While James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water has passed Titanic on the list of all-time top-grossing movies, his 1997 Oscar-winner recently got a boost from a 25th-anniversary theatrical rerelease that played to sold-out theaters and earned the film another $50 million worldwide. It’s a testimony to the power of Titanic’s central love story and disaster movie thrills that even with the movie readily available for home viewing, fans are still willing to go see it again in theaters.
But one thing they won’t get in theaters is a chance to see the alternate ending of Titanic, a longer and more detailed cut that Cameron ultimately trimmed down to the minimalist version in the theatrical edit. Many argue Cameron made the right choice, and avoided sinking the movie’s final emotional beat. But are the audiences lining up to see Titanic again actually missing out?
At Polygon, we’re split. So we’re here to present our evidence and decide: Is the alternate ending of Titanic better than the original?
Polygon Court is now in session.
[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for two versions of Titanic.]
Opening statements: Titanic’s ending, momentarily explained
Tasha: Let’s start with a quick rundown on the two versions we’re debating here. James Cameron frames Titanic as a treasure hunt, where in 1996, salvager Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his crew are searching for “the Heart of the Ocean,” a massive blue diamond built into a necklace that supposedly went down with the Titanic. After finding a drawing of a nude woman wearing the Heart of the Ocean in the Titanic safe where they expected to find the diamond, they track down the subject of the painting, elderly socialite Rose (Gloria Stuart), to fill them in on her time on the Titanic in 1912 (when she was played by Kate Winslet).
In the theatrical ending, 1996 Rose slips out of bed after the story is over and quietly pulls the Heart of the Ocean out of her pocket and throws it into the sea. She had it all along as a keepsake of her doomed romance with young pauper Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), and didn’t tell Brock, his crew, or her adult granddaughter Lizzy (Suzy Amis), who’s also on the salvage boat. Then she goes back to bed and dreams of 1912. (Or maybe dies, and reunites with Jack? That’s my interpretation for sure, but some people definitely see it differently.)
In the longer original ending, Brock and Lizzy see her on deck and think she’s about to kill herself by jumping overboard. They confront her and see she has the necklace, and she lets Brock touch it and understand he’s never going to own it before she tosses it into the water. Otherwise, the ending is much the same. Does that sum up everything we need to know?
Patches: Let me stress the tonal difference of these two scenes: Backed by James Horner’s ethereal score, then a reprise of the classic theme, the official ending to Titanic plays out as a moment of quiet closure. The alternate ending is kind of like a Super Bowl commercial parody of the actual ending, where Old Rose is suddenly played by the rapping grandma from The Wedding Singer.
Presentation of evidence: Which Titanic is better?
Tasha, the case for Titanic’s alt ending: I get why Cameron went with the simpler version: It puts the emphasis on Rose and her emotions, and on the 1912 love story that makes this movie what it is. You don’t have to worry about anybody else’s feelings about chucking that diamond, and what it costs everyone else on that boat. But that leaves everybody else’s story unresolved! Poor Brock might just spend the rest of his life looking for a necklace he’s never going to find, while Rose just silently smirks about it! (Or, y’know, dies on his boat.) Do you just not care about anyone else’s feelings here?
Patches, the case for Titanic’s original ending: If Brock spent three hours listening to Rose tell her story only to go back on the hunt for the Heart of the Ocean, then the man deserves the cloud of failure that comes with a Sisyphean task. Brock sucks! He’s charming enough in the movie, because Bill Paxton was a god among men.
But on some level, he’s the anti-Cameron. Devout Cameron-watchers know he’s spent unimaginable amounts of money and time building deep-sea submersibles just for the thrill of going where no man has gone before — or in the case of his actual Titanic wreckage dives, to feel the ghosts of the past. Brock just wants money. Cameron describes him in Titanic’s screenplay as “a wiley [sic], fast-talking treasure hunter, a salvage superstar who is part historian, part adventurer and part vacuum cleaner salesman.” Emphasis on vacuum cleaner salesman — the guy is all hot air. I do not care about his feelings, and Rose is right to keep him in the dark about the Heart of the Ocean.
Tasha, the case for Titanic’s alt ending: Brutal, Matt. Vacuum cleaner salesmen are people too! OK, if you don’t care about the emotions of the alt ending, how about the humor? Brock’s tech assistant Lewis (played by Lewis Abernathy) speaks for all of us when Rose hucks the diamond and he yells, “That really sucks, lady!” He’s right! And it’s cathartic! Brock and his team are running out of money, and they’ve spent three years of their lives on this thing Rose just whoopsies into the sea in front of them. She has the right — it’s hers, after all — but don’t Brock and Lewis also have the right to know their quest is over, and that this woman deliberately lied to them, stymied them, and cut them off at the knees? Isn’t glossing over all of that a little cheap?
Patches, the case for Titanic’s original ending: Rose knows wealth does not buy happiness — see the prior two hours and 45 minutes! — and she’s actually helping Brock by making that priceless diamond disappear. In the alternate cut, he would know where to dive next. And to your point, Rose looks downright sinister in the alternate cut. She has a real Drag Me to Hell evil smile on her face as she dangles the Heart of the Ocean over the back of the ship, taunting Brock for his greed. It’s real first-draft stuff from Cameron, who, while no stranger to on-the-nose dialogue, knew this scene was everything he wanted to say, but shouldn’t say out loud. We know why it would be bad for Brock to have the Heart of the Ocean, and why Rose needs to unload its weight into the waters in order to move on — from her past and the mortal coil.
Tasha, the case for Titanic’s alt ending: Hoo boy, you’re not selling me on the “It’s for your own good” angle. It takes a real sadist to say, “I’m financially ruining you and making the last three years of your life pointless, without even telling you about it… For your own good! You should be less materialistic!” But I’ll cede you the point on Rose’s “ain’t I a stinker” facial expression in the alt ending. That was a weird look.
One thing I don’t love about the alternate ending is the little moment of fake drama where everyone thinks Rose is about to jump into the sea and kill herself. It seems a cheap as a way to goose up the threat of the moment. But it does make for an interesting callback to young Rose contemplating suicide by similarly hanging off the railing of the Titanic when she’s in despair over 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, the case for Titanic’s original ending: I am also all for visual and narrative callbacks between different eras in a story, but only when they’re not directed like scenes from Crash.
Tasha, the case for Titanic’s alt ending: OK, c’mon, you don’t get anything out of the moment where Rose lets Brock hold the diamond he’s been looking for all this time, just for a moment, and he consciously makes the decision to let it go and not try to stop her? And then he laughs like a loon at the treasure he’s just let go?
Paxton himself said he was fine with the cuts and that his own story didn’t need resolution, but that’s the kind of thing actors say all the time when they’re trying to be good sports and promo their projects without complaining about their scenes getting cut. But I think he does strong work in this scene, and I really enjoy the way that he communicates Brock’s conflicted emotions in this moment. He knows he doesn’t have any right to the Heart of the Ocean if it isn’t salvage, he knows he can’t snatch it off this old lady and expect to keep it, but he’s also consciously choosing to let go of years of his life and who knows how much money, all for the sake of a stranger’s big symbolic moment. It’s meaningful!
Patches, the case for Titanic’s original ending: I don’t think Paxton’s blowing smoke or remaining allegiant to his director when he says Cameron made the right move cutting resolution for his story out of the film. That’s because Brock is not a character in the story who requires resolution — he is the audience. This is Rose’s story, her romantic saga, her push to become an independent woman divorced from cultural norms. When viewed in isolation — the only way any of us gets to see this alternate ending — yeah, we get more of that sweet, sweet Paxton juice, but it’s not bearing the weight of the previous two-plus hours, seen completely through Rose’s eyes. By the actual ending, we’ve lost track of Brock’s search for the Heart of the Ocean, instead whisked through history. Just as he has.
Tasha, the case for Titanic’s alt ending: Don’t you think her moment with the gem is more meaningful when she has an audience? She’s saying goodbye again to Jack, and to her youth, and to her life, effectively. I like having other people there to share the moment and understand the impact of it — particularly her granddaughter, who’s seeing Rose and her life in a new light in that moment. (And also watching her inheritance sink to the bottom of the sea. She has a right to know about that, too.)
Patches, the case for Titanic’s original ending: Rose does not owe anyone jack shit! (Or Jack’s shit, for that matter.) When Rose walks out to the edge of the Brock’s ship in the actual finale of the film, she’s carrying a life well lived — and a romance that never died. Releasing the necklace untethers her from reality, and she’s able to drift into her memories of the Titanic, an ill-fated boat, and Jack, an unforgettable dreamboat. Who would want anyone around for that? Reminiscing about your dead lover is the definition of “me time.”
Closing arguments: Jury, consider the Titanics
Tasha, the case for Titanic’s alt ending: I’ll just say this: Just as the sinking of the Titanic isn’t just Rose and Jack’s story — it’s a tragedy for so many people, and their suffering is important too — tossing a priceless diamond into the ocean as a dramatic gesture is more than just Rose’s moment. It’s worth considering the impact of what she does, and showing that on screen.
Patches, the case for Titanic’s original ending: With the alternate ending, Cameron intended to cram more Message into the final beat. The effect of the dialogue is basically him wagging his finger at the audience. Rose goes and on and on and on about how she made it to this stage in life without Cal, did it without indulging in the money she could have reaped from selling the necklace, and right before dropping the necklace, reminds Brock, “You look for treasure in the wrong place, Mr. Lovett — only life is priceless, and making each day count.” Hey, Rose, it’s called subtext!!