Most of the world got it wrong*. Titanic (1997) is not a romance. It's a disaster movie--a horrifying disaster movie. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. In fact, it's kind of an awesome thing. And really, what else could you expect from the man who wrote all three Terminator movies, Aliens, and Rambo: First Blood Part II**? Not anything less than terror and shallow character development.
First of all, let's map out why Titanic is pretty much just a disaster movie (or horror if you prefer):
1. Ironic Foreshadowing
Every disaster movie has to have some really awkward exposition detailing how safe everyone is. If it's a meteor, something about the odds of it hitting earth are very slim. If it's aliens, they're probably nice. If it's a boat, it's unsinkable. In any case, all of this quickly becomes moot as disaster becomes inevitable. Going into the movie, the audience knows what's going to happen, so these lines are always ironic. In Titanic, this works to create a facade of romance--they're now star-crossed lovers!
2. A confined place
The characters must be trapped in something in order to create tension later on. This could be anything from a house to a ship. Titanic gets bonus points for continuing to create a confined place the further the boat sinks. The more water fills the boat, the more cramped the space becomes and the more opportunity for chaos (see #6).
3. An attempt at emotional attachment to characters
Usually a girl and a guy meet at the beginning and end up hooking up in the course of the movie. In The Day After Tomorrow it was Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum (body heat cures hypothermia, you see). In Titanic, two lovers from different social classes end up really liking each other, sneaking off to spit off balconies, draw/pose for a nude drawing, and hooking up in a very fogged up car***. By the time the Titanic hits an iceberg, we have two characters to root for that we want to stay together.
4. Really bad decisions by the ones in charge
Usually, "Hey, let's ignore this problem." In this case, "Hey let's go really fast in a ship that's already lacking essential safety equipment like enough lifeboats for everyone." Of course it's the worst idea ever.
5. Huge disaster happens
Aliens start shooting people, zombies start attacking****, a boat hits an iceberg.
6. And things continue to go wrong
People start to die. Chaos breaks out. The ship starts filling with water and Jack is hand-cuffed to a pipe downstairs and no one is around to help except Rose and her horrible axing skills and then they can't get on a lifeboat together and then the boat breaks in half and then...it keeps going. Basically, horrible things happen.
In the middle of the chaos, looking sufficiently terrified.
7. Only a few survive
Usually, someone really important or likable dies in the midst of the horror. Um, SPOILER, in Titanic, Jack dies. And so do over 1,500 other people.
8. Half-assed inspirational ending
Hope in America/humanity/love is restored or something. Titanic actually subtly shows us through photographs how Rose lived a very full and adventurous life, but only after having some cheesy lines from the treasure hunter about never thinking about the people on the Titanic before. Then Old Rose throws "The Heart of the Ocean" into the ocean and presumably dies reminiscing of her lover on the RMS Titanic.
Now why did Titanic become the most successful disaster movie ever? The little extras:
1. It's based in history
--which means you can totally take it serious and add in poorly developed subtext about social class. There's more context to work with, which gives Titanic more depth.
2. Great costuming/sets
A lot research and effort(money) went into creating this world and it's very well done. Part of the reason it's such an engaging watch is because nothing looks out of place and is simply gorgeous.
3. Awesome FX
At least for 1997. Some of the CGI is pretty obvious, but overall, the effects are great. Creating a giant sinking ship is very impressive, and it was very well done in this film.
4. Spent a Bollywood amount of time on the relationship we're supposed to care about.
The first half is mostly just spent on the characters and is fairly light-hearted. We get to see more of the main couple than is usually afforded in a typical disaster/horror movie, and therefore become more attached to their destiny. Although not enough time to care too much.
5. The leads do a good job
I'll admit it, Leonardo DiCaprio is actually pretty good. I never got caught up in the Leo craze when this movie came out*****, but I can see the appeal now (suspenders anyone?). His character's only flaws are his association with prostitutes (how Rhett Butler) and his poverty. You can't get much closer to perfection. Also, Kate Winslet is, in all seriousness, radient. In basically a reprise of Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, she has enough spunk to keep the audience interested. Both of these characters are much more likable than the one-dimensional caricatures that usually reside in disaster movies.
However, I still claim this movie is not a romance. To put it simply, because it's not a character movie. It's plot driven. There's little chemistry and little development in the relationship******. The characters on their own are likable enough, but they just don't do much for each other. Almost immediately they like each other and their relationship is sweet and brief. Where's the sexual tension? It's a romance that's more told than shown because so much time is spent in setting up the all the pieces (characters, social-class, the Titanic's greatness). The interactions are perfect for setting up a young crush, but to label that as an epic romance is false. I can see calling it a coming-of-age movie since Rose grows up and escapes her family, but ultimately not enough time is spent on it to even call it that.
And that's what it comes down to. There's more time dedicated to the disaster than the actual romance itself. The relationship is still more fleshed out than in other movies of its kind, but when it comes down to it, the relationship is still shallowly explored and way too easy. In the end Titanic is still just a disaster movie. A true and therefore more believable disaster movie that does it's job well. It's filled with tension and protagonists we like, and it has a decent plot outside of the ship wreck itself. Some extra time on the setting makes this the greatest disaster flick of all time.
*$1,845,034,188 worth wrong. Although it is hard to judge a person's motivations for seeing a movie based on box office stats.
**Okay, co-wrote with the help of Sylvester Stallone's genius.
****Yes, zombies are a natural disaster.
*****Nor did I actually see the movie for the first time until about 4 years ago.
******Although not George Lucas underdeveloped. That's just hard to beat.