “E.T.” Although impossible to know at the time, almost immediately after the film’s release came the virtually unstoppable decline of the film industry. The December 1997 release earned almost all its revenue during calendar year 1998, and since 1998 only one year saw more movie theater tickets sold per capita. (That one year was 2002, led by blockbusters “Spider-Man,” “The Two Towers,” and “Attack of the Clones.”) Current downward trends predict such ticket sales will probably never happen again.

Some argue that one film did replicate the “Titanic” success: “Avatar,” James Cameron’s only written and directed film since. True, it is the highest grossing movie since “Titanic,” but it still sold approximately 29% fewer tickets. Unlike DiCaprio or Winslet, lead actor Sam Worthington hardly became a household name, was nominated for no major awards, and since only made one movie considered a big success, “Clash of the Titans.” Everybody knows Jack and Rose, but can you name the two main “Avatar” characters? Everybody knows “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme song which reached number-one on the Billboard charts, but can you hum the “Avatar” theme? Everybody knows “I’m king of the world!” but can you quote an iconic “Avatar” line?
“Titanic” not only stood the test of time, but was enhanced by time – demonstrated last April when the 3D rerelease became the second-highest such rerelease, behind only “The Lion King.” As Winslet’s famous line near the film’s end goes, “I won’t let go. I promise.” When it comes to “Titanic,” the world feels the same way. 

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