You’ve probably heard a million times that James Cameron’s Avatar isn’t the most original story ever told. But did you know that his previous film Titanic, which set new box-office records during 1997-1998, has virtually the same story as a little movie that bombed back in 1980? That film is called Somewhere in Time.
Here is a list of the many similarities between Titanic and Somewhere in Time:
- Both films begin at the end with the main female character sending a surprising message.
- There is a picture of a woman looking at the man she loves.
- A character travels back in time by using their imagination.
- Both films take place in 1912.
- The male love interest is prevented from seeing the woman he loves, so he sneaks around to get to her.
- The villain views the woman as a prize, not a person.
- The villain waits for the woman while she steals away with the other man.
- The romance takes place over just a few short days.
- The main character is lured to the villain over a matter of life and death.
- Instead of killing the main character, the villain locks him away from his love.
- The two lovers reunite and plan to get married, but are torn apart.
- The woman lives a long life while the man dies young.
- The lovers are reunited in heaven.
Now let’s go over each of these points in more detail:
Beginning at the End
Both films begin many decades after their main stories occur. After spending a few minutes in the titular ship under thousands of feet of water, Titanic introduces us to an old woman named Rose Dawson Calvert. When she hears of the deep-sea expedition to the Titanic, she calls the explorers and makes a startling remark about the Heart of the Ocean diamond. In Somewhere in Time, an old woman named Elise McKenna surprises a young college playwright named Richard Collier by pleading, “Come back to me,” and handing him a pocket watch. In both cases, it turns out that the old woman is the heroine of the story.
The Heart of the Ocean and the pocket watch act as MacGuffins in the two films. They get the story going and become minor plot points later in the story. Rose accidentally winds up with the Heart of the Ocean after the Titanic sinks, and Richard accidentally leaves his pocket watch with Elise after he travels back in time to meet her. But we’ll get into that more a little later.
Rose sees a hand-drawn portrait of herself gazing at Jack Dawson, the man she fell in love with on the Titanic. The portrait managed to survive all these years and it is recovered from a safe in the sunken ship. Elise has a photograph that was taken of her as she looked lovingly at Richard. In the present day, Richard finds the photo hidden in the antique section of the hotel where they met.
The portrait in Titanic inspires Rose to call the explorers and get the plot going. The photograph in Somewhere in Time inspires Richard to learn more about Elise and he becomes so obsessed that he actually convinces himself he can travel back to the past to get her to fall in love with him.
Traveling Back in Time
Rose tells the story of how she met Jack and why the Heart of the Ocean isn’t in her fiancé’s safe on the Titanic. We’re taken back in time with her as she remembers an event she hasn’t discussed with anyone for more than 80 years. Richard travels back in time by hypnotizing himself to actually believe that he is in the past, not the present. Remarkably, this trick actually works and he is transported back to 1912.
It’s a little far-fetched that Rose could remember such minute details of the days and minutes leading up to the Titanic’s sinking, but what’s even harder to believe is that she could remember conversations she wasn’t even present at. Like when Cal, her fiancé, reacts to seeing the nude portrait Jack drew of Rose, he decides on a plan to get revenge. Or when an official fires his gun into a crowd of men attempting to get onto a lifeboat and then kills himself when he realizes what a horrible thing he’s done. She couldn’t have recounted those events, but the story cheats a bit to fill us in on details like those.
Somewhere in Time’s idea of time travel, while utterly ludicrous, solves Titanic’s point-of-view problem. Though most of the story is from Richard’s perspective, when he isn’t in the room or part of a conversation, it makes sense that we can still see those scenes because he’s not the one actually telling the story.
It’s a remarkable coincidence that both films just so happen to be set in the year 1912. I don’t think it’s anything more than happenstance because it’s a historical fact that the Titanic sank that year, so Cameron certainly wasn’t trying to copy Somewhere in Time by setting it in the same year. It’s just one more interesting connection between the two films.
One thing I will point out is that the people in Titanic act and talk much more like present-day people than the ones in Somewhere in Time. I suppose Cameron was going for a “things never change” kind of theme by doing this, but it takes a little away from the otherwise spotless authenticity of the film. The settings are so grand and appropriate for the time period that it’s too bad the people couldn’t be the same. Interestingly, Richard is a present-day character in Somewhere in Time who is trying to fit in among characters from 1912, so his awkwardness works for the story
When Jack first meets Rose, he’s almost placed under arrest because the police think he was trying to accost her when he was actually saving her life. Later, he wears out his welcome and is reminded that he has a third-class ticket and he doesn’t belong in first class. In other words: Stay away from Rose. When Richard first meets Elise, her manager William Robinson warns him he’ll be kicked out of the hotel if he bothers her again. Later, Richard sneaks into the dinner hall and starts dancing with Elise. Robinson is about to make good on his threat when he’s stopped by Elise.
In both cases, the hero’s first meeting with the villain ends with threats but no real villainous action. That’s because the villains in these movies are clever.
Each villain wants something different from the woman in their life. Cal wants a trophy more than a wife. Robinson doesn’t want a wife at all; he wants to make Elise the biggest star of her generation. Both of them ultimately fail in their plans. Cal waits as long as he can on the sinking Titanic to try to make Rose his, but he is eventually forced to leave her in Jack’s hands. Robinson manipulates and lies to Elise to try to get her to leave Richard, but she doesn’t listen to him.
Robinson is a more interesting character than Cal because there’s some mystery surrounding him. How did he predict that a man would come and try to destroy Elise? Could he be a time traveler, too? Cal is a much more straightforward villain, serving as a pompous jerk without doing anything particularly evil.
Patience Is a Virtue
Cal and Robinson share an interesting characteristic. They’re both patient. One night Rose goes down to the steerage section to spend her time drinking and dancing with Jack. The next morning Cal says he expected her to stay with him last night. She makes up an excuse, but he sees through it and tries to scare her out of spending any more time with Jack. The scene is brutal and suddenly shows the dark side of Cal that he’s been hiding until now. His patience is running thin, but he still holds back and doesn’t actually hurt Rose.
One morning, Elise absconds with Richard and they spend the whole day getting to know each other and falling deeply in love. When they return, Robinson shows up and Elise demands to know if he waited for her that whole time. He responds, “Yes! Does this disturb you?” He’s more subtle in his attempts to scare Elise away from Richard, but he cautiously waits for the right moment to strike.
In both films, the romance takes place over the course of just a few days. Jack and Rose meet one evening, have dinner the next night, break up the following day, and get back together shortly after that, just in time for the Titanic to sink. The entire romance lasted about four days. Richard and Elise meet one day, spend the next day together, are forced apart that night and reunite the following morning. They only get three or maybe four days together.
That seems like an incredibly short amount of time to fall in love and for the woman to decide to completely change her life. I find it strange that Elise could feel so empty after losing Richard when she really only knew him for a few days. With Rose, it’s a bit more believable because she’s already looking for an escape from the prison of high society and Jack is her excuse to break free. Plus, she and Jack go through many traumatizing experiences together, nearly dying several times. These events would definitely forge a long-lasting connection between them.
A Matter of Life and Death
After the Titanic hits an iceberg, Jack and Rose decide to do the honorable thing and warn Cal of the impending danger they all face. As part of his plan for revenge, Cal frames Jack to make it look like he stole the Heart of the Ocean. Jack is promptly taken away by Cal’s bodyguard and locked in a lower part of the ship. Richard, while watching Elise’s play, receives an urgent message from Robinson insisting he meet him at once over “a matter of life and death.” He comes and discovers Robinson thinks Richard is going to destroy Elise. When Richard tries to leave, he’s ambushed by two hired thugs. They knock him out and tie him up in a horse stable to keep him away from Elise.
The villains in both films don’t do the dirty work themselves. They have other people do it for them. Later in Titanic, Cal does take matters into his own hands and chase Jack and Rose with a gun, but he never manages to hit them. He forces them to go deep into the ship where they almost drown; but even if they had drowned he would have only been indirectly responsible for their deaths.
Rose leaves Cal to hunt for Jack in the bowels of the ship. She finds him by shouting his name and hearing him shout her name in return. She frees Jack from a pair of handcuffs by hitting them with an ax, barely missing his hands. Elise, on the other hand, looks for Richard but fails to find him the night he disappears. Richard wakes up the next morning in a horse stall and he promptly cuts the rope tying his hands and runs off to find Elise. He thinks that she’s left with her acting troupe, but it turns out she’s still at the hotel and looking for him. She sees him first and shouts his name to get his attention. They make love after being reunited.
A significant difference here is the timing of the two main characters consummating their love. Rose and Jack do it before being separated because that heightens the drama and gets the audience invested in seeing them get back together. Plus, there’s no time for it later because the ship is sinking fast and Cal is on their tail. Somewhere in Time takes its time and builds anticipation for Richard and Elise to become passionate. A major lack in Somewhere in Time compared to Titanic is a gripping third act. Once Richard and Elise reunite, all the tension is sucked out of the story. For Rose and Jack, though, their adventure is just getting started.
After several terrific action sequences, Rose and Jack wind up in the freezing ocean, struggling to survive long enough for rescue to arrive. Jack lets Rose sit atop a floating door so she can stay warmer while he slowly freezes to death. He makes her promise to keep going without him. Then he dies and drifts down to the bottom of the ocean. Richard happily tells Elise all the great things they’re going to do together. They’ll get married, work on plays together and enjoy other blissful times. However, their joy is cut short when Richard suddenly finds a penny dated 1979 in his coat pocket. The shock of seeing something modern breaks his concentration that linked him to the past, and he is ripped away from Elise.
In both cases, the two lovers talk about the future and express their love for each other before separating. Jack gets a very good chance to convince Rose to keep living her life and not be too devastated by losing him. However, Richard is pulled away too suddenly for him to adequately express these feelings to Elise. The consequences, in both cases, are felt for decades to come.
The Woman Lives Long, the Man Dies Young
Rose is never discovered by Cal, and she goes on to have a long, happy life, becoming an actress. She even marries another man and has children and grandchildren. Elise has a sadder fate. She gives up acting after losing Richard and she becomes a recluse. Both women conveniently die the very night that they get to pass on their message.
Titanic offers a much more satisfying fate for the woman than Somewhere in Time. It comes back to the point about the scope of the relationship. Both courtships take place over such a short amount of time that they shouldn’t be enough to completely wreck someone’s life. Rose and Elise are still very young when they lose their lovers, so they should have plenty of time to grieve and then get on with their lives. Unfortunately, Elise doesn’t, which is why Rose winds up being a stronger character overall.
Reunited in Heaven
The ending to both films is virtually identical. A character dies and we see through their eyes as we travel a long distance until we suddenly see their old lover looking just as they did so many years ago. In Titanic, Jack and Rose kiss while everyone who died on the Titanic claps for them. In Somewhere in Time, Richard takes Elise’s hand in heaven.
The ending to both films is quite satisfying. The characters are richly rewarded for all the struggles they went through. I do find it interesting that in both cases, the man gets to die shortly after being with the woman he loves. Perhaps this is the filmmakers’ comment on men being less able to handle loss. Jack spent his whole life adrift and so he might not be able to handle settling down and becoming a husband and father. Perhaps it was best to let him die nobly than live dully. Richard becomes so obsessed with Elise that he can’t eat or sleep. He simply gives up on life and dies of a broken heart.
A Few Additional Notes
Christopher Reeve was just coming off his fame-making role as the titular character in Superman: The Movie when he made Somewhere in Time while Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in Titanic is the one that propelled him to superstar status. Reeve wanted to make a quiet film in contrast to the big action adventure he had devoted several years to. DiCaprio was young and hungry to make his name beyond being a glorified guest star on Growing Pains and a passable Romeo.
Somewhere in Time was unfairly hammered by critics and mostly ignored by audiences, but it’s actually a perfectly decent movie. It even includes a young William H. Macy in a small role as a critic. Keep an eye out for him at the start of the film.
I have to admit Titanic is a much stronger movie than Somewhere in Time. It takes the same concept and supercharges the drama and action to a level only James Cameron is capable of reaching. Both of these films represent a turning point for many of the people involved in them. Cameron, instead of trying to top Titanic’s success, retreated to making just a few documentaries and not putting his exceptional filmmaking skills to use for over a decade. I’ve already discussed what I think of his 2009 film Avatar. Hopefully he can return to his usual greatness with his next films.
Somewhere in Time showed that Reeve would have a tough time breaking out of the role that made him famous. Indeed, after 1981’s Superman II, Reeve suffered a string of box-office disappointments before languishing mostly in TV movies. It’s sad to see such talented people failing to put their talent to good use. At least we have great films like these to remember them by.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
The photos from Titanic and Somewhere in Time are the copyright of their respective owners.