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25 Years Later, ‘Titanic’ Is a Cinematic Treasure All the Boys Should Watch

I spent my youth avoiding the James Cameron epic thinking it was chick-flick dribble. Little did I know what kind of dude-bro darkness and destruction awaited me when I finally watched it as a 30-year-old

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

Titanic might be the first movie I remember other people talking about, and even then, I knew I was supposed to think that it sucked. I was born in 1991, which means I was six when James Cameron morphed from a grimy, genre-flick auteur to… well, the guy who directed Titanic. It speaks to the eternal, GOAT-level charm of Leonardo DiCaprio — particularly when he was young, naive and not yet weathered by decades spent living the Grim Men’s Lifestyle — that my prepubescent peers were vulnerable to the love affair of Jack and Rose. This was first grade, man. I had several more jejune phases to churn through (Pokemon cards, skateboarding, Stone Cold Steve Austin) before I started to seriously consider the opposite sex. And yet, with a greasy blond fringe and a few ladlefuls of doomy melodrama, all of us grew up way too fast.

For the last 25 years, I’ve avoided Titanic, first actively and then passively. If you’re a man who grew up on the Boy Internet, which is to say you spent a lot of time trawling through edgy IGN forums and The Best Page in the Universe, you likely centered your whole nascent political identity around a strong, anti-DiCaprio ethos. (This culture war carried over into the Lord of the Rings, where aggrieved, proto-gamergaters believed that the hunky Legolas represented stolen valor.) This might seem alien to any of the Zoomers in our midst, but Titanic was a ridiculously singular cultural event — akin to an Avengers movie, but severed from any overarching metacanon. It was the sort of thing you needed to pick a side on, even if you were a kid in elementary school who previously only picked sides on whether to get white milk or chocolate milk at lunch hour. The romance, the tragedy, the $200 million budget, the slatherings of Celine Dion — the film both dominated the box office and was uniquely vulnerable to Tonight Show jeers. Nothing has come close since, regardless of how many Avatar sequels Cameron intends to make.

Obviously, I’ve softened since my cantankerous juvenility, because it’s incredibly unhealthy to bring the ill-defined biases of reckless, KoRnpilled youth into adulthood. I paid to see A Star Is Born on the day it came out, so nobody could accuse me of exclusively watching movies that air on TNT. But in my old age (read: 30), I’ve developed a whole new slate of more reasonable intolerances, like, for instance, an instinctual hesitancy to watch a three-hour movie about a boat.

All of that changed last night, however. To finally fill a void lingering in my pop-culture palette, I happily signed up for a 30-day Showtime free trial and streamed Titanic into my living room. Within minutes, it became clear that I’ve been living a lie for my entire life. It brings me no pleasure to report that this movie is actually pretty good.

I could spend some time here telling you that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have incredible chemistry, and I was an idiot for dismissing their love story out-of-hand when I was playing Goldeneye with my fellow tweens. But whatever, you already knew that, that’s what I was supposed to be doing. Two years after the film’s release, a tide of unfettered Masculine Malcontents torched Woodstock ‘99 — this is what we were dealing with, and Titanic remains fundamentally at odds with the feral id of that troubling nu-metal generation. (Maybe that was the point, and we don’t give Cameron enough credit!) 

Since then, I like to think I’ve developed a pretty healthy appetite for fiction as a straight cis man — one of my favorite moviegoing memories of all time occurred when me and a bro settled into a Little Women screening together — and as such, I’m far better equipped to enjoy the joys of the indulgent period excesses of Titanic. Specifically, I couldn’t get enough of the rhapsodic foppishness deployed by Billy Zane as Rose’s icy, psychopathic fiance Cal Hockley. He adopts a British accent so laughably aristocratic it’s like he’s speaking through a mouthful of cotton balls. If Titanic was released in 2022’s movie-making environment, I would’ve demanded a spinoff series about the entire Hockley clan. This is a film that needs to make sure the viewer is, at least, somewhat okay with witnessing a mass loss of human life. It picks its victims well.

But what I’m really here to report is that I think I would’ve thoroughly adored Titanic if I saw it as a kid, and I’m actually a little bit angry that I was told otherwise. The romance is irrelevant — I would’ve reveled in it privately, in the deepest core of my formative being — while calling it “lame” and “dumb” to anyone who asked. But man, the back half of this film contains one of the darkest disaster arcs that’s ever been laid to tape. Years ago, a college professor told me that Titanic was an unusually high-concept film because all of the Dads and Boyfriends (DAFs) in the theater endure the gooey parlor drama and are rewarded with a passenger liner seizing up and keeling over for, like, 120 minutes straight. It was better than I could’ve ever expected. This is a film that ends with a graveyard of frozen blue bloods floating lifelessly in the subzero North Atlantic. That’s imagery that belongs on the most vicious black-metal record sleeve imaginable. And somehow I was indoctrinated with the thought that Titanic was for girls?

I could go on. There’s that hapless dude who jumps from the bow of the ship, and collides with a massive bronze propellor, sending him ass-over-shoulders at a terminal velocity into the frigid depths below. It’s a Tom & Jerry gag in the middle of this epic romance. What about the useless captain — responsible for a world-renowned fuck-up — who lingers in the cockpit until the relentless pressure of the ocean breaching through the windows swallows him whole? What about the cop who just blows his brains out in front of everyone? Best of all is the string quartet, who have perhaps the greatest B-plot in cinematic history. They keep playing to the bitter end, which is the exact sort of churlish, spit-in-the-face-of-danger attitude that resonated with me when my film catalog consisted primarily of the action movies I found in the $5 bin at Target. No film has been more unfairly maligned by the sort of men who grew up to be dedicated Joe Rogan listeners. I am thrilled to be free of their stock.

I’m curious to know what the 2022 version of Titanic is, and if a new batch of oafish, incurious uber-bros are marshaling an impressionable coterie of young men against it. I mean, we do live in a world where a huge contingent of Star Wars fans hate The Last Jedi, despite the fact that The Last Jedi contains the coolest lightsaber duel in the franchise. To think there are a bunch of 14-year-olds out there who boycotted the film because Kelly Marie Tran has a prominent role, god. 

Maybe that’s the enduring lesson I’ll take from Titanic. I used to believe that the polarities about wokeness in our culture was a fairly recent development — birthed out of the early 2010s, and coming full bloom with the Trump presidency. But I was wrong. In 1997, I was propagandized to believe I wouldn’t like a movie where a steamship splits apart in midair thanks to some of the most exhausting Adam Corolla-types imaginable. I encourage you to revisit the many anathemas of your youth and discover what you were lied about, too.