Bad Movies We Love, Oscar Week Edition: Titanic

Happy Oscar week, you third-class stowaways. Quoth the thespian Bill Paxton, "Are you ready to go back to Titanic?" The point is you're not. It's 2011 and we're still 192 years away from comprehending Titanic's world-paralyzing success, its Best Picture win, and Jack Dawson's hack drawing skills. He's just never going to get into Oberlin at that rate. You won't find explanation for James Cameron's sorcery here, but near, far, wherever you are -- you will remember and recoil at the royal badness of Titanic.


I remember watching news reports about families who took their kids to see Titanic more than 10 times. God. Why do you think they kept going back? My hypothesis: Dad loved the boobs; Mom thought the boobs were beautiful; the children couldn't believe their luck with these boobs. Grandpa leaned back and mused, "I remember boobs." I can't vouch for the other 190 minutes.


You remember all of Titanic's complicated characters, I'm sure. Here's Aladdin, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.


Street rat! Poor wise person infiltrating the upper crust! Sexy ragamuffin in neutral, well-fitted rags! He scores a ticket on the unsinkable ship's maiden voyage in a poker game.


Meet Jasmine (Kate Winslet), who is won over by Aladdin's charms. She is rich and heading to America with her morosely rich family. Her Bengal tiger's chilling in the second-class orchestra pit. Unfortunately, she's going to marry the dastardly vizier for reasons we all forget.


In a strange twist to my Agrabah metaphor, the vizier is not Jafar, but Beauty and the Beast's Gaston (Billy Zane). Mr. Zane's only 1/19 less creepy here than he was in The Roommate, which I just saw yesterday and can't believe exists.

(Pssst: The following man will be playing Jafar.)


Yes, DiCaprio's Jack Dawson, Winslet's Rose DeWitt-Bukater, and Zane's Nathan "Cal" Hockley may as well be animated characters from Disney films. They're that simplistic and expected. In fact, I often crudely refer to Titanic as "Disney on Ice." Except this time, the rescuers head so far down under that their skulls are preserved in a watery grave of patrician debris. Quip your way out of this, Bob Newhart.


Even among all the boring archetypes, the most annoying part of this movie is definitely the storytelling conceit. Bill Paxton plays a modern-day Titanic researcher and salvager who's looking for a lost jewel in the wreckage. He says important dialogue like, "Bob, we're launching. Do you see these submersibles going in the water?" He also seeks out 100-year-old Rose (Gloria Stuart) to relay her story of survival, which will hopefully give him clues to the big blue diamond called the Heart of the Ocean. Louis XVI once wore it, he says. I assume he got rid of it because it looked like a Ring Pop.


Just gorgeous. Turns out the pendant belonged to Cal, who gifted it to Rose like the Material Girl backup dancer he is. All Jack has to offer Rose is his basketball diary and River Phoenix posturing, but Rose thinks that's hotter than jewelry and ditches the rich suitor. They're star-crossed and on a big romantic Hindenburg, so you can imagine their ecstasy pangs here.

One interesting thing about Titanic is that all the memorable scenes occur within the first 90 minutes. Rose's suicide attempt at the bow of the boat, the haughty dinners, the cameos from the unsinkably pointless Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), Jack and Rose's lively jig, and the nude sketches all clock in before the third half-hour ends. It's easy to forget that a huge chunk of the movie is reserved for the disaster, which resembles an expensive water park with a fancy corpse theme.


I want to ride Buffoon Lagoon!


Of course, Titanic was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release, so sometimes it stumbles upon some startling visuals. The ship looks real. The water looks wet. The Zane looks zany. And thank God: We need that splendor to save us from the movie's legendarily terrible dialogue. Some samples:

"[Rose] is a goddamn liar seeking money or publicity!" says one skeptical Titanic researcher to Bill Paxton's character. "Like that Russian babe Anastasia!"

Excuse me, sir. Anastasia was not Disney.

"Titanic was called the ship of dreams," says 100-year-old Rose at the start of the movie. "And it was. It really was."

I prefer to think of it as the barge of nocturnal emissions, but I'm willing to compromise. The worst lines of all are saved for Winslet, who gets to pedal through this haughty gem when she first resists Jack.

"What is this stupid thing you're carrying around? (Steals Jack's portfolio of drawings.) So what are you, an artist or something? (Glimpses at drawings.) These are rather good. (Glimpses again.) They're very good, actually. (Glimpses again.) Jack, this is exquisite work."


And behold, a romance and a cinematic legacy is born. So realistic, this shift from anger to passion in a matter of moments. Like that other classic, The Room! If Rose's aesthetic judgments weren't impressive enough, her math skills will dazzle you.

"I did the sum in my head," she says to the Titanic's designer as they stroll the deck. "And with the number of lifebaots times the capacity you mentioned, forgive me, but it seems like there aren't enough for everyone aboard."

That's right, Rose conducted some lifeboat arithmetic and the solution was FORESHADOWING. Embarrassing for me, moments like these.

Finally, a spoiler alert for people born after 2005: Jack dies in the ocean at film's end while Rose, who has fled several lifeboats to be with her déclassé beau, is saved. Let's close this out with one final look at why Dad, Mom, the kids, and Grandpa remember this flick so fondly.


Ah, that's right. Even Great-Grandma recalls when backseat schtupping was spacious and sensual. Her heart went on and on and on. In fact, she lost her virginity to René Angélil. I'm positive. Don't click this.


  • Tommy Marx says:

    I have never understood why people liked this movie. James Cameron has never been the greatest at dialog, but this was by far the worst script he's written. You know it's bad when Billy Zane plays a one-dimensional character that would actually have been more complex and nuanced if they had given him a mustache to twirl. And I never understood the concept of a rich woman falling in love with an eleven-year-old boy that likes drawing boobies. And what makes it so much more disappointing for me is that many of his other movies (Avatar, True Lies, Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens) rank among my favorites.

  • Smarmy Fierstein says:

    "The Zane looks zany. "
    Classic, Louis.

  • Mike Ryan says:

    I absolutely love Titanic. There, I've said it.

  • G says:

    Hence the "BAD MOVIES WE LOVE" title. And I will love this movie until the day I release the Heart of the Ocean into the ocean and die.

  • G says:

    Also- not to squabble but "Avatar" is way worse and I don't even love it. And it probably parallels Disney movies even more.

  • Dixon Gaines says:

    I second Mike. I completely, unequivocally, unironically love this movie. I saw it three times in the theater, tears streaming down my pubescent face. He said he'd never let go, Louis!

  • Louis Virtel says:

    I'm going to re-edit this comment to include parenthetical sobs between each word. Brb.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Whatever the dialogue, Tommy -- and I don't dislike Cameron's dialogue as much as so many others seem to -- the situations the characters are in play out very real. I guess I'll take as genuine that many discerning were wholly uninvolved in the movie, owing to its stereoptypical characters and embarassing dialogue -- though I don't buy it, really -- but however one-dimensional (rigid? uncomplicated?) Billy Zane, when he slaps his wife-to-be around for making him a fool: that was real. He was beyond pissed off, and you felt it: he was a terror. I think most important, the film got at -- with the mothers' constant watch and difficult-to-rebuff moral code -- how difficult it was going to be for someone with a lot of natural spunk -- Rose -- to ever really free herself. I believed that even given how considerable she already was, without Jack, she was for-sure caught and done for life. But with her constant dialogue, interaction with him, you believed she could slowly come to free herself from a whole upbringing of duty, move beyond insufficient truculant rebellions -- like a preference for the New, like Monet -- to untether herself for good, even without the facilitation of a dislocating disaster. People could say that the reason this romance works so well for so so many people, is because they're just filling their own expectations and dreams onto what is really so thinly put before them, but for me at least, this just isn't true here. Cameron's magic isn't just in his action and exempt everywhere else; his genius owes to his really understanding what breaking free is, what romance and play is, and he wouldn't tolerate creating films where you couldn't hope to realize it some for yourself as well.
    The problem for me with Cameron is that though he clearly got somewhere really good, it certainly wasn't SO good he shouldn't have moved on a considerable some from there. I think it's false to say he's a forever adolescent, because I would cheer if adolescence actually meant even for a brief while feeling as uninhibited as he is. But still, once you yourself have made passage from being the trimmed rose to being the wild one -- and most of you blessed discerning, haven't -- you really only need revisit him now and again out of friendship, to say thank you. He's set, in a fairly good place, but further progress lies with you.

  • Rohit says:

    Wild over-reaction. Possibly arising from guilt and embarrassment, that you were on the bandwagon too. And probably cried buckets, you schmaltzy hack. Great job with the cut-and-paste dialogue. How fucking original.

  • CiscoMan says:

    I also unironically like this movie, with perhaps the exception of Winslet's description of her Picasso collection: "There's truth but no logic." Also, Zane. And Leo's cadre of international friends (The Italian! The Irishman! They won their tickets from a Swede!).
    Okay, fine, I half-ironically like this movie and half-sincerely like it. Victor Garber FTW.

  • Mike the Movie Tyke says:

    Aside from the silly love story, cartoonish characters and typically underwhelming DiCaprio performance, I did appreciate the detail. I was always fascinated by that voyage, and to see the ship and its interiors recreated so (by almost all accounts) perfectly made the story less of a grainy fable that happened long ago and more of an all-too-real nightmare. The wide shot of all those people flailing in the water after the ship goes under is heart wrenching. What a horrible way to go.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    This film, though, does deserve to be in the "great movies we however rightly mock" category, however. A service is done, by pointing out the numerous things in this film that really are problematic, that if viewers weren't onto, they're not a sufficient number of steps away from stupid.
    Most central for me is that it helps keep the truly ignorant and stalled feeling smugly enlightened. If YOU know who Freud or Monet is, this knowledge doesn't mean you're in the same position as Rose ostensibly is: she is supposed to be an early appreciater of the New, possess sufficient sense of independent judgment that she is on to quality from the start, while as someone alive now your knowledge of these folks only means you're in the same position the Edwardian mundanes were when they'd long accustomed themselves to once rabble-rousers, now ho-hums, such as Darwin or Dickens. That is, your being onto Freud or Monet could easily mean that you're really just the prosaic Cal, who actually has no appreciation for new genius, not the avant-garde Rose -- and given how the not-especially-inspiring mass went for it, probably does. The question you fairly ask yourself as you remember those who found such meaning in "Titanic" (including yourself, if you, like me, are one of them) is how many of them could pass over the film's knuckleheadedness out of fair faith to its mighty spirit, and remain those of praise-worthy, TRULY sophisticated taste? It's a question which would have you juggling around greats like Ebert and Zacharek, ultimately deciding to let one or the other -- or even both -- "fall."
    Knuckle-headedness isn't always damning, though. Sophistication isn't always a sign of elevation. The '60s generation were not sophisticated, and its elders constantly hoped to blast them back into supplicants for their untutoredness, their lack of refinement, their "stupid" discare for how things had been and "really were," but were spiritually evolved and Good. Late 20th/early 21st-century products like Franzen and Martel are hugely sophisticated, smart, aware, but maybe in the end mostly deferent and perhaps warped -- not so good.

  • Louis Virtel says:

    I un-ironically like this comment. Or I re-ironically like it?

  • Chickie Baby says:

    There's a reason I've referred to this flick as "The Boat Show" for so many years now: it's a show about a boat. And that's about all it was.

  • Louis Virtel says:

    We're ALL SUNK NOW... in the Boat Show.

  • Louis Virtel says:

    Oh, God, I hate Avatar. The last thing terrible dialogue should attempt is preaching.

  • Em says:

    Titanic came out when I was in second grade. I have had the poster hanging in my room ever since. I absolutely, shamelessly love this movie. Like "watch with commentary" love this movie.
    Anyone else still own the VHS 2 tape set? Fantastic.

  • Mike Ryan says:

    Yeah, I saw it three times in the theater, too. I mean, I took my grandparents to see it! And I also love it because it was, even more than Avatar, a "must see." You were looked at funny if you hadn't seen Titanic.

  • Ron Ablang says:

    I loved Titanic too. This article is not funny.

  • Trista says:

    This diatribe deserves to be in the list of worst critics ever! I know now everyone shares my sentimental love for this movie (by the way I dislike James Cameron greatly). How can you overlook the historical accuracy, the recreation of one of the most devestating and tragically uneccesary events of our history? How can you be so tainted as to not love the optimism and joyful way in which Jack lived? How can you be so untouched by the story of a woman who, until meeting her soul mate, lived in a guilded cage and could find no other way out but jumping off the back of a boat? OK - so now I am waxing poetic and perhaps a little melodramtic, but then again - I did see the movie 10 times in the theater and refuse to watch it unless they play it on a big screen - to this day. What did you expect????

  • Louis Virtel says:

    Trista, the name of this column is "Bad Movies We Love." I love this movie. But come on, "the optimism and joyful way in which Jack lived"? I can tell you why I'm so "tainted": Because he is a pretty-much flawless character, and Cal is an all-flawed character. It's not real. It's Disney. I keep being right about this Disney comparison. I win, Trista. I am your iceberg.

  • Tommy Marx says:

    Films are obviously subjective, but after finally seeing Avatar on DVD, I could understand why it was such a huge movie. The problems with the script - and yes, there were many - were far and away overwhelmed by the beauty of the planet he created, at least for me. I thought it was extraordinary.

  • Tommy Marx says:

    Trista, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Louis isn't the worst critic ever because he didn't like the movie the way you do. He's just a critic you don't agree with.
    However, I would like to remind people that how you feel about a movie is often if not always influenced by your age, the ones you saw the movie with, what you personally bring into the movie, etc. I saw an earlier movie about the Titanic when I was young, and the movie blew me away. When I saw Cameron's Titanic, I was greatly disappointed. I'd seen the earlier movie when I was very impressionable and had never heard of the Titanic. As I recall, there was a major focus on the people who sailed on the Titanic, and when it sank, it was devastating.
    Cameron's Titanic, however, was ghastly in terms of character development. I would argue that the only character that had any depth at all was Kate Winslet's. I would further argue that Cameron has always done better with creating female characters. His male characters often are cartoons, but his females are conflicted, empowered, and usually kick ass.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    True Lies

  • Kirsten says:

    I've only watched this once, and it has been a while. I will admit that I cried buckets, but it wasn't because of any emotional involvement in rose and Jack's story, it was because of the overwhelming tragedy of the event. Cameron could have completely skipped the love story, focused more on the tragedy generally, and it probably would have been a much better movie. The love story is just too cliche: rich, snobby girl engaged to horrible, rich, snobby guy, falls in love with lower-class working man who ends up dying. Really. How many times have we seen that before?