LOS ANGELES — They hold crying parties and jump into ice-filled bathtubs while the soundtrack plays. Others leap onstage during the film to reenact key scenes. Still more sit adoringly through the three-hour epic as many times as their purses permit and flood the Internet with odes to Leonardo DiCaprio.
Just call them "titaniacs."
Together, these fans are helping to drive the $200 million disaster epic through the $1 billion mark worldwide, to surpass "Star Wars" as the biggest-selling film of all time.
While the movie is based on fact and framed by a fictional love story, neither politics nor romance can explain why teens to grandparents are flocking to the film - not one, but in some cases 10 and 20 times.
"It's the first big historical epic of the TV generation, like 'Doctor Zhivago' and 'Gone With the Wind'," observes Pamela Ezell, who teaches film studies at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. "It's a great crossover movie that includes something for everybody," and is bringing the commitment of the cult-film devotee to the mainstream moviegoer.
First and foremost, the movie is Hollywood's answer to the complete destruction of romantic love in American life, says writer and scholar Mike Davis.
"This is a culture starved for something other than the reality of politics and sexual harassment," says Mr. Davis. "Americans are in a sense living off iron rations when it comes to any real vision of romantic utopia."
Davis, a social critic known for his ability to wrest political meaning from virtually any scenario, adds that the movie finally tells the story of "crimes of the rich against the poor."
Indeed, the film graphically shows that a disproportionate number of third-class passengers died because they were locked below decks as the ship sank, then kept from the few lifeboats with space left after the first-class passengers had boarded.
The film hits a deep political chord today, muses Martha Bayles, a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute, Brentwood, Calif. Noting Wall Street nervousness over the longest peacetime expansion in modern US history, she says "Titanic" speaks to the anxieties people have in good times. "The ship of state has always been a metaphor for society, floating over who knows what deep, into what void, and for how long?"
The fate of the lower classes is a reminder that despite the good times, there are a lot of people still below the waterline. "When the bad times come, they'll be the first to go."
Many of the wealthy also died, Ms. Bayles adds, making it "a classic tale of wealth and arrogance brought down." Noting that history is full of stories about the price of pride, she says, "All through the great mythologies there are images of boats floating too far out. Ultimately, they are claimed by the deep."
But it is not the body politic that moved twentysomething Jennifer Shoaf to take her husband to the film on Valentine's Day. She went because "the love story was just so wonderful." The chart-topping soundtrack also moves her to tears every time she puts it on at home - which is as often as she can.
Her husband liked the movie for different reasons. Says Mark Shoaf, "It's those eye-popping effects, the cinematography. I don't go for all that mushy stuff."
Seniors Lainie Eleni Iverson and her husband, Jack, self-described students of the Titanic, say the power of the story lies in its truth. They watch the movie "with a little prayer inside for all those souls."
Director James Cameron has dubbed the film "a $200 million chick flick."
Chapman's Ms. Ezell agrees that it is a movie for today's woman - with a twist. "Jack dies so Rose can live. She goes on to be a liberated woman for her time, without the messy reality of marriage in the suburbs." Since many women today are deeply torn over how to balance love and liberation, the film manages to satisfy both desires.
Ezell says "Titanic" is another example of how the great unifying events of this generation are media-induced. "We don't have a lot in common as a society.... There are no great spectacles that unite us."
Whatever we share today, she notes, whether it's a TWA tragedy or a big movie, our need to come together is fulfilled through media events - such as the phenomenon called "Titanic."
Fourteen Oscar Nominations
Best Actress: Kate Winslet
Best Supporting Actress: Gloria Stuart
Best Director: James Cameron
Best Art Direction
Best Original Song: "My Heart Will Go On," James Horner and Will Jennings
Best Original Dramatic Score: James Horner
Best Sound Effects Editing
Best Film Editing
Best Visual Effects
"Titanic" has knocked off "Jurassic Park" as the No. 3 all-time domestic moneymaker. It grossed more than $27.5 million last weekend, for a North American total of $370.9 million, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.