100 Years of the Titanic
A lot happened in 2012, which marked the centennial of the maiden voyage—and tragic sinking—of the RMS Titanic: the cruise ship Costa Concordia grounded off the coast of Tuscany; an Australian billionaire vowed to build a replica ship, christened Titanic II, to sail the iceberg-bedeviled route made infamous by its namesake; and James Cameron released a 3-D version of his landmark film Titanic. This map charts the ship’s cataclysmic course through culture.
Kirk Wolfinger’s documentary Titanic’s Final Moments: Missing Pieces is the latest in a long string of efforts to understand what actually happened to the famous luxury ocean liner on April 15, 1912, the day the RMS Titanic sank. The film tracks a group of committed divers as they conduct a series of expeditions in Russian submersibles in the summer of 2005. Several initial dives yield no new evidence, but in a final attempt, two large pieces of the ship’s hull are uncovered. These sections of rusted iron provide major clues about how the ship ultimately broke apart upon impact with the iceberg that led to her sinking. Using these newfound clues, the film attempts to reconstruct the ship’s mysterious final hours into a cohesive narrative of the tragedy. Sponsored by the History Channel, which also produced the film, the diving expeditions were hailed as the largest contribution to the study of how the Titanic sank since the main portion of the wreck was discovered in 1985.
No director has employed underwater footage in marquee movies as successfully as James Cameron. His first film, Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), follows vicious, man-eating fish with camerawork that fetishizes the alien underwater landscape. With this schlocky entry, Cameron landed on an evergreen cinematic device: Install humans underwater, then add a diver’s depleting oxygen tank for built-in popcorn-movie tension. Several thrillers had previously employed underwater sequences, notably the James Bond vehicle Thunderball (1965), featuring an elaborate undersea spy battle, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), which lingers on swimmers’ legs and wrenches extra scares from a deep-sea diving scene.
Cameron took underwater photography further with The Abyss (1989); some sections—ponderous, lamp-lit—feel almost documentary. But he cemented this connection between summer thrillers and documentaries with his blockbuster Titanic, part historical narrative of the ship’s doomed maiden voyage and part present-day exploration of its wreckage. For the latter, Cameron used techniques later seen in television documentaries such as Titanic’s Final Moments. Using the same cameras he developed for Titanic’s underwater sequences, Cameron went on to make deep-sea documentaries of his own: Expedition: Bismarck (2002), Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and Aliens of the Deep (2005).
James Cameron’s Titanic has been called the mother of all boat disaster films. But it continued a long tradition of shipwreck movies that began with Night and Ice (1912), also about the Titanic, which sank that year. In 1953 Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck starred in the first American film titled Titanic. And England, whence the RMS Titanic put out to sea, contributed 1958’s acclaimed A Night to Remember.
The 1970s is considered the golden age of disaster films, and the strongest evidence is arguably Ronald Neame’s Poseidon Adventure (1972). Evoking the Titanic’s story, the film follows a fictional luxury liner on her final voyage. When a tsunami thrashes the ship, all hell breaks loose—or “Hell, Upside Down,” as the tagline went. No boat movie captured the public imagination like it until Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (“The Boat,” 1981), a nail-biter about a German World War II submarine that teeters on the brink of disaster for nearly the entire three-hour film.
James Cameron’s Titanic certainly revitalized the boat disaster genre. Among the flotilla of imitators—including the star-studded miniseries Titanic (1996; clearly rushed to beat Cameron’s clock)—is Poseidon, a 2006 remake of The Poseidon Adventure, directed by Petersen.
Although they possess different instincts for dialogue, absurdist playwright Christopher Durang and titan filmmaker James Cameron have shared at least one literary insight: Simply using the title Titanic sets up a tension for audiences that must be resolved over the course of the drama. Cameron famously delays the moment of expected disaster by intercutting period sequences with modern-day discussions of the shipwreck and scenes of elaborate diving expeditions. Durang repeatedly interrupts his one-act play with sounds of iceberg-crashing catastrophe. Following each noisy occurrence, however, the captain announces that his wife was merely fooling around with a sound-effects record.
Durang’s play, first staged in 1974, follows a small, highly dysfunctional family as it dines and carps about not being seated at the captain’s table. Three female characters—who seem to be the same ridiculous woman—befriend and pester the family, especially the son, Teddy, who is eventually referred to only as Dorothy. The play closes with more disaster sounds. Hilariously, whether the ship has finally and really crashed remains ambiguous. The character of Lidia, who may or may not be the captain’s daughter, has been played by Sigourney Weaver, whom Cameron directed in Aliens (1986) and Avatar (2009).
Both playwright Christopher Durang and science-fiction author Douglas Adams, best known for the radio series and books collectively called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, have used the fraught setting of the Titanic and its impending crash as a point of departure for high comedy. In Durang’s absurd one-act play Titanic, the ship’s luxurious dining deck is the stage for issues of identity politics, sexual insanity, gender incertitude and parental dysfunction. In Adams’s interactive computer game Starship Titanic, a spacecraft crash-lands on Earth on her maiden voyage, and high jinks rife with social satire ensue. Starship Titanic, released in 1998, just a year after James Cameron’s massively successful film Titanic, features the voices and comedic stylings of Adams himself, as well as Monty Python alums John Cleese and Terry Jones. Also a writer and filmmaker, Jones adapted Starship Titanic into a novel of the same name that picks the story up as the starship heads home to the planet Blerontin.
James Cameron rereleased his blockbuster film Titanic in 2012 to coincide with the centennial of the most disastrous shipwreck of all time. As depicted in the film, the luxury ocean liner did not contain enough lifeboats for all of its 2,227 passengers, more than 1,500 of whom died in the tragedy.
Titanic was the top-grossing film in history, until it was bested by Cameron’s own Avatar (2009), which was shot entirely in 3-D. According to interviews, Cameron waited as long as he possibly could to make Avatar, watching for advances in 3-D technology. Once cameras and projectors were up to the director’s standards for 3-D photography and playback, Cameron committed himself to several 3-D productions, including two Avatar sequels. In addition he painstakingly rendered the entire length of Titanic, which was originally shot and produced in traditional 2-D, into three dimensions for its anniversary rerelease. Titanic was named best picture at the 1997 Academy Awards and also earned a directing Oscar for Cameron.