To the great surprise of the film industry, the most expensive film of all time is on its way to making a profit—even though everyone already knows how the story ends.
Audiences are flocking to see Titanic, a three-and-a-quarter hour epic that cost $200 million to make. Film critic Michael Medved calls the special effects and cinematography “poetic and breathtaking.” But the film is much more than mere entertainment. The events on board the sinking ship force the audience to ponder deeply moral questions: the meaning of heroism, sacrifice, and life after death.
Titanic’s director and screenwriter, James Cameron, transports filmgoers back to 1912, the year the RMS Titanic was built. The events on that ill-fated maiden voyage are viewed through the eyes of a socialite named Rose and a starving artist named Jack. As the ship steams inexorably towards a rendezvous with the deadly iceberg, we see how a combination of pride, arrogance, and folly led to the definitive disaster of the twentieth century.
For example, we see an executive for the steamship line ordering the captain to speed up against the captain’s better judgment because he wants to arrive in New York a day early and generate more publicity. After disaster strikes, we see a rich man bribing a crew member to let him board a lifeboat intended for women and children.
THE AUDIENCE IS FORCED TO PONDER DEEPLY MORAL QUESTIONS.
But we also see great acts of heroism. We see passengers sacrificing their lives to save others. The ship’s musicians continue playing in order to keep the passengers calm—even as the ship sinks into the cold waters of the Atlantic. When the musicians realize they are about to die, they begin playing “Nearer My God To Thee.”
The key to the success of Titanic is the director’s use of narrative. People are drawn to stories that help them make sense out of their lives and the world around them.
As cultural critic Neil Postman writes, a narrative is a story that tells us where we came from and where we’re going. The need for story is especially acute, Postman says, in cultures where there is no shared myth—no accepted story that describes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and gives a sense of continuity and purpose. Without such a story, Postman concludes, people despair because they find themselves alone in a chaotic universe.
Historically, the Bible provided a narrative for our culture. But for many Americans, that’s no longer true. But that doesn’t mean people have stopped searching for a narrative to provide a basis for values, conduct, and purpose.
That’s one big reason people are flooding theaters to see Titanic. And it’s why, in an age of MTV-sized attention spans, moviegoers have been won over by a morally serious film that runs more than three hours.
Titanic is rated PG-13 for nudity, a good deal of profanity, and one fairly mild sex scene. In addition, the film’s intensity makes it unsuitable for children.
For all of these reasons, I can’t recommend this film. But if you decide to go see what’s being called the film event of the year, it just might become the occasion for a serious moral discussion in your family or with your neighbors.
The film just may lead them to the one true narrative—the one from which all truth comes, and in whom there is all hope. After all, as far as this world is concerned, we’re all on the Titanic.