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With Valentine’s Day approaching, we are often drawn to certain classic love stories such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Casablanca” and of course the 1997 film “Titanic.” To this day, people still remember and revisit this film. The answer to why it has stayed relevant for over twenty years is in short, that despite being simple and cliché, it is a masterpiece nonetheless.
By this point everyone knows the story of “Titanic.” Rose DeWitt Bukater, played by Kate Winslet, is an aristocratic woman who would be forced to marry Cal Hockley, played by Billy Zane, against her will after they sail to America. Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a poor artistic man who wins a ticket aboard the RMS Titanic. Jack and Rose fall in love on the ship of doom with their story ending in tragedy.
Director James Cameron had quite the achievement, with his film being the biggest movie of the decade. Cameron’s passion and hard work can be seen with every painstakingly accurate set, every breathtaking shot of the ship and every charismatic actor he guided. He didn’t set out to make a film with rich character development and an engaging narrative, but rather a simple crowd pleaser and did so flawlessly. The expertly done direction gives so much life and energy to every scene, that the film is just immensely entertaining to watch.
At its core, what makes “Titanic” so effective and easy to like is its simplicity. From the characters to the plot, nothing is particularly nuanced or developed exceptionally. All the lower-class passengers are generically kind hearted and fun, while all the upper-class passengers are uptight and snooty. Cal even borders on cartoonishly evil when he tries to kill Jack and Rose.
The dialogue is more than a little cheesy. However, all this works to the film’s advantage. It taps into our basic desires to see true love conquer all obstacles, to see heroes be heroes and villains be villains. By being so well-made, fast-paced and entertaining, “Titanic” manages to make a frankly mediocre script work. The movie is about experiencing the wonder of the ship, the dread of its sinking and the thrill of a love story, and sometimes that doesn’t require exceptional writing.
The effective simplicity trickles down to the character writing as Jack and Rose accomplish what the film needs the leads to do: the rich woman who feels trapped by her wealth, status and by society’s expectations of her, contrasted with the poor man with a heart of gold. These are simple character archetypes that have been done many times before, but that’s what makes them so appealing to most people.
“Titanic” is almost a fairytale-like love story so these types of characters work perfectly as long as the audience can find them likable. DiCaprio and Winslet bring so much personality and energy to their roles, it’s just difficult not to root for them. Zane is also very enjoyable to watch as Cal, as this love story needs an antagonist who is unapologetically a villain. He’s so over-the-top and evil at times that you can tell Zane was having a blast playing the character. If the film was a grounded serious story about the tragedy of the ship sinking, then these characters would be horribly out of place and make for a broken movie.
“Titanic” truly is the archetypal film for mass appeal. It has romance, exciting action, likable characters and historically accurate sets. No matter what type of person you are, it’s hard to find nothing to like. If you leave your brain turned on, “Titanic” is not very good, and even downright dumb at times. However, the movie was made to experience the ride of the ship of dreams and doom. It’s a masterpiece because Cameron achieved everything he set out to accomplish with expert execution. That’s why it has stayed with so many people for so long, and why it’s the perfect movie for Valentine’s Day.