‘Titanic’ 25th Anniversary Shows Why It Mattered So Much

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It’s been 84 years. It’s been 25 years.

I’m very excited for whatever those blue people who have sex with their ponytails are doing when Avatar: Way of the Water comes out this weekend. (I’m not being sarcastic. I can’t wait to spend $43 dollars to watch the new movie at an IMAX theater in NYC.) But James Cameron will never top the masterpiece that is Titanic, which turns 25 on December 19—a fact that makes me feel as old as that couple who decided to cuddle and drown while the water rushed into the ship.

Many films are great. Few films are formative. Only one is Titanic.

It’s a movie that shaped me. It’s a movie that traumatized me. It’s a movie that made me understand what movies should be, to the point that I scream, “Now that’s a movie!” any time I see something that even approaches Titanic’s audacity and its brilliance. (Such as Michael Bay’s Ambulance.)

There are two kinds of people. The ones who remember renting Titanic at Blockbuster and it being so long that it required two VHS tapes, and there are youths.

Like Mariah Carey, I do not have an age. I am timeless. But I was the prime Titanic Mania demographic when the movie hit theaters, and remember the thrill of it.

I remember what it was like to be obsessed with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, a level of worship that, finally, made me understand religion. I have strong memories of overhearing the girls in my class bully each other because someone had gone to see it in theaters only seven times, not nine times like the most popular girl. The whistle introduction to “My Heart Will Go On” is as close as anything will get to being surgically implanted in my brain. It is almost a physiological reflex to scream, “I’m the king of the world!” each and every time I am on a boat, and I will fight anyone who rolls their eyes when I do it.

It’s a movie that is seared into milestones of my life, like a badge—or, in some cases, a scar. For example, the first time I watched it, my mother covered my eyes during the part when Rose asked Jack to sketch her “like one of his French girls.” (The second time I watched it was secretly at a friend’s house, eyes wide open. Two-and-a-half decades later, I wish it was her who was sketching him…)

Then there’s the less horny things. I cannot explain to you how disturbed I was, at my cherubic age, by certain sequences in the film. The elderly couple…I can’t even. The scene that rivals that on the scale of devastation is when the mother tucks her children into bed, knowing they’re all going to die because they’re in steerage and the water level is rising.

We were religious VH1 viewers in my family. The channel was on every morning as we got ready for the day. I don’t like to admit this, but one hopes this is a safe space: I would have to leave the room when the “My Heart Will Go On” music video aired—which it did roughly every 17 minutes—because those scenes were in a montage that played as Céline Dion sings, and it made me too sad. It would ruin my entire day if I watched it.

Different movies that people grew up with matter to them for different reasons. Beauty and the Beast made me happy. The Sandlot made me understand friendship. Sister Act made me gay. But Titanic? Yes, it was an unparalleled cinematic achievement at that time. It was so romantic. Mostly, though, I associate it with death.

Do you remember when the ship was sinking, broke in half, and the people who were at the bow started falling into the water, as if they had been pushed off a skyscraper? Remember when that one person hit the propeller on the way down and just started flipping through the air like Simone Biles? I sure do, because I’m still not over it.

On the occasion of Titanic’s 25th anniversary and the milestone making me feel as old as Rose at the end of the film, I may up my therapy sessions to twice a week. I need to talk through why it is that the movie was so specifically impactful for me; it was three hours and 14 minutes of James Cameron putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, “Young Kevin, people die.”

In fact, there was so much death that I never quite understood the film’s biggest controversy: There was room on the door for both Jack and Rose.

Jack’s death is a beautifully scripted ending to a story so operatic. “I’ll never let go, Jack” is a gorgeous encapsulation of the way a great love imprints on you, even if they leave you. Why would anyone begrudge that moment, or pettily debate the believability of the situation?

I’m not even trying to characterize myself as heroic or anything like that, but if I was in Jack’s situation, I probably would have just hung off the door like he did. It wasn’t that big of a door. It might have wobbled or sank if they both tried to teeter on it. It was probably as cold on the door with the wind blowing on you while you’re soaking wet as it was in the water. I’d have just thought, “Eh, I have a floating thing to hang onto. I’ll be fine.”

But Jack’s death never broke me in the way that it did for so many other people. It was the random passengers who were just dying—constantly!—that struck me. Kids who were drowning in their lower deck cabins. People falling off the boat and hitting debris. The ones who thought they might survive once they hit the water, but then froze or drowned. For a kid, it just seemed so random and unfair—the way that death is! We didn’t get to hear their stories. At least Jack got to have some good sex in that car and say some beautiful things to his love before he went.

It’s wild when you realize a fact like Titanic was released 25 years ago. It makes thoughts, feelings, and memories flood, like the ones I’ve just regurgitated here. You start thinking about strange things like why the biggest movie ever makes you feel weird about death. You get nostalgic for what it was like for literally everyone you knew to be aware of and care about and have opinions about the same thing. And, yes, you feel old, too.

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