James Cameron may be the most commercially successful filmmaker of all-time, one whose films transport us to entirely new and massive worlds––but his first love is the sea. Much like Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series has functioned for him partly as a procession of death-defying thrills on producers’ dimes, Cameron’s career is a means of funding ocean exploration. (No dilettante, he was the first person to descend solo to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and helped develop the submersible that took him there.) Beginning with 1989’s deepwater Cold War sci-fi thriller, The Abyss, his films have moved further from shore; the new Avatar sequel The Way of Water is practically a soft reboot of the first, transporting the action from Pandora’s forests to its oceans. Since converting a nuclear reactor into a 7.5 million-gallon soundstage for The Abyss, Cameron’s water shoots have become ever more complex.
Technology is a double-edged sword, though, and his films explore the folly of placing too much faith in it. Cameron is uniquely poised to appreciate this, synonymous as he is with Hollywood’s transformation into an effects-driven industry in which everything, even star power, is subservient to spectacle. In no Cameron film is this dynamic more apparent than The Abyss and 1997’s Titanic (now back on the big screen in celebration of its 25th anniversary), in which the hubris of its too-big-to-fail namesake endeavor is matched only by the scope of its disastrous failure.
Both films posit a clash between faith in man-made machines and the nearly incomprehensible power of nature. The former, which finds American scientists racing the Soviet Union (and… aliens?) to recover a sunken nuclear submarine, is instructive for its notorious production, which brutalized its cast and crew with grueling and sometimes dangerous shoots. The cast was subject to 70-plus-hour work weeks, soaked to the bone for much of it, and co-stars Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio both suffered breakdowns during the shoot. (Harris famously refuses to speak of the film.) Titanic’s shoot, which took place at the location of the actual wreck as well as in a massive $40 million water tank that held the elaborate ship set, was no day at the beach. It’s curious to view Titanic through this lens, where the decisions of the ship’s egotistical stewards—too many knots, not enough boats—doom hundreds.
If those productions represent Cameron’s worst impulses, though, it’s Titanic’s heroine who speaks for his best instincts. When a technician diagrams the ship’s sinking in a CGI re-creation, Rose observes, “The experience was somewhat different.” All the technology devoted to sorting through the detritus of the Titanic’s carcass gets us no closer to the truth of the ship’s sinking than before. It’s also conspicuously noted that no records exist of the film’s fantastical scamp Jack; as Rose observes of Picasso, “There’s truth, but no logic.” Underneath all those special effects is a genuine knack for heartfelt storytelling. This is not to suggest anything so facile as, “It was all a dream,” only that knowledge is no match for experience, which contains its own greater truth. And in Titanic—which obliterated every box office record known to man in 1997—that truth is the sheer power of cinematic spectacle, from the most literally spectacular director of them all. Hail to the king.