James Cameron Finally Admits ‘Jack Might Have Lived’ After Lab-Testing ‘Titanic’ Raft Theory
James Cameron is not easily proven wrong. The visionary filmmaker has directed three of the top four highest-grossing movies of all time, including the recent Avatar: The Way of Water, which has made over $2.1 billion and earned an Oscar nod for Best Picture despite legions of terminally-online naysayers. One thing, however, still sticks in his craw: the raft theory. You know, that Jack’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) sorry steerage-class ass could’ve fit on that floating piece of wood with Rose (Kate Winslet) instead of succumbing to the freezing waters at the end of Titanic.
In Titanic: 25 Years Later with James Cameron, a new hour-long special airing Feb. 5 on NatGeo, the director is here to “find out once and for all if Jack could’ve survived the sinking of Titanic” by recreating the raft sequence with two stuntpeople in “a controlled laboratory setting.”
“We released Titanic 25 years ago,” Cameron says, kicking off the special/experiment. “But, despite all our efforts to make the film as accurate as possible, there’s one thing some fans just can’t accept: they insist Jack could’ve survived if he climbed on that floating piece of debris with Rose.” (The film was technically released in December of 1997.)
Though Titanic won a whopping 11 Academy Awards (Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron among them), earned nearly $2.2 billion at the box office (a record at the time), transformed DiCaprio into a ‘90s teen idol and became a worldwide cultural phenomenon, with my mother dragging our family to see it in theaters on more than one occasion, the “raft theory” has gained quite a bit of traction online. Some folks with quite a bit of time on their hands, such as the fellas over at MythBusters, have even conducted experiments of their own that “prove” Jack could have fit on that floating door-like thing.
They did not have Cameron’s resources.
Cameron and co. begin by recreating the sinking of the Titanic with a miniature model in a tank “mirroring the physics at work as best we can” — this is hilarious, by the way — in order to gauge whether the ship split behind the third funnel, as it does in the film. It is here Cameron, who notes he’s personally observed the wreckage of the Titanic at least a dozen times via deep submersible dives, says that this is merely a “proof of concept,” meaning they can only prove “what might have happened.” Cameron and his crew of experts, including Naval data engineers and computer-model eggheads, determine that the ship splits off at between “20 and 30 degrees,” similar to the 23 degrees depicted in the film, causing the stern to sink down vertically, as it does in the picture. The revelation causes Cameron to spread his arms wide and yell, “TOUCHDOWNNNN!”
He does acknowledge that the stern could “sink vertically” or the stern could “fall back with a big splash” but “you can’t have both,” so “the film is wrong on one point or the other.” Cameron concedes that the fall-back of the stern is probably wrong, making their depiction of the Titanic’s sinking “half-right in the movie.”
We are also treated to footage of Cameron furiously cutting through a rope that’s lowering a lifeboat with a pocketknife, just as some of those fleeing the sinking ship did, before the main event.
To test the raft theory, Cameron took two stuntpeople that were the same height and weight as Jack and Rose to the New Zealand lab of Dr. Jim Cotter, who specializes in studying the effects of cold on the human body. They created an exact replica of the board from the movie, down to the “degree of buoyancy you see in the film,” and inserted the board and the stuntpeople into a giant tank. The stuntpeople were fitted with internal thermometers and, for the test, their body temperatures were reduced to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, as anything below that would induce clinical hypothermia. First, they determine that Jack would have hit clinical hypothermia if he’d stayed in the water for more than twenty minutes — and, since it took the rescue team around two hours to find Rose, he would have indeed perished as he does in the film.
Then, Cameron and Dr. Cotter try to fit their Jack and Rose on the board. They manage to both fit on the raft, though only their upper halves are on the debris while their legs remain submerged in the freezing water. That doesn’t work. They’d likely freeze to death in this scenario. Next, Cameron has them both kneeling on the raft and occasionally sharing their body heat with one another, yet the raft proves too unstable. Finally, the pair find a good position where their bodies are both on top of the raft and only their lower legs are underwater. Here, Cameron and the team determine that Jack could have survived “a few hours,” in time to be rescued.
Not so fast! Cameron claims this “best-case scenario” where Jack survives is nothing more than a “fantasy” because we didn’t see his experiment Jack and Rose “going through all the stuff” that his characters did before arriving at the raft. So, Cameron has the stuntpeople reenact the entire sequence from the film — being submerged underwater, Jack punching a guy going for Rose’s life vest, them swimming toward the raft and getting on. If Rose, at this point, gave Jack her life jacket while they’re both balancing on the raft, with only their lower legs underwater, they could have lasted a few hours and survived.
“Final verdict: Jack might have lived,” confesses a smirking Cameron, “but there’s a lot of variables.”
“In a well-lit experiment in a test pool, we can’t possibly simulate the terror, the adrenaline, all the things that would have worked against them,” he continues. “[Jack] didn’t get to run a bunch of different experiments to see what worked the best. Jack’s survival might have come at the cost of her life.”
He adds, “Based on what I know today, I would have made the raft smaller so there’s no doubt.”
Raft theory aside, by the time Titanic: 25 Years Later with James Cameron is up, you can’t help but find the man’s obsessiveness over this silly theory more than a little endearing. I guess you can never underestimate James Cameron after all.