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Titanic: the sinking of the epic genre?

7th July 2021

Dave looks into the historic genre of the epic and why Titanic was a turning point in saying goodbye to this staple genre of filmmaking

What is the difference between a big movie, and an epic one? While one might think of a big music concert, or action extravaganza like Mad Max Fury Road (2015) as “epic”, its origins as a word to describe staples of big Hollywood pictures goes further back than one might think…

Typically the epic is a big story with emblematic characters caught in a treacherous world that is laced with history, romance, and fantasy. Whether it be ancient history, modern warfare, or a period drama, the epic genre usually gives us a story with huge scope, big set pieces, and a huge cast of characters.


The epic’s tendency to take on big stories in mythology or history means they must be grand in nature to mimic the world-changing event they want to depict.


Because of this many of our storytelling tropes change or get completely thrown out the window as they are forced to morph into something altogether different from what we are used to.


In many ways, epic films are a power move by Hollywood and studios of the world to showcase the best of their craftsmanship and talent. The genre was even more prominent before the use of computer-generated imagery as large sets and sequences were largely created physically, giving the films a bolder and more iconic look.


In the past countries like China have used their rich history and culture to make visually striking epics such as Hero (2002), House of the Flying Daggers (2004), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), the likes of which all emboldened the trend of historic epics in the early 2000s. 


Around the world adaptations of moments in history have also influenced English and foreign language films such as the German World War Two epic - Das Boot (1981), France’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), and the UK’s Elizabeth (1998).


America, however, still holds the reigns of some of the famous and acclaimed epics of all time, creating well-known classics like The Ten Commandments (1956), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and of course Gone with the Wind (1939).


These films have all created box office records and show how Hollywood has made its legacy as the go-to part of the world for big movies. But one of the highest-ever grossing films is also potentially the last true epic to grace our screens.


Titanic (1997), which is currently the world’s third highest-grossing film, is an epic romance and disaster film set on the iconic “unsinkable ship” that sunk on the 14th of April 1912. 


Like many of its fellow epics, Titanic places a whirlwind romance in the midst of historical tragedy.

Doctor Zhivago labelled its story as “a love caught in the fire of revolution” while Titanic similarly went with - “nothing on earth could come between them”. 


People around the world love a good romance whether it be on stage, in literature, or on-screen, so when a forbidden romance is painted with the added drama of a historic catastrophe, what better way could there be to pull on audiences' heartstrings?


“People connected to the emotions, a sense of love and belonging, the idea of someone being able to see us” - Cameron, Reflections of Titanic (2012)

One of the most recent films to out-gross Titanic was of course Avengers: Endgame (that old thing?) which may be similar in scope to Titanic, but in many ways couldn’t be more different.


Despite one film being about a team of superheroes fighting a megalomaniac with a magic glove, and the other being based on a real-life tragedy, Endgame and the majority of the other 50 highest-grossing films of all time show that a film like Titanic truly is an anomaly in modern filmmaking.


Comic book media and franchise fare simply don’t carry the same conventions or luxuries affiliated with conventional epics, especially one as traditional as Titanic. 


Interestingly the director of the 1997 epic - James Cameron, understands both the appeal of franchises and old Hollywood largely due to his indisputable understanding of the theatrical experience. 

Cameron like many lorded Hollywood directors knows what audiences want and has been able to shape many of the tropes of Hollywood juggernauts today.


As the director of films like The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and one of the most lorded sequels ever - Aliens (1986) Cameron has shown he's pretty adaptable when it comes to genre. Science fiction and historic dramas are two genres that give the audience the scale and grandeur they want from a big movie, showing how both can carry elements of the epic.


Cameron's involvement with sci-fi has meant, like many innovators before him, that he has also become a pioneer of digital filmmaking, especially thanks to his other highest-grossing movie of all time - Avatar (2009).


The move to digital filmmaking has taken away from the conventions and appeal of the epic, making Cameron's two biggest financial successes, two symbols of their times.


A big charm of Titanic, and other films like it, is its realism, not just in terms of the story, but its focus on big sets, practical effects, and a giant cast of extras.


While the film’s production brought about ground-breaking visual effects, it’s the marriage and seamlessness of the CG with live-action that makes Titanic truly come to life. Methods used in filming Titanic, such as digital stunt doubles led to their adoption and frequent use in years to come.


As far back as Cabiria (1914) we can see innovation was at the forefront of historical dramas, with this being the first-ever first motion picture to use a dolly track system.


“This could be the last time Hollywood makes an old-fashioned film,” said producer Jon Landau, in the documentary Reflections of Titanic (2012). The idea that period stories are automatically more “old-fashioned Hollywood” is a fascinating one, aided by the necessity for these stories to use real costumes and locations, just as they did since filmmaking began.


Imagine if Pride and Prejudice were produced entirely on a green screen?


Similarly Titanic wouldn’t have had the same impact or charm if it weren’t for its practical sets or lavish costumes. The Titanic set was built as nearly half a replica of the real ship, all situated in a giant tank of water by the sea where the set could be submerged in and out of the water through hydraulics. Viewers can see and feel that authenticity, which adds to the theatricality of the experience.


On top of its visual achievements, the film shows the power of real-world history combined with a fantasy love story. James Cameron, similar to Spielberg, has a grand style in all his projects.


Cameron knows how to appeal to a large audience through his core themes and premises. “People connected to the emotions, a sense of love and belonging, the idea of someone being able to see us” - Cameron, Reflections of Titanic.


As the stories we embrace become more and more fantastical it’s no wonder Titanic is a symbol of a bygone era.


In a behind-the-scenes interview, Cameron says “there’s a stateliness to the way we perceive the sinking of the Titanic” - an idea that fits with the audience’s expectations and preferences of stories in 1997 compared to now.


Today’s period or disaster films will far more often focus on the human story at the heart of the tragedy. Films like The Impossible, or 1917 (both of which still imbue many of the attributes that made Titanic a success) give far more grounded and singular visions that never spill over into a three-hour-long journey.

Cameron in a way embraced this transition from the romances of old Hollywood to the modern innovations we have today; crafting the story of Titanic as “a present-day wrap around about exploration and new technology that takes us back in time”.


Even the way the film was pitched to Twentieth Century Fox as Romeo and Juliet on “that ship” is typical of the grandeur and amorousness Hollywood just couldn’t say no to. The notion of the most expensive film ever made being combined with a disaster film / old-Hollywood romance was in many ways a recipe for success, which in essence become a common narrative of some of our most well-remembered surprise hits.


Before and after Titanic, films like Ben-Hur (1959), King Kong (2005), and of course Cleopatra (1963) all equally benefitted and suffered due to the same kind of media narratives. Their reputation of being expensive or ambitious added to the power and drama of these big-screen stories.


Audiences connect and appreciate the level of detail these epics are able to demonstrate to us on-screen. Much like seeing a live performance, the experience becomes richer for the craftsmanship and scale that breathes life into the project, making it exciting and if nothing else - impressive.


It’s this affection and charm that keeps audiences going back to epics. The stories and methods used in the production enrich the story of the film, making for a treasure trove of information for both fans and industry experts. Entire books, internet pages, and DVD discs can be filled with behind-the-scenes information to help the film live on for generations. The stories and trivia from the set can entice audiences and the industry alike. A film like Titanic feeds the machine that created it, connecting the world of film in the great circle of blood and strife.


Just as the media asked survivors of the real Titanic if the band played as the ship sunk, fans of the film will always ask the stars if they were really submerged in freezing cold water.


Films like Avengers: Endgame (2019), Furious 7 (2015), or The Lion King (2019) will never get the privileges of our most historic classics. On-set experiences just aren’t as exciting or worthy of documenting when everyone is just standing around wearing motion-capture suits. 


The boom of VFX and the new possibilities it has given studios has led to years of blockbusters filled to the brim with computer-generated imagery. Take for instance James Cameron’s Avatar. Though we are yet to see its viability as a franchise, the first film, like Titanic was another anomaly, but unlike other CG blockbusters, Avatar in fact stuck to many of the epic's traditions.


The film’s production made huge technical innovations, ushering in a new age of motion capture and 3-D technology.


The big cast of characters all takes part in another simple story with easy-to-understand themes and concepts. Cameron himself admits he wrote Titanic and Avatar at the same time and so was unintentionally working with the concept of love and connection in both projects. The “I see you” concept is a notion and gesture in both films that can be understood around the world.


Unlike many sci-fi blockbusters, Avatar deals with a very broad and ambitious playing field, instead of isolating its story in one location, it explores a whole new world and allows its audience to marvel at its scale.


Its themes of war, class, and legacy all play into the classic motifs of the epic. Instead of wowing audiences with its sets, costumes, and set pieces, it dazzles them with new CG worlds, creatures, and civilisations.


So has the epic really sunk away? Though the majority of audiences may not crave the historic tales of stories like Spartacus (1960), Braveheart (1990), or Hero (2002), their cravings for the many aesthetics that make these epics - epic, is still present.


Many franchises are still favouring practical effects, with the marriage of VFX and practical becoming more popular than ever. The rise of streaming and big-budget television has perhaps spoiled us for impressive costumes and casts, with creatives like Patty Jenkins, Christopher Nolan, and JJ Abrams proving there are still those in Hollywood who will always vouch for the importance of bold but traditional aesthetics in cinema.


La La Land (2016), Dunkirk (2017), and even Joker (2019) all show that audiences still cherish the style of old Hollywood.

Titanic may be of a bygone era, but the film embraces that. It’s made as a love letter to classic Hollywood, which transitions itself from a classic romance to a modern blockbuster, imparting its wisdom on the future of filmmakers to come.


Love it or hate it, Avatar is a testament to James Cameron’s broad appeal to global audiences showing how he created two of the biggest-grossing movies of all time. Avatar reflects the blockbuster epics of the 2010s, as Titanic reflects the fading epics of the 90s and early 2000s.


Ultimately, the walls between these genres are starting to blend more and more.

Any genre or story can make a technical innovation or include impressive practical elements that the hundreds of epics before them helped inspire.


Titanic in many ways was the end of the epic, a genre and type of movie that sunk to the bottom of the sea, only to be explored for what innovations it could lead to in the future.


Now we are able to have something new. A generation of filmmaking built on the strengths of ground-breaking films of all kinds, with filmmakers like Cameron either becoming old hat or a part of our new history…


David Osgar


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