Three years ago, I went on something of a James Cameron binge. First I saw all of the Terminator movies, including the two that he directed, in anticipation of the then-new Terminator Salvation. Then I made a point of watching all of his other films prior to the release of Avatar — all, that is, except Titanic (1997).
I’m not sure entirely why I skipped that particular film, which I hadn’t seen since its original theatrical release. But I finally got around to seeing it today — in 3D, of course — and I was struck by two small elements that touch, however briefly, on themes that you can find across Cameron’s work as a whole.
First, the prologue includes a bit where one of Bill Paxton’s assistants guides a remote underwater probe, using hand-held controls that look remarkably like the hand-held controls that have guided other mechanical extensions to the human body in Cameron films going all the way back to Xenogenesis (1978).
Second, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is asked whether he likes his “rootless” existence, he replies:
Yes, ma’am, I do. I mean, I’ve got everything I need right here with me. I got air in my lungs and a few blank sheets of paper. I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s going to happen or who I’m gonna meet or where I’m going to wind up.
And I find the “air in my lungs” bit particularly striking in light of the fact that the ability to breathe, and the importance thereof, is a recurring theme throughout Cameron’s films, especially his sci-fi efforts, as I have noted earlier.
There are other bits and pieces in Titanic that hark back to Cameron’s earlier films too, of course — the man who is distrusted by the authorities but gives up his life for the woman he just met is reminiscent of the original Terminator, and the woman who descends in an elevator to save someone who is trapped deep inside a doomed structure is reminiscent of Aliens — but these were the two that surprised me most.
I am also struck by the fact that the crewmembers in the crow’s nest are distracted by the sight of Kate and Leo kissing on the deck immediately before they, the crewmembers, spot the iceberg — and of course, by the time they actually look up and spot the iceberg, it is too late to save the ship. It is almost as though the film blames Kate and Leo’s reckless passion for the accident that sends 1,500 people, including Leo himself, to their doom. But it’s such a minor, easily overlooked detail, and there are so many other ways in which the film affirms their passion, that I wouldn’t make too much of this.