Most of us remember the pre-Titanic buzz during the spring and summer of ’97 — Jim Cameron‘s folly, a wipeout waiting to happen. But it ruled after it opened because it delivered something close to unique and, if you ask me, un-repeatable. Trash it all you want (and it’s an article of faith among most people I know that you must despise it), but Titanic didn’t became a worldwide megahit because it offered a highly believable depiction of a sinking luxury liner.
I’ve explained this before but I thought I’d do so again to answer those saying that Avatar might be another Titanic in terms of ticket sales. No, it almost certainly won’t be. Titanic tapped into a very primal emotional thing by expertly selling the idea that great love affairs never die in the hearts of those who’ve lived through them, and that they live, in fact, beyond death and into eternity. That’s obviously a very sentimental dream and an age-old fantasy (especially popular with supermarket-tabloid readers), the gist being that we all merge with our pasts and our memories and our loved ones at the moment of death.
So snicker and make fun if you want but it was brilliantly sold during the last 12 or so minutes of Titanic, and especially by that very last scene with old Rose (Gloria Stuart) dreaming her way into the sunken ship and coming upon all those who died when it sank, including — standing at the top of the first-class salon staircase — her young lover Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). And Stuart reverting back to her Kate Winslet self as she walks up the staircase to meet him.
Without these last 12 minutes Titanic most likely would have been a huge success, but with them it became a repeat-viewing phenomenon that just wouldn’t quit.
In terms of getting people where they lived it was probably the greatest happy ending ever devised. In part because it came out of nowhere — the ship had sunk, the story was over and the film seemed to be pretty much winding down — and because it sold an emotional moment that everyone very much wants to believe in.
I wouldn’t mind meeting up with dear ones in some afterrealm. I don’t fancy the idea of my death being equal to the experience of a vacuum cleaner that’s roaring along and sucking up dust until BRRrrrrrrr…someone pulls the plug out of the wall. Who likes the idea of “lights out” and that’s it?
Warren Beatty managed a somewhat similar thing with the ending of Heaven Can Wait. I recall his having once said that if you can persuade people to feel comforted or even serene about death, you’ve got a hit on your hands. The trick, of course, is to make a convincing case for this. Many have tried; very few have succeeded.
So get over the idea that Avatar might replicate this in some way and become as big as Titanic if not bigger. Okay, it might, but it would have to deliver an ending that moves people as much as Titanic‘s did. I just don’t think lightning strikes twice.
Cameron is a legendary filmmaker, but I don’t think he has a magical Midas touch that produces Titanic-level hits when he sets his mind to it, much less snaps his fingers. He’s obviously made super-popular, genre-altering films time and again (Terminator, Aliens, T2, The Abyss, etc.) and he’s probably looking at another hit with Avatar. But he was just lucky or open-pored enough to channel something really special when he wrote and filmed the final 12 minutes of Titanic, and that the odds are that he won’t ever quite do that again.