Titanic Is Still James Cameron’s Greatest Achievement (Not Avatar 1 Or 2)

Twenty-five years after its release, Titanic remains James Cameron’s grandest accomplishment despite the more recent successes of Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water. Considered among history’s most revolutionary and innovative filmmakers, Cameron initially made waves in the 1980s with The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss before the ’90s brought Terminator 2: Judgment Day and True Lies ahead of 1997’s Titanic. Based on the real-life RMS Titanic that struck an iceberg and sank during its maiden voyage in 1912, the film cemented Cameron as a master of cinema in a way his two subsequent Avatar movies have not matched.

However, among history’s top 10 highest-grossing movies, 1997’s Titanic, 2009’s Avatar, and 2022’s Avatar: The Way of Water differ vastly. Titanic is a standalone film detailing the famous ship’s true story and the fictional romance between Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). Returning to sci-fi, Cameron then created the world of Pandora and the Na’vi people in a franchise led by Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). Titanic, Avatar, and Avatar 2 are Cameron’s most successful projects, but his greatest feat remains Titanic, which has left an indelible mark on cinema while the flaws of Cameron’s Avatar films outweigh their triumphs.

Titanic’s Awards And Cultural Impact Surpass The Avatar Films

In the wake of its premiere, Titanic took the world by storm, holding the worldwide box office’s top spot for a record 15 consecutive weeks. The film’s immediate success also extended to accolades, as Titanic collected 11 statues at the 1998 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing — which remain Cameron’s only individual Oscar wins. In 2023, Titanic remains the third-highest-grossing movie of all time, with a global profit of roughly $2.2 billion.

Despite dethroning Titanic as the world’s highest-grossing film after 12 years and having amassed more than $2.9 billion to date, Avatar earned just three Academy Awards for Best Achievements in Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Art Direction. Likewise, Avatar 2 is unlikely to replicate Titanic’s award haul.

Defined by its impeccable blend of history and fiction throughout an intense and emotional narrative, Titanic’s impact on cinema and popular culture is unparalleled. The film’s numerous iconic scenes include Jack shouting, “I’m the king of the world,” atop the ship’s bow, where Rose later declares, “I’m flying, Jack,” before their first kiss. Moreover, Jack’s death scene still sparks debate over whether the piece of debris supporting Rose could have held the weight of them both above the frigid water. Rounding out Titanic’s eminence is Celine Dion’s award-winning “My Heart Will Go On,” which became one of the most beloved and widely-recognized original songs ever written for a movie.

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Unlike Cameron’s Avatar films, Titanic’s cultural imprint derives from its story and characters. Winslet and DiCaprio’s superb performances launched the dazzling careers they’ve sustained since and, aided by Cameron’s skilled storytelling, established Jack and Rose as legendary film characters. Contrarily, after two movies, Cameron has failed to make Avatar’s Jake and Neytiri memorable personas or tell a noteworthy story. Instead, Avatar and The Way of Water have impacted cinema solely through their stunning 3-D visuals and groundbreaking use of motion capture technology.

Titanic Delivers Both Spectacle And Substance

Kate Winslet as Rose in Titanic next to sinking ship

In making Titanic, Cameron showcased a rare brand of audacity. Ambitious in its filmmaking and storytelling, Titanic thoroughly portrayed the harrowing events encompassing the ship’s demise and intertwined the historical tale with the imagined narrative of Rose’s liberation from her abusive fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) through her short-lived romance with Jack. Thanks to the film’s three-hour-and-14-minute run time, Titanic’s dual narratives harmonized brilliantly without one overshadowing the other. In addition, Cameron’s attention to detail in featuring many real-life Titanic passengers and crew members, as well as the film’s set and costume designs, helped make the movie a one-of-a-kind immersive experience alongside its breathtaking action set pieces.

Although Cameron’s Titanic was not the first motion picture about the Titanic disaster, it recreated the sinking on an enormous scale. Cameron transformed an already famous historical event into a once-in-a-lifetime film by visiting the real-life shipwreck 33 times to capture the raw footage seen in the movie’s present-day sequences. Furthermore, Cameron took full advantage of Titanic’s $200 million budget, commissioning a 755-foot-long partial replica of the ocean liner that CGI and smaller models of the ship in the final product complimented. The most expensive movie of its time, Titanic, was revolutionary in 1997 and still impresses when compared to today’s big-budget blockbusters.

In addition to Titanic’s technical grandeur, the film boasted an emotional and impactful narrative. Perhaps contrary to many romance films throughout history, Titanic radiates a profoundly feminist message surrounding the importance of women’s autonomy. Rejecting tired romance tropes of damsels in distress and happily ever afters, Titanic is a coming-of-age story at its core grounded by its commentary on the dangers of traditional gender roles, class disparities, and excessive materialism.

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Although heavily dramatized and at times bordering on cliché, Titanic’s story isn’t concerned with convincing its audience that Jack and Rose were a pairing that would have lasted in the real world. Instead, the movie defines eternal love by how Rose forges a brief yet passionate connection with arguably the first person to truly see her as a human being and how the sinking of the Titanic changed her from nearly taking her own life at 17 years old to living freely and happily for 84 years longer. Cameron notably succeeded in making a romance movie in which a woman’s triumph does not perpetually involve a man at her side.

Ultimately, Rose saves herself. Jack crucially serves as a gateway to the liberation Rose desperately sought when she boarded the Titanic, but it’s under her own agency that she chooses Jack, a poor, third-class passenger, over the wealthy, uptight lifestyle that awaited her in America. Cameron’s retelling of the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage through a fictional love story may have sounded like a disaster on paper. But instead, the writer-director told a cohesive, thematically consistent narrative that resonates deeply with audiences more than a quarter-century following its release. To this day, no filmmaker has pulled off a similar feat, as Titanic remains a unique story and a spectacle to behold.

Avatar’s Cultural Issues Overshadow Its Achievements

Avatar Way of Water, the Metkayina tattoos

While Titanic’s narrative richness soars, Avatar’s attempts at deeper themes in its story fall flat. Both of Cameron’s Avatar films have rightfully received praise for their visual prowess, but their substance lacks originality and depth. One can easily identify Avatar’s similarities to films such as Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves, and Cameron doesn’t add anything new to these flawed stories about Indigenous people from the perspective of a white man.

Narratively, Cameron plays it safe in both Avatar films, and in doing so, runs into problems with numerous issues criticized by Indigenous activists, such as cultural appropriation, dehumanization of real-life Indigenous people through the Native-coded Na’vi — mostly played by non-Indigenous actors — and the white savior trope reflected by Jake’s role. Cameron has admitted to basing the Na’vi on real-life Native Americans, and it’s clear that Avatar 2’s water people particularly take inspiration from Maori culture. Avatar and its sequel’s tone-deafness in their use of blue alien-like creatures as stand-ins for real-life native people have not gone unnoticed and will undoubtedly cause the films to age poorly.

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Cameron has stressed the importance of environmentalism and the destructiveness of colonialism in the Avatar films, but his ideas lack depth and important nuance. Avatar 2 introduces Jake and Neytiri’s children, but beyond a few touching scenes, The Way of Water’s familial themes are far too familiar to be memorable. Avatar 2 recycles too many of the same plot points involving Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and the Sky People’s mission to exploit Pandora’s people and resources, as well as Jake leading the Na’vi leader despite being born as a human on Earth.

One-dimensional caricatures as villains and underdeveloped main characters only worsen Avatar and Avatar 2’s bland and problematic storytelling. Unfortunately, the films’ issues lie at the heart of Cameron’s Avatar franchise. Thus, it’s unlikely the following three entries will improve in that respect.

Why James Cameron’s Avatar Movies Will Never Surpass Titanic

Avatar way of water Titanic

Even with at least three more films on the horizon, the ship for Cameron’s Avatar movies to overtake Titanic’s legacy has already sailed. As a franchise centered around an entirely fictional locale, Avatar has a lot more on its plate regarding world-building and character development. Thus, while Cameron is a masterful director, the Avatar films have revealed his limitations as a writer.

After two movies spanning almost six hours combined, the Avatar franchise has nothing more than visuals going for it, and it remains to be seen whether their 3-D theater experience will be enough for the third, fourth, and fifth movies to generate as much money as the first two. However, Titanic succeeded like few films have thanks to its extraordinary element of spectacle and its poignant story around one of history’s most recognized tragedies. A timeless motion picture whose cultural impact endures 25 years after captivating the world, Titanic will forever define Cameron’s career in a way no number of Avatar sequels could achieve.

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