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James Cameron commissions actual study in hopes of settling 'Titanic' door debate once and for all
Maybe now we can finally let go, Jack.
In 1912, about midway along its maiden journey across the Atlantic, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and began taking on water. Over the next few hours, the ship cracked in half and slowly sank beneath the waves to its final resting place at the bottom of the sea. The ensuing days would be filled with confusion and grief as information and survivors made their way back to land.
A hunt for the sunken ship began more or less immediately, but with little luck. Technological limitations and the immense size of the Atlantic conspired to keep the ship shrouded within the briny deep for decades, making it a famed target for adventurers and treasure hunters. In 1980, a film adaptation of Clive Cussler’s novel Raise the Titanic (now streaming on Peacock!) imagined a successful hunt for the ship by United States government and military officials. In the movie, a mysterious “mineral” capable of powering a new weapons system was stowed aboard the doomed ship by an American spy, and there’s a race to find it before anyone else can.
Five years after Raise the Titanic hit theaters, the actual Titanic would finally be located, thanks to oceanographer Robert Ballard. The discovery reignited the public fascination with the Titanic and 12 years after its rediscovery, in 1997, James Cameron would make one of the most successful and enduring films of all time when he took audiences into the ship’s maiden voyage through the eyes of Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet).
In Cameron’s story, treasure hunters seek the wreck of the Titanic not for any sci-fi weapons system but for riches. They believe that Rose left The Heart of the Ocean, a massive heart-shaped jewel valued at tens of millions of dollars, on the ship when it sunk. As a result, we get to revisit the events of that fateful trip through Rose’s eyes as she recounts her experience to a captivated exploratory crew and captivated audiences. Titanic became the first movie in history to earn more than a billion dollars at the box office and remains the third highest grossing movie of all time, beaten only by Avengers: Endgame and another Cameron joint, Avatar (whose sequel finally plunged into theaters last weekend). A considerable portion of those earnings came from folks hitting the theater again and again, for repeat viewings.
A movie like that, which so completely captures the public imagination, is almost guaranteed to breed scrutiny, speculation, and debate. And no debate sparked as much controversy as whether or not Jack could have fit on the door and survived alongside Rose. Now, James Cameron is wading into the conversation, on the 25th anniversary of his movie’s release, hoping to end the argument for good.
COULD JACK HAVE FIT ON THE DOOR?
It’s a question so ubiquitous, so universal, that you can ask it just like that with no additional context and nearly anyone will know what you’re talking about. There’s no telling how many heated debates over mugs of coffee or something stronger, have taken place in the last quarter century, but we know James Cameron has participated in his fair share. Even the MythBusters tackled it, using Adam and Jamie as stand-ins for Rose and Jack to see if there was any way both of them could have survived. Their early attempts are a struggle, but they get it to work in the end. Sort of.
The duo eventually pulls it off by attaching their life vests to the bottom of the door, which provides a little extra buoyancy and keeps both floaters mostly out of the water. Sure, Jack and Rose might have tried that and maybe it would have worked, but they’d be forgiven for not thinking of it in the heat (or the frigid cold, rather) of the moment. There’s certainly room for doubt.
As for Cameron, his opinion is more decisive. In 2017, in conversation with The Daily Beast, Cameron responded to the MythBusters reenactment in the following way, “His best choice was to keep his upper body out of the water and hope to get pulled out by a boat or something before he died. They’re fun guys and I loved doing that show with them, but they’re full of s---.”
Cameron continued the debate — much as he may not want to — in a recent conversation with The Toronto Sun, while promoting the release of his new film Avatar: Way of Water. He argues that the real answer to whether Jack could have fit on the door and lived lies not in experimentation or reproduction, but in the script. The story says the door isn’t large enough, that Jack gives up his spot for Rose, and that he dies. Any speculation, measurement, or experiment you carry out is irrelevant, at least according to Cameron. That argument takes a dictatorial approach. Cameron wrote and directed the movie, it is a world of his creation even if inspired by real-world events, so if he says the door was only large enough or buoyant enough for one person, it was.
Of course, that isn’t really true. Stories aren’t the sole domain of their creators; they are a collaboration between the teller and the receiver. A filmmaker might design the sets, create characters, and invent situations, but the audience has to take that in and fill in the gaps with their own collected experiences. Only when the story comes into contact with an audience does the alchemy of storytelling really happen. We’re willing to bet Cameron understands that and that’s why, even 25 years later, he engages with the debate, hoping the right response might make it go away for good.
This time, Cameron is discarding the ‘because I said so’ argument and bringing receipts. According to Cameron, he has commissioned an honest-to-Crom scientific study to, in his words, “put this whole thing to rest and drive a stake through its heart once and for all.”
He continued, “We have since done a thorough forensic analysis with a hypothermia expert who reproduced the raft from the movie and we’re going to do a little special on it that comes out in February. We took two stunt people who were the same body mass of Kate and Leo and we put sensors all over them and inside them and we put them in ice water, and we tested to see whether they could have survived through a variety of methods and the answer was, there was no way they both could have survived. Only one could survive.”
He's hoping this might finally convince us, but ultimately, for Cameron, the question is moot. “Maybe I didn’t do it in a way that everyone agrees with, but Jack had to die. It’s that simple. If I had to make the raft smaller, it would have been smaller.” Despite Cameron’s hopes, it’s unlikely the debate will end any time soon, and you’ll have a chance to consider the evidence again when Titanic hits theaters again in February 2023. James Cameron’s forensic documentary, which he hopes will finally persuade and assuage us, will release at the same time.
In the meantime, revisit the original Titanic caper in Raise the Titanic, now streaming on Peacock! Or if you're in the mood for some James Cameron action, True Lies is also currently streaming on the platform.