There’s a controversy at the heart of the James Cameron 1997 epic, “Titanic,” that has been hotly contested ever since the film exploded onto the scene nearly 25 years ago. This question, one that has weighed on my mind through every viewing, has significant implications of life and death for the young couple.
No. I’m not talking about that stupid door.
I’m talking about the film’s final scene wherein the elderly Rose goes to sleep, only to spiritually return to the Titanic in all its splendor as she is greeted by all those who lost their lives when the ship went down, including Jack. What isn’t clear is how literal this scene is: are we actually witnessing Rose’s ascent into Heaven, or is this merely a dream?
James Cameron has disclosed that he “knows” what’s happening here, but has kindly decided to grant his viewers the privilege of their own interpretation. I can’t claim to step into the mind of the master storyteller, but I’ll confess that the former interpretation has always made more sense to me. Part of that is the religious lens through which I view all films, but part of that is the heavy presence that “heaven” has within the film.
“Heaven” can connote two different things: it can stand for a state of paradise and unending bliss, and it can also stand for the passage from mortal to post-mortal life. Both are active thematic agents within this film.
Heaven as a motif finds its way into nearly every aspect of the film from plot themes to set design to the dialogue to Kate and Leo just being angelic performers. Notice the angel in the background as Rose meets Jack at the base of the stairway, as seen in this piece’s lead image. Perhaps the film is suggesting that Rose herself is an angel descending from her heavenly estate to meet Jack. Perhaps the angel is there to signify the innate divinity of their union.
The RMS Titanic is certainly a heavenly paradise, “The ship of dreams,” as Rose describes in her old age. Titanic is basically this floating island, detached from civilization while also somehow embodying the most beautiful things about it. Even in the process of drafting this piece, I had the thought that the Titanic was like a symbol for a church or religion. This floating vessel is designed to carry its passengers (its congregation?) to their destination, much like a church does for its attendees.
Paramount via “SeenOnCeleb”
Then there’s the duality of life and death, which is baked into the thread of the narrative. The question of death enters the narrative at the very start with Rose nearly throwing her life away before Jack convinces her to not go through with it. The potential for the spiritual death of Rose also hangs in the air as Ruth and Cal attempt to drag Rose into a marriage of advantage. For the first half of the film, that conflict is figurative, but it becomes very literal after the ship collides with the iceberg, and death is on the table for Rose and hundreds of others.
Remember that it’s the hubris of humanity that ultimately kills the Titanic. One could easily draw the parallel that mortal pride can sink religion. When the rich and powerful cast themselves as God, the repercussions on the powerless are catastrophic. We can see this as a warning to not allow arrogance and notions of superiority to get the better of us and have us abuse any positions of authority with which we are entrusted.
This heavenly parallel is also one of the reasons why the destruction in this film hits so much deeper than it does with films of higher carnage counts: watching the Titanic torn apart is like watching the destruction of Heaven itself.
Which brings us to the film’s ending. It is here that the arrogance of man is purified and the palace of the Titanic restored to its Heavenly form. And whatever your interpretation of the ending, it’s here in the final shot where we catch the cleanest glimpse into Heaven.
What is Heaven?
It’s that space where all that is deplorable about the human condition (arrogance, cruelty, classism, etc.) is done away with, leaving behind only that which is beautiful and good: true and selfless love.