March 1998: Star Wars v. Titanic

Star Wars is generally considered to be the most successful film of all time. (In terms of box-office receipts, if one adjusts for inflation, that title actually goes to Gone With the Wind, but if one is talking about effects on popular culture, Star Wars certainly takes the prize. Who's got higher name recognition among the twentysomething set--Rhett Butler or Luke Skywalker?)

Yet Titanic, as of this writing, has just knocked Star Wars off its lofty pedestal. Released in December last year, the film continues to pull in record ticket sales every weekend, with no sign of slowing down and no iceberg in sight.

Aside from their stellar performances at the box office, the two films appear at first to have little in common; they are of different genres and were made 20 years apart (which is to Hollywood as a century is to the real world). Star Wars contains little in terms of romantic elements; Titanic boasts a towering love story for human interest purposes. Star Wars is set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; the sinking of the unsinkable ship that inspired Titanic occurred rather more recently in the north Atlantic. Star Wars has laser pistols, hyperspace travel, and the Force; Titanic boasts two guns, a luxury liner that meets disaster, and a little side commentary about the dearth of atheists in the foxhole.

Yet both films are astoundingly successful, appealing to a wide audience; Star Wars is a recognized pop-culture classic, and Titanic is well on its way to earning a similarly lofty place in moviegoing consciousness. Clearly, both films possess that indefinable something that resonates with viewers. Or is it really so indefinable? One would think so, considering how many duds Hollywood manages to put out every year.

Scratch the surfaces of what are essentially fairly superficial films, and similarities abound. Looked at from a certain point of view, both films are cautionary tales regarding the use of technology.

In Star Wars, we have the Death Star. Early in the film we learn that the Galactic Empire (which the opening crawl has already predisposed us to think of as evil), personified in the character of Governor Tarkin, has built a supreme weapon that is capable of destroying an entire planet. Tarkin clearly has every confidence in this technological marvel, as he explains that "fear of this battle station" will prevent the rebellion of any world the Empire controls. It's interesting that it's Darth Vader (who, as Ben Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, is "more machine than man") who reminds Tarkin that "the ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force"--that same Force that Kenobi describes as "an energy field created by all living things". The Force, George Lucas' quasi-religious concept, is clearly meant to be an allegory, if a heavy-handed one, for the human spirit. In the end, it's the human spirit--aided by the Force, as opposed to the blindly technological targeting computer--which triumphs.

In Titanic, we have, well, the Titanic.

The Titanic was without a doubt one of the great technological marvels of its day. The largest, most luxurious ship of its time, it was designed in an age when humankind had put its faith--previously reserved for more nebulous concepts--in technology. Technology had all the answers, and the notion that Titanic was unsinkable was right in keeping with the spirit of the age. That this notion was tragically incorrect is the true heart of Cameron's film--Jack and Rose's romance is window dressing, giving the tragedy a human dimension that most documentary films fail to capture. For me, the saddest moment in the film is when Thomas Andrews, stops the clock in the ballroom. It's a traditional gesture reserved for the time of death, and remains one of the film's most memorable moments.

Yet neither film is Luddite in outlook. The Rebels in Star Wars don't attack the Death Star with sticks and stones (that the Ewoks go after the Imperial forces with precisely these weapons in Return of the Jedi is unfortunate, as it emphasizes Lucas' theme to the point of distortion). The sinking of the Titanic in Cameron's film is not blamed on technology itself, but on humans placing their trust in technology ahead of their own judgement and throwing caution to the winds. What was that about fools rushing in?

So in both films we have the theme that overzealous reliance on technology is dangerous--not that technology itself is inherently evil. It's an important distinction. Plenty of films (particularly early sci-fi films) painted technology as some kind of great bugaboo that would destroy us all. These films have mostly been forgotten, and rightfully so; they lack the human dimension that gives films like Star Wars and Titanic their special resonance. By painting technology itself as evil, such films remove humanity from the equation by effectively setting us up as soldiers against some faceless enemy. In contrast, Star Wars and Titanic place humans at the center of the conflict. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

This is more obvious in Star Wars; the point is hammered home during the climactic trench run when Ben Kenobi's disembodied voice urges, "Use the Force, Luke!" Not only does Luke use the Force, he quite consciously and deliberately turns off his targeting computer. (In an earlier version of the screenplay, Luke makes two runs on the target. In the first, he uses his targeting computer to launch his missile--and misses the mark. This scene was preserved in Alan Dean Foster's novelization of the film.)

In Titanic, the point is somewhat subtler, which admittedly isn't saying much. (It's also just about the only subtle thing in the movie.) This was something Cameron could well afford, since the audience already knows that the ship will sink; it allows Cameron to spend more screen time on his lavish (not to mention expensive) set, and on the love story. In the end, though, we get the idea--humanity has quite deliberately, and for the most part incautiously, placed its trust in technology, and humanity has lost. Game over.

Even more prominent than the theme of over-reliance on technology, however, is the theme of loss and its relationship to emerging adulthood. Over the course of these two films, their respective protagonists, Luke Skywalker and Rose DeWitt Bukater, lose the adult figures in their lives, and find their ways of life irreversibly changed. While the pace and mechanics of loss are different in each case, the end result is the same: the end of innocence, a necessary (if not sole) condition for adulthood. Small wonder that audiences identify with these stories so strongly, even if it is unlikely that any of us will become knights in a futuristic society, or be trapped on a sinking ship.

In Star Wars, Luke's chase after a runaway robot is the catalyst for his meeting with Ben Kenobi, who plays the mentor/initiator role common in myth. While Luke is away, Imperial troops searching for the droids in his possession raid his home and kill his aunt and uncle, the only parental figures he has ever known. Kenobi then assumes this protective role (as demonstrated in the cantina scene in Mos Eisley), but is killed in turn in his confrontation with Darth Vader. (Of course, as we all know, Vader turns out to be Luke's father. But we're only looking at the first Star Wars film here.) These successive losses force Luke into a position of responsibility that culminates in the destruction of the Death Star.

Most of us do not lose our parents to violence; nor do most of us end up saving the world a few days later. But the loss of a parent is a fear most children can identify with, and the tale of the hero has at its heart the coming of age we all come to, midlife crises notwithstanding. Star Wars is not a subtle film, which helps explain its massive appeal, and it makes its point in a straightforward, non-disturbing, entertaining manner. Its target audience is children; most longtime fans of today first saw the film when they were under the age of 10.

Titanic is a more adult film, in the sense that it approaches the theme of loss from a romantic angle. To the characters, loss of a parent is not the primary fear; lack of choices is, and anyone from the 13-year-old stuck in a mind-numbingly dull social studies class to the 39- year-old working a job she hates to a 70-year-old feeling that he's wasted his life can identify with that. And, too, Titanic approaches its theme from a romantic angle, which appeals to anyone who has outgrown the "girls/boys-have-cooties" stage. Where Star Wars has about as much romantic interest as an episode of "CNN Headline News", Titanic's Arthurian love story is central to the film, as Jack and Cal represent the two paths that Rose's life can take.

At the beginning of the film, Rose is chafing under the "I-know-what's-best-for-you" restrictions of her mother and her paternalistic fiancÚ, Cal. While tragedy is what, at the last, separates them (albeit in a rather different fashion than in Star Wars; Rose allows her guardians to believe that she has drowned), Rose is far more rebellious than Luke. This brand of rebellion is a hallmark of adolescence (though some of us never outgrow it).

The villains in Titanic, too, are more sympathetic than those in Star Wars; Peter Cushing (Governor Tarkin), a veteran of the horror genre, needed no lessons to make his character suitably menacing, and Vader's mechanical suit and skull-like mask were designed to make him seem as inhuman as possible. Neither has any apparent redeeming characteristics; they are Evil (tm), end of discussion. Rose's mother, on the other hand, clearly does care for her daughter, and is a far more accurate depiction of an upper-class woman of the period than is Rose herself. And Cal, Rose's priggish, insufferable fiancÚ (was I the only one who thought Billy Zane was wearing way too much eye makeup?), has several all-too-human blind spots coupled with a very human will to survive. It's a jungle out there, folks; make sure you pack your life preservers.

This makes Rose's loss of innocence less an accident and more a conscious choice. Obviously, Jack has more than a little to do with it. (Go on, snigger; I did for most of that backseat-of-the-car scene.) However, Rose's presumably newfound sexual experience is more symbolic than actual in the terms of the film; it serves to highlight Jack's role as an initiator to a new way of life. (Just how far did they go, anyway?) That way of life, as anyone who has ever hitchhiked cross-country knows, is fraught with danger; Rose's choice is safety and the known quantity, or a much higher risk with a greater potential reward. Jack's lesson, important to Rose's transition to adulthood, is the necessity of self-determination; if don't choose, our choices will be made for us. And because adulthood is always accompanied by loss, Rose loses Jack to the north Atlantic. Near the end of the film, we see a brief photographic record of Rose's life, showing that she has taken Jack's lesson to heart.

The final scene notwithstanding, Titanic does not have an unmitigatedly happy ending, because James Cameron emphasizes the losing aspect of adulthood far more than George Lucas does. In that sense, the ending of Titanic is more similar to that of The Empire Strikes Back, which is a darker, more adult film than its predecessor.

Risk is not only a thematic element in these two films; it tempered their making as well. Both films had their doomsayers; Lucas had a terrible time getting any studio to accept his funny little sci-fi film (as it was thought of at the time), and as Titanic sailed beyond its expected budget to top out at $200 million, Cameron's backing studios--Fox in particular, responsible for everything beyond Paramount's maximum investment of $65 million--were understandably nervous. Although it's doubtful that $200 million films with get made as a matter of course from now on--that's still a hefty investment, and even after its release critics were wondering if Titanic would turn a profit--Cameron's achievement, like Lucas', is going to be hard to ignore. In a way, Star Wars heralded the return of the epic to film, with its larger-than-life story, mind-blowing special effects (for the time, and they still hold up pretty well today), and emphasis on grand themes. Titanic has all that, with a towering romance added to the mix, not to mention a cute-as-a-button male lead whose career is made from this point on. (Well, Star Wars was exceedingly important to Harrison Ford's career, though it didn't do much for the other stars.)

As millennium fever winds to an ever-higher pitch and neo-mysticism breaks out all over the place, it's hardly surprising that films about the triumph of the human spirit are box-office leaders. It remains to be see if Titanic will linger in the pop-culture consciousness as long as Star Wars has.

And on that note, join us in April as we take a look at Star Wars and the New Age!

Resources for this month's edition of Force This!:
The Internet Movie Database
Encyclopedia Britannica Online Titanic Exhibit
Brosnan, John, The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film, Little, Brown and Company, London, 1991.
Richardson, John M., "Magnificent Obsession", Premiere, James B. Meigs, ed., pp. 124-131, 142-145, Vol. 2, No. 4
Svetkey, Benjamin, "Titanic: Lessons Learned", Entertainment Weekly, Norman Pearlstine, ed., pp. 18-23, No. 417.

All errors are the author's, and the resources cited above bear no responsibility for any flakiness on my part.