Classic Greek tragedies explored the theme of hubris as human characters dared to take on the attributes of the gods only to find their hopes crushed. This is a real-life story of hubris, as the ship declared to be “unsinkable” (and therefore not equipped with lifeboats for the majority of the passengers) sank on its maiden voyage from England to the United States.
In this blockbuster movie, winner of ten Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director and on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time, the disaster serves as the backdrop to a tragic love story between Rose (Kate Winslet), an upper class (though impoverished) girl and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a lower class (though artistic) boy who won the ticket in a poker game. Parents should know that the movie features brief nudity (as Rose poses for Jack) and suggested sex (in a steamy car). A much more serious concern is the tragedy itself, with hundreds of frozen dead bodies floating in the water, which may be upsetting or even terrifying for some kids.
The movie raises important questions about choices faced by the characters, as we see a wide range of behavior from the most honorable to the most despicable. The captain (whose decision to try to break a speed record contributed to the disaster) and the ship’s designer (whose plan for additional lifeboats was abandoned because it made the decks look too cluttered) go down with the ship, but the owner and Rose’s greedy and snobbish fiance survive. Molly Brown (dubbed “Unsinkable” for her bravery that night) tries to persuade the other passengers in the lifeboats to go back for the rest. But they refuse, knowing that there is no way to rescue them without losing their own lives. They wait to be picked up by another ship, listening to the shrieks of the others until they all gone.
Many parents have asked me about the appeal of this movie to young teens, especially teen-age girls. The answer is that in addition to the appeal of its young stars, director James Cameron has written an almost perfect adolescent fantasy for girls. Rose is an ideal heroine, rebelling against her mother’s snobbishness and insistence that she marry for money. And Jack is an ideal romantic hero — sensitive, brave, honorable, completely devoted, and (very important for young girls) not aggressive (she makes the decision to pursue the relationship, and he is struck all but dumb when she insists on posing nude). If he is not quite androgynous, he is not exactly bursting with testosterone either, and, ultimately, he is not around. As with so many other fantasies of the perfect romance, from Heathcliff and Cathy in “Wuthering Heights” to Rick and Ilse in “Casablanca” the characters have all the pleasures of the romantic dream with no risk of having to actually build a life with anyone. It is interesting that the glimpses we get of Rose’s life after the Titanic show her alone, though we meet her granddaughter and hear her refer to her husband. Parents can have some very good discussions with teens about this movie by listening carefully and respectfully when they explain why it is important to them, as this is a crucial stage in their development.