While James Cameron Avatar: The Way of Water passed Titanic on the list of the highest-grossing films of all time, his 1997 Oscar-winning film recently gained traction with its 25th theatrical re-release. It’s a testament to the power Titanicthe main love story and disaster movie excites that even though the movie is easily available to watch at home, fans still want to see it again in theaters.
But one thing they don’t get in theaters is the chance to see an alternate ending Titanic, a longer and more detailed cut that Cameron eventually trimmed down to a minimalist version in the theatrical version. Many argue that Cameron made the right choice and avoided sinking the final emotional rhythm of the film. But is the audience lining up to see Titanic missing again?
At Polygon, we are divided. So we’re here to present our evidence and decide: Is the alternative ending Titanic better than the original?
Polygon Court is currently in session.
(ed. note: Final spoilers for the two versions Titanic.)
Opening Statements: Titanic’s Ending, Temporarily Explained
Lush: Let’s start with a brief overview of the two versions we’re discussing here. James Cameron frames Titanic as a treasure hunt where, in 1996, lifeguard Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his crew search for the “Heart of the Ocean”, a huge blue diamond embedded in a necklace that allegedly sank with the Titanic. After finding a drawing of a naked woman wearing the Heart of the Ocean in the Titanic’s safe where they expected to find a diamond, they track down the painting’s subject, senior socialite Rose (Gloria Stuart), to fill their time on the Titanic in 1912 (when Kate Winslet played her).
In the theatrical ending, 1996, Rose sneaks out of bed after the end of the story and silently takes the Heart of the Ocean out of her pocket and throws it into the sea. She had it all along as a memento of her doomed affair with young beggar Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and didn’t tell Brock, his crew, or her adult granddaughter Lizzy (Suzy Amis), who is also on the rescue boat. Then he goes back to bed and dreams about 1912. (Or does he die and reunite with Jack? That’s definitely my interpretation, but some people definitely see it differently.)
In the longer original ending, Brock and Lizzy see her on the deck and think she is about to kill herself by jumping overboard. They confront her and see that she has the necklace and she lets Brock touch it and understand that he will never own it before throwing it into the water. Otherwise, the ending is very similar. Does this sum up everything we need to know?
Patches: Let me emphasize the tonal difference of these two scenes: with James Horner’s ethereal score, then a reprise of the classic theme, the official ending Titanic it plays out as a moment of silent closure. The alternate ending is a bit like a commercial Super Bowl parody of the actual ending where Old Rose is suddenly played by a rapping granny from wedding singer.
Evidence Showcase: Which Titanic is better?
Tasha, the Titanic alternative ending case: I understand why Cameron went for a simpler version: the emphasis is on Rose and her emotions, and on the 1912 love story that makes the film what it is. You don’t have to worry about someone else’s feelings about throwing that diamond away and how much it costs everyone else on that boat. But that leaves everyone else’s story unsolved! Poor Brock can spend the rest of his life looking for a necklace he’ll never find while Rose just quietly smiles at it! (Or, you know, dying on his boat.) Or do you just not care about someone’s feelings here?
Patches, Titanic Original Ending Matter: If Brock spent three hours listening to Rose tell her story only to return to hunt the Heart of the Ocean, then the man deserves the cloud of failure that comes with a Sisyphean quest. Brock sucks! In the movie, he’s charming enough because Bill Paxton was a god among men.
But on some level, he’s anti-Cameron. Die-hard Cameron observers know that he spent unimaginable amounts of money and time building deep-sea submarines just for the thrill of going where no man has gone before – or, in the case of his real-life Titanic wreck dives, to feel the ghosts of the past. Brock just wants money. Cameron describes him in Titanicscript as “wiley (sic), a talkative treasure hunter, rescue superstar who is part historian, part adventurer, and part vacuum cleaner salesman.” Emphasis on the vacuum cleaner salesman – the guy is all hot. I don’t care about his feelings, and Rose is right to keep him in the dark about the Heart of the Ocean.
Tasha, the Titanic alternative ending case: Brutal, Matt. Vacuum cleaner sellers are people too! OK, if you don’t care about the thrill of an alternate ending, then what about the humor? Brock’s technical assistant Lewis (played by Lewis Abernathy) speaks for all of us when Rose hits the diamond and he yells, “This really sucks, ma’am!” He is right! And it’s cleansing! Brock and his team are running out of money and have spent three years of their lives on this thing Rose just falls into the sea in front of them. She has a right – it’s hers, after all – but don’t Brock and Lewis also have a right to know that their mission is over and that this woman has deliberately lied to them, interrupted them, and cut off their knees? Isn’t it a bit cheap to vote on all this?
Patches, Titanic Original Ending Matter: Rose knows wealth doesn’t make you happy – see the previous two hours and 45 minutes! — and actually helps Brock by making this priceless diamond disappear. In an alternate cut, he would know where to dive next. And to your point, Rose looks downright sinister in an alternate cut. She has a real one Drag me to hell An evil grin on her face as the Heart of the Ocean dangles from the back of the ship, taunting Brock for his greed. It’s a real first draft from Cameron, who, while no stranger to nosebleed dialogue, knew this scene was all he wanted to say, but shouldn’t have said it out loud. We know why having the Heart of the Ocean would be bad for Brock, and why Rose must throw her weight into the waters to move on – from her past and her deadly coil.
Tasha, the Titanic alternative ending case: Hoo boy, you’re not selling me for “It’s for your own good.” A true sadist has to say, “I will ruin you financially and make the last three years of your life pointless without even telling you…For your own good! You should be less materialistic!” But I’ll disclaim the point of view of Rose’s “ain’t I smelly” expression in the alternate ending. It was a strange look.
One thing I don’t love about the alternate ending is the little fake drama moment where everyone thinks Rose is about to jump into the sea and commit suicide. This seems like a cheap way to mitigate the threat at the moment. But it’s an interesting callback to young Rose, who contemplates suicide, similarly dangling from the Titanic’s railing while distraught by the marriage she’s being forced into. I’m all for a visual and narrative callback between different eras in a story like this that spans so much time.
Patches, Titanic Original Ending Matter: I am also for visual and narrative twists between different eras in history, but only if they are not staged like scenes from crash.
Tasha, the Titanic alternative ending case: OK, come on, you don’t understand All from the moment where Rose lets Brock hold the diamond he’s been looking for all this time, just for a moment, and he makes a conscious decision to let him go and not try to stop her? And then he laughs like a madman at the treasure he just released?
Paxton himself has said that he doesn’t mind the cuts and that his own story doesn’t need resolving, but that’s what actors say all the time when they’re trying to be good athletes and promote their projects without complaining about their scenes getting cut. But I think he does a good job in this scene, and I really like the way he conveys Brock’s conflicted emotions at this point. He knows he has no rights to the Heart of the Ocean if it’s not a rescue, he knows he can’t snatch it from this old lady and expect her to keep it, but he consciously chooses to let go of years of his life and who knows how much money, all from because of the great, symbolic moment of the stranger. It’s matter!
Patches, Titanic Original Ending Matter: I don’t think Paxton is blowing smoke or staying true to his director when he says Cameron made the right move by stripping the film of resolution for his story. That’s because Brock isn’t a character in the story that needs resolving—he’s the audience. This is Rose’s story her romantic saga, her strive to become an independent woman detached from cultural norms. Viewed in isolation – the only way any of us can see it is the alternate ending – yes, we get more of that sweet, sugary Paxton juice, but it doesn’t hold up to the weight of the previous two-plus hours, seen entirely through Rose’s eyes. In the very ending, we lost track of Brock’s search for the Heart of the Ocean, instead we went through the story. As him.
Tasha, the Titanic alternative ending case: Don’t you think her jewel moment matters more when she has an audience? He effectively bids farewell to Jack, youth and life again. I like having other people share this moment and understand its impact – especially her granddaughter who sees Rose and her life in a new light in this moment. (And watch her legacy sink to the bottom of the sea. She has a right to know that too.)
Patches, Titanic Original Ending Matter: Rose doesn’t owe anyone anything! (Or Jack’s shit, for that matter.) When Rose comes ashore on Brock’s ship in the film’s true finale, she’s carrying a life well lived – and a romance that never died. Releasing the necklace frees her from reality and she is able to drift off into memories of the Titanic, the unlucky boat, and Jack, the unforgettable dream boat. Who would want someone like that around? Remembering your dead lover is the definition of “me time”.
Closing arguments: Jury, consider Titanics
Tasha, the Titanic alternative ending case: Let me just say this: just like the sinking of the Titanic is not just Rose and Jack’s story – it’s a tragedy for many people, and their suffering is important too – throwing a priceless diamond into the ocean as a dramatic gesture is more than just Rose’s moment. It is worth reflecting on the impact of what he does and show it on the screen.
Patches, Titanic Original Ending Matter: With the alternate ending, Cameron intended to cram more messages into the final beat. The effect of the dialogue is basically that he waggles his finger at the audience. Rose talks and talks about how she got to this stage of her life without Cal, she did it without indulging in the money she could make selling the necklace, and just before dropping the necklace, she reminds Brock, “You look like a treasure in the wrong place, Mr. Lovett – only life is priceless and makes every day count. Hey Rose, it’s called subtext!!