James Cameron Needs to Drop the Debate Over Jack’s Fate in Titanic

The post James Cameron Needs to Drop the Debate Over Jack’s Fate in Titanic appeared first on Consequence.

James Cameron is a man with a lot of opinions, from how MCU characters behave like “they’re in college” to how, if people are struggling with the runtime of Avatar: The Way of Water, they can just “get up and go pee.” And if you disagree with him, especially when it comes to the movie Titanic, and (in the eyes of many fans) its most debatable scene… well, he’ll respond.

At the very end of a very long day at the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Cameron made an unannounced visit; as a National Geographic “explorer-at-large,” he was there in part to promote two new specials he was producing for the channel, Secrets of the Bees and Secrets of the Octopus. His real purpose in being there, though, was to yell at critics about Titanic.

Specifically, he showed up to discuss Titanic: 25 Years Later with James Cameron, which follows up on the 20-year anniversary special he did for NatGeo with an additional twist: He would use science to take on the longstanding complaint that at the end of the Best Picture-winning epic, poor Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) didn’t have to die — he could have lived, if he’d been able to share the debris upon which Rose (Kate Winslet) was laying.

Oh, and for the record, while everyone refers to the debris as a door, Cameron would like you to know that “it’s technically not a door. It’s a piece of paneling from the first class lounge, but lush.”

This is a debate that’s been going on since the film’s original release, with, up until now, the most thorough scientific breakdown of the debate occurring in a 2012 episode of Mythbusters. (Their theory: Jack could have lived if he and Rose had used Rose’s life vest as additional support.)

While that episode aired in 2012, this question still comes up, which is perhaps why it’s so deeply funny that Titanic: 25 Years Later with James Cameron fact-checks the film yet again: In fact, the special first digs into whether the film’s depiction of the ship’s sinking was accurate (in terms of whether part of the ship actually went straight up before collapsing) before getting to the question of whether or not Jack would live.

Spoiler alert: Cameron does admit on camera that Jack might have survived, given certain variables working out in his favor. But first, he makes Jack stand-in Josh Bird soak in cold water to the point of full-body shivers to prove how dangerous hypothermia was in this scenario.

What’s become fascinating about Cameron’s quasi-obsession with this topic is how, when faced with critiques of the film’s most heartbreaking scene, he turns to science; as seen in the special, he puts his stunt cast through multiple tests and configurations to try to find one that might have kept Jack alive.

However, the power of Titanic as a film has absolutely nothing to do with its scientific accuracy; when you’re writing and directing a feature film, even one based on factual events, you’re telling a story. Overall, what Cameron achieves with the film is remarkable — it’s held up over the years thanks to the sweeping, epic, and also relatable way in which Cameron captures its central disaster.

However, what happens in that final sequence between Jack and Rose, as experienced by millions of viewers over the years, is a flaw in the storytelling — Jack makes one effort to climb onto the “piece of paneling from the first class lounge” (apologies for all those years of calling it a door, Jim, you got us there) and then drops back into the water, to eventually freeze to death.

Earlier in the film, Jack does seem aware of how cold the Atlantic Ocean is, telling Rose that “water that cold… like that right down there… it hits you like a thousand knives all over your body.” So the idea that, knowing how dangerous cold water can be, he actively chooses to sacrifice himself isn’t impossible to buy. But the way that scene plays out on screen, the viewer isn’t witnessing Jack doing the math on his internal body temperature, calculating how long he might last while submerged in these conditions. He’s just a scared young man who wants to live, but doesn’t seem to do everything he possibly can to survive.

The latter half of that sentence is why this moment has bugged the film’s fans for decades — if Cameron’s purpose was to communicate, without dialogue, that Jack was actively choosing not to try to climb up onto the “piece of paneling from the first class lounge” because doing so would topple Rose into the water, then Cameron didn’t succeed at doing so. In fact, Cameron admits in 25 Years Later that “based on what I know today, I would have made the raft smaller so there’s no doubt.”

james cameron titanic study
james cameron titanic study

Titanic (20th Century Fox)

In a 2017 interview with The Daily Beast, Cameron flat-out said, in response to the Mythbusters episode, “they’re fun guys and I loved doing that show with them, but they’re full of shit.” He also added, though that, “look, it’s very, very simple: you read page 147 of the script and it says, ‘Jack gets off the board and gives his place to her so that she can survive.'”

That’s the response of a storyteller, not a scientist, because we’re talking about storytelling here. Yet every time Cameron fires up his science machines to prove that he’s right and the rest of us are wrong, it feels like he doesn’t understand the very nature of what it means to tell a story on screen.

Cameron notes near the end of Titanic: 25 Years Later that by digging into the effects of hypothermia for the special, someone watching might be able to use that information to save a life someday. That’s not why he made this special, though — it’s instead an act of supreme pettiness in the form of scientific exploration, which is extremely hilarious, but not the initial intention.

Really, Cameron should take a cue from his own cameo in the series Entourage — in the Season 2 episode “The Sundance Kids,” someone asks him “Was the sinking of the ship an attempt to foreshadow the forthcoming sinking of the tech market of 2000?”

His reply: “Uh, no. Actually, I just wanted to make young girls cry.”

Sometimes, that’s all that needs to be said.

Titanic: 25 Years Later with James Cameron is streaming now on Hulu.

James Cameron Needs to Drop the Debate Over Jack’s Fate in Titanic
Liz Shannon Miller

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