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Titanic left an indelible mark on moviegoers’ hearts in 1997. I finally get why.

The epic romance, wrapped around a disaster movie, left moviegoers swooning in 1997. And now it’s captured my heart too.

Kate Winslet and Leonardio DiCaprio in Titanic, which turns 20 on December 19.
Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, which turns 20 on December 19.
Merie Weismiller/Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In the opening sequence of Titanic, a group of treasure hunters send a robotic probe far beneath the ocean’s surface in search of treasures (and one particularly precious jewel) still tucked aboard the titular sunken ship. The camera attached to the probe reveals a vessel that’s certainly rotted but still carries hints of its prior glory. The explorers coo and sigh as they see what’s been waiting a century for them, as if they’re looking at their dreams made manifest. This is the day they’ve fantasized about, and the treasures of people who once lived and loved aboard the RMS Titanic are their bounty.

I had the vanishingly rare experience of watching the film for the first time two short weeks ago, just shy of the 20th anniversary of Titanic’s release in 1997. I was 14 when it first opened in theaters. For many of my peers, Titanic was not just a formative experience but the formative experience, a movie they watched in the theater two or 12 or 25 times and countless times on cable TV since. The poster featuring Leonardo DiCaprio hung on their bedroom wall; Jack and Rose’s romance was the teenage romance to end all teenage romances.

Bill Paxton, Suzy Amis, and Gloria Stuart in Titanic
Bill Paxton, Suzy Amis, and Gloria Stuart in Titanic.
20th Century Fox

I remember waking up to my alarm clock radio on December 19, 1997, and hearing the local morning hosts talking about the weekend’s new releases. They were convinced nobody would see Titanic, since the new James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, was also hitting theaters — and after all, as one of the hosts pointed out, everyone knows how Titanic ends.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. When the film was released, it was a gamble the size of ... well, the metaphors present themselves a bit too easily. It was a wild risk, both for filmmaker James Cameron (who was known for Aliens and his Terminator movies) and for the studios that funded it, Paramount and 20th Century Fox. Cameron’s terrible temper and a runaway production with troubles to spare — one disgruntled crew member laced the chowder at craft services with PCP one night, provoking hallucinations in 50 people, including cast member Bill Paxton — had prompted people to wonder if the legendarily expensive film was doomed for the same fate as its subject. The production budget reportedly ran over $200 million, an enormous sum by any contemporary standards that was much more so in 1997.

The movie turned out to be both a critical feat and a box office smash hit. In the New York Times, Janet Maslin declared that “this Titanic is too good to sink,” and Roger Ebert gave it four stars, writing that it was “flawlessly crafted, intelligently constructed, strongly acted and spellbinding.” While the film only barely beat Tomorrow Never Dies in ticket sales during its opening weekend, it was soon selling out theaters. By New Year’s Day, it had already made more than $120 million — a massive amount of money even now.

Titanic remained No. 1 at the North American box office for 15 weeks in a row. It was nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11 of them, including Best Picture. The movie continued playing in theaters for nearly an entire year, and didn’t close until October 1, 1998, after earning $600 million in North America and twice that worldwide. It was the highest-grossing film of all time until 2010, when Cameron’s Avatar wrested away the title.

There was one overarching reason for its massive success: Lots of people began to go see it every weekend. This audience — composed largely of teenage girls, but certainly not limited to that demographic — took in the movie upward of a dozen times, bringing friends along to share in the experience.

But on a more basic level, Titanic’s popularity had everything to do with its evolution from “blockbuster movie” to “cultural phenomenon.” It was something you simply had to see, whether you were young or old, adult or teenager.

Everyone except me, it felt like. I grew up in an exceptionally conservative slice of evangelical Christianity that eschewed mainstream culture generally and movies specifically. To my memory, the only films I saw in movie theaters growing up were Toy Story (with my grandmother), the Lord of the Rings trilogy (evangelicals love Tolkien), and The Passion of the Christ in 2004.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic
Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.
20th Century Fox

Titanic may have been a historical story, but it was also a teen romance, one that involved sex and nudity and that engaged in what some members of our community would have termed “glorifying teenage rebelliousness.” Seeing it was not an option.

Some conservative families, trying to give their kids a way to participate in pop culture, bought edited copies of Titanic on VHS from a Utah company called Sunshine Family Video (and thus kicked off decades of lawsuits over the legality of so-called “clean versions” of movies). But in many communities, the teen romance aspect was still a bridge too far, so I went 20 years without seeing the film.

I realize that I’m hardly the only person who didn’t see Titanic during its initial release, and my reasons obviously aren’t the only reasons that people didn’t see it. But at some point, after I became a film critic, I committed to saving my first Titanic experience until I could see it on the big screen, as Cameron and presumably God intended.

I missed the 3D rerelease of Titanic in 2012, timed to the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking (and the movie’s 15th anniversary). This year, I finally caught it during a one-week engagement, days before it was selected for the National Film Registry.

Reader, it blew my mind.

Titanic gets reevaluated often — but it’s in the film’s very nature to stir up emotions

Reevaluations of Titanic are a small cottage industry among film critics, who regularly write essays on how it’s the greatest movie of all time, responsible for hater culture, one of the best movies to ever win Best Picture, or “basically a 3.5 hour Zales commercial, only slightly less emotionally compelling.”

In 2002, the legendary film director Robert Altman called the movie “the most dreadful piece of work I’ve seen in my entire life,” while Ebert wrote in 1998 that its enduring power “comes not because it is a love story or a special effects triumph, but because it touches the deepest human feelings about living, dying, and being cherished.” Novelist Lorrie Moore called Rose’s struggle to find and free Jack from the bowels of the sinking ship “an athletic enactment of grace (unanticipated, unearned, as grace always is). It is love that exceeds the deserts of the beloved.”

I can’t tell you whether it’s the best or worst movie ever made. What I can tell you, risking puns, is that it swept me off my feet almost from the get-go, a grand epic romance-disaster that reminded me, in the middle of my overstuffed-with-movies life, of what we mean when we talk about the power of cinema.

Maybe that sounds cheesy; I don’t care. Titanic accomplished something that few films can pull off: It’s both silly and deadly serious, both over-the-top and rock solid. It’s a movie with space for both caricature-of-cruelty Billy Zane and a heartbreakingly simple and historically accurate thread in which a set of musicians gamely try to play music on board the ship for the panicking passengers, knowing that they too will soon meet their own fates. It has room enough for a slightly campy hand-to-window moment in a steamed-up car, a comedic routine involving a fire axe and a pair of handcuffs, and a touchingly authentic scene of sacrifice on a bit of floating wreckage in the icy Atlantic.

Yes, it’s a behemoth of a movie, with an arguably overstuffed runtime of three hours and 15 minutes. And yes, it’s possible there was enough room on that floating door for Jack too. But to me, these are minor matters. The film is either a masterpiece, or something very close.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic.
20th Century Fox

Titanic is both an intimate love story and an epic tale

Titanic is two movies stitched together: a swoony teenage fantasy for the ages, and a massive disaster movie that rivals any disaster movie to come out of Hollywood either before or since. The lengthy runtime makes perfect sense by this rubric, and you can see the seam where the movie pivots from one to the other, almost exactly at the halfway mark. That Titanic is two movies in one is part of its genius: If it were just the romance, it might have been written off as a “movie for girls,” but then there’s this whole other disaster element too. From a marketing perspective, that’s gold.

I fell hard for the romance. It’s right in line with some of the most time-honored star-crossed lover tropes that literature has ever served up. Rose is engaged to a cruel man whom she’s only marrying to save her family’s fortune, squandered by a profligate father; Jack is an artist and a free spirit who falls in love with her instantly and shows her what freedom could feel like. The film’s framing device ensures that we know the rough outlines of his fate and hers, but somehow Titanic keeps our attention regardless.

What’s compelling is the fantasy, of being loved for who you are by someone who doesn’t want anything other than to love you — someone who would rather literally die than let you experience a living death. It fulfills the human desire, as Ebert put it, to be cherished, the experience of having someone look at you as if you fill their whole field of vision and spill over the edges.

Those are good things to want and better things to experience, but as we age, time usually moderates these sorts of desires. Watching Titanic, they all come roaring back. And so who cares if the dialogue is stilted, in Cameron’s typical style, or that some of the most iconic scenes (particularly those taking place on the prow of the ship) are easy to parody? If they were subtler or more understated, they wouldn’t be fantasy. Titanic leans hard into its dreams and, for my money, succeeds. I watched it for the first time at age 34, but I felt 14 again.

Nestled into my theater seat, clutching a forgotten bag of Skittles, the pieces at last fell into place. I finally understood why my peers were so dedicated to Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s not just his looks, though boyish charm never hurt anyone (he was 22 when he shot the film, and Kate Winslet was 21). Watching him act is pure pleasure: He’s natural and unaffected, and his grin says everything. I also understood why Titanic launched Winslet into stardom. In an over-the-top role, she was equal parts heroine, rebel, and action star all at once, and her laugh was infectious.

Finally, I understood why so many people went back again and again to see the movie. It’s big and loud. There are gorgeous dresses and soft-focus moments and a below-deck dance party I never really wanted to stop. There’s tragedy and there’s comedy and there’s drama and despair, and everything looks so phenomenally, exorbitantly epic — in the realest sense of the word — that watching it feels like living through something, like having the pieces of your emotional furniture get pushed around.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic.
20th Century Fox

Titanic’s scope is so much larger than life that it breaks down even the most jaded adult’s emotional barriers and insists that you remember what it was like to be young, and in love, and sure that the future was boundless. But it also illustrates — in more intense circumstances than nearly any of us will ever experience — the way that fate cramps and cuts off our dearest dreams, and then sometimes makes ways for new ones.

That’s why the disaster, and its historical significance — the “everybody knows what happened” part that I heard radio hosts talk about in 1997 — is to the film’s benefit. Everybody knows what happened to the RMS Titanic. Rose and Jack’s love is already headed for the water when it starts, and though they don’t know it, we do. That adds a layer of wistfulness and poignancy right from the start.

But I was still startled by the crackling yet comprehensible energy of the shift from romance to disaster movie. Titanic faced the unenviable task of suddenly widening its lens from a pair of teenagers to take in thousands of people facing death, and managed to do it with remarkable humanity while also hammering in some truly heart-stopping set pieces.

And I had one last reaction to the film that I never expected. At the start of the movie, when the underwater scope is traversing the sunken ship looking for treasure, we can’t help but notice the flashes of what sailing on the Titanic stood for, an experience that was extraordinarily significant to the people who lived it even if it ended in ruin. The ship was real, after all, even if Cameron’s film doesn’t stick to all the facts. And real people sailed on it, lived those lives, felt those feelings, and died for very little reason at all.

I found myself thinking about everyone who saw the film in its initial release, my peers and my friends for whom it served as part of their mental and emotional framing of the world. There are times when I’m relieved to have avoided some of the worst parts of pop culture as a teenager, but there are others when I recognize the effect that cloistering had, one that involved being starved of stories that could make sense of the emotions I felt swirling around inside me. I sometimes wonder if some pieces of me ended up locked in a safe, like Rose’s iconic necklace, with no way to escape. I never sat in a theater and wept over love and death as a teenager, years before I’d have to confront those feelings for real.

Sure, it would be easy to mock Titanic now, two decades after its release. But it felt real and life-giving not just to experience the film on its own terms, but to remember what it was to be 14 again, and to revisit some mental spaces I’d counted as long sunk beneath the surface of my memory. I was happy to be sitting there, letting it all wash over me, recalling what a movie can mean and do and be. Twenty years on, Titanic means many things to many people. But for me, it was a gut-level reminder that a little bit of foolishness and a lot of letting go could recover parts of myself that were never really left in the past.