Titanic retro review: does James Cameron's movie hold up?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic (Image credit: 20th Century Fox/AJ Pics/Alamy Stock Photo)

If money talks, then James Cameron may be the most successful filmmaker of all time with three movies currently in the top four of the highest grossing movies ever. Currently at No. 3 on that list is Titanic, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in December 2022 and continues to add to its total with the occasional theatrical re-release; including one on February 10, 2023, to celebrate its 25th birthday.

While audiences continue to throw money at Cameron's movies whenever they come out, there is a feeling that the shine has worn off a bit on his most recent projects (relatively recent, as he’s made three movies in a 25-year span). It's too early to tell if that'll be the case with Avatar: The Way of Water, but it certainly seemed so with the original Avatar (fan's complaints about "unobtanium" and the movie's striking resemblance to Fern Gully often the biggest critiques).

Titanic has not been immune from this, but as the movie has reached its silver anniversary, we're taking a look at whether or not Cameron's epic love story holds up today with a What to Watch retro review.

What is Titanic about?

SPOILER alert, I guess, for this 25-year-old movie. Titanic starts in the modern day, as a salvaging expedition led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) explores the wreckage of the Titanic on the ocean floor in search of one particular item, a diamond called The Heart of the Ocean. In his search, he's put in contact with an elderly woman, Rose (Gloria Stuart), who claims to have been on the Titanic and can help him find the diamond.

Rose recounts her experience on the Titanic, shown in flashbacks with the young, aristocratic Rose played by Kate Winslet. Young Rose falls in love with a poor artist, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). When Titanic inevitably strikes the iceberg and begins to sink, Rose and Jack must do everything they can to survive. They manage to not go do with the ship, but are stranded in the ocean. Ultimately, Jack freezes but Rose is rescued, promising to live her life to the fullest.

After telling her story and when alone, the elderly Rose reveals she has had the diamond all these years. But rather than give it to Lovett, she tosses it into the ocean to rest with Titanic. Later that night, Rose dies (though it's possibly she's just dreaming, up to interpretation) and is reunited with Jack in the afterlife.

The legacy of Titanic

When Titanic came out, it quickly became the biggest movie in the world. In its initial run, it made $600 million in the US and $1.8 billion worldwide, which made it the highest-grossing movie of all-time both in the US and at the global box office, titles it would hold until Avatar in 2009. Currently, Titanic has amassed $2.194 billion with subsequent re-releases. So basically, everyone and their mother saw this movie.

In addition to its record-setting box office, Titanic was also an awards darling. The movie won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Song for "My Heart Will Go On," sung by Celine Dion, which was a sensation itself. The movie's 11 wins is tied for the most of any movie ever. While not an award per se, Titanic was included as part of the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies of All Time list in 2007, coming in at No. 83.

As far as critical reception, the movie is "Certified Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 88%. The site's audience rating is also "Fresh," though at 69%, it is a bit lower. 

A number of the complaints of the movie are summarized in this take from Paste Magazine's site — namely the script, structural flaws and lack of depth. There has also been the ongoing argument from fans on whether DiCaprio's Jack needed to die or if Rose could have moved over a bit and gotten their happy ever after (James Cameron even scientifically tested it in 2022 to finally give fans an answer). But then you have some who years later are coming around the other way — that Titanic is a triumph of "popular art." 

Titanic's most iconic moment

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet embrace as boat sinks in Titanic

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic (Image credit: 20th Century Fox/Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

There are a handful of moments that fans of Titanic can instantly recall — Jack's "king of the world" moment; Jack drawing Rose or their subsequent love scene; and of course we've already talked about Jack’s death. If we had to boil it down into a single image, it would probably be Jack and Rose's kiss at sunset. However, we're going to cheat a little bit here and say it's the actual sinking sequence that makes up the last hour of the movie.

Quick personal anecdote: I was 7 years old when Titanic was released in theaters, so I didn't see it until it was available on VHS. With it being so long, the VHS package featured two tapes, the first having everything that leads up to Titanic hitting the iceberg and the second the ship's sinking. For years if anyone would watch the movie at my house I'd just join them when they got to cassette two.

But it's impossible to deny the spectacle that Cameron pulled off with the sinking sequence. The sheer scale is incredible, while also fitting in powerful and memorable character moments. To this day, it's nearly impossible to look away when Titanic plays on TV and the ship is starting to sink.

Does James Cameron's Titanic hold up? 

Does Titanic still enthrall like it did on first watch? We have to say yes. Sure, you can identify some clunky dialogue and the whole thing leans more melodrama, but DiCaprio and Winslet are phenomenal and are able to keep viewers engaged with their characters' stories. Cameron, for his part, made an impeccable movie that even a quarter of a century later looks incredible.

If you're looking for nuanced storytelling and themes, Cameron probably isn't your guy; it's never really been his strongest aspect as a filmmaker. But there are few filmmakers who do spectacle like him. Knowing that, allowing yourself to be swept into the romance and thrills of Titanic makes the movie a joy to watch to this day.

Titanic is re-releasing in US movie theaters on February 10. It is also available to rent via video on-demand.

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Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.