All About Volume: Titanic's Famous Plot Hole

Titanic. Is there a movie as controversial for reasons as ridiculous as this smash of a film? It absolutely tore up the box office, then went on to crush the academy awards, nominated for fourteen prizes and winning eleven (tied for the lead in both categories). In other words, this is both one of the most critically and commercially successful films of all time. Yet there are thousands upon thousands of people on the internet engaged in some kind of crusade to tear this film down, citing things as absurd as the incorrect placement of stars in the skies as somehow proof of its failings. One of the movie’s scenes in particular feels like the internet has discussed it to death. I’m talking, of course, about the door scene, in which Jack and Rose accept that Jack can’t climb on to the door that’s keeping Rose afloat in the frigid waters of the Atlantic without dooming her to death by hypothermia, and so Jack remains in the water and gives his life to ensure Rose’s survival. While this scene is simply superb, there are scores of people online who argue that it’s somehow the movie’s crowning failure because, according to them, both of the young protagonists could have safely ridden out the cold on that door. Today, I’m going to spend this entire blog post taking this entire idea to task. So grab tight folks; it’s going to be wild ride.

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Before we get started on anything else, however, allow a former physics major to point out that fitting on the door is the least of our main characters’ concerns. After all, while the door does clearly have enough SURFACE AREA to fit the two of them on either face, what it lacks is the VOLUME to sustain them both above the water. To explain, let’s think about the physics of buoyancy.

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For an object to float, the buoyant force pushing it up, which is equal to the weight of the water that object displaces, must be greater than the weight of the object itself. In this scenario, in other words, for Jack and Rose to float above the water IN THE WORST CASE SCENARIO, the water displaced by all of the door must weigh as much or more than than the door itself, Rose, and Jack combined. In other words, in the very worst case scenario in which the door floats:

Fmaxbuoyancy = Fgravity

OR

Densitywater X Volumedoor X g = (MLeo + MKate + [Densitydoor X Volumedoor]) X g

This is the worst-case scenario for the young couple because here the door would be fully underwater, providing the maximum buoyant force but also not really buffering between them and the frigid water. Using the most generous numbers to the plot hole legions (the lowest density for oak, the material the door was made out of; the naked weights of a 5’7” woman and a 5’11” man, ignoring any waterlogged clothing that would have dragged them down; and vastly overestimating the total volume of the door) the two sides of this equation resolve to:

Fbuoyancy = 997 Kg/m^3 X .278m^3 X 9.8 m/s^2 = 2,720 N

Fgravity = (75 Kg + 60 Kg + [.278m^3 X 600Kg/m^3]) X 9.8 m/s^2 = 2,960 N


In other words: there’s more gravity pushing our star-crossed lovers down than there is buoyancy holding them up, so hello hypothermia. This is not a plot hole on the simple nuts and bolts of our universe, because Jack and Rose are just too heavy for their door - though Rose alone IS NOT - even in the most generous scenario.

Here’s the thing though: that’s not the reason this scene isn’t a plot hole. These two characters have spent about an hour straight now charged up on adrenaline, running away from the ocean itself and a demented ex-fiance, only to have to watch that same ocean utterly swallow their ship on, leaving them just barely clinging to life and slowly freezing to death. Do the people condemning this scene really expect them to suddenly start having a rational conversation about fluid physics? Not only would it NOT make sense for them to suddenly start trying to calculate the maximum buoyant force the door could generate and adding their mass together, it actually does make perfect sense that the incredibly young and utterly smitten Jack would, after having tried and failed to scramble on to the door (putting Rose in danger of falling in the water in the process), would remain in the water, consigning himself to death in order to make utterly certain that the woman he’s in love with will survive. Even if they both could have floated happily on that door, in other words, this scene isn’t a plot hole because these two people are, well, people.

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In the process of writing this post, my girlfriend also brought to my attention the theory that Jack is actually a figment of Rose’s imagination, which provides yet another reason they couldn’t both have waited out the night on the door together. If Rose actually did fabricate Jack in his entirety, likely to give her some kind of escape from her husband’s stifling cruelty as well as tacitly allow herself justification for open rebellion not just against him but against every expectation society placed on a woman of her station, then he doesn’t need to stick around after that rebellion is completed and she’s likely to die anyways. He has, in short, fulfilled his purpose, and given that she doesn’t truly expect to survive much longer herself, it makes no sense for her to continue fabricating him. How much more realistic, that she’d imagine him slipping tragically away, leaving her alone on the ocean, as she always truly has been.

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Here’s the thing, though: once again NEITHER of the things I’ve just discussed is the real reason this scene isn’t a plot hole, because movies aren’t physics problem sets or psychology theses: they’re stories. And while internal logic is important when it comes to a story functioning properly, what matters FAR MORE is an understanding of conveying emotion and theme and storytelling. On these merits, this scene is an absolute gem. Not only does it, as I stated above, perfectly encapsulate the story’s entire arc up until now, that of two young people falling utterly in young-people love in which not saving yourself to ensure the safety of the person you love seems not only reasonable but like the only sensible choice, it also fits perfectly within the themes and genre of the film. Titanic after all, is a melodrama, which are defined by having archly sketched characters and overly wrought dramatic sensibilities. In this context, what fits more than willing, loving self-sacrifice? Furthermore, this scene perfectly plays into the story of Rose in the current day, who finally releases her “heart of the ocean” pendant down to the depths with Jack in a moment clearly mirroring her declarations to “never let go,” both showing us that, up until that moment, she never had truly let go of him as well as symbolizing the need to heal and move on from traumatic events to avoid being mired in the past while still appreciating the things and people you once loved. Even in terms of film’s one truly substantive theme, class, this scene has something to say when we consider that we’re watching a man of lower class sacrificing himself to preserve the life of a woman of the upper class. This scene is riveting, powerful and deeply touching if you don’t go into it already planning to ridicule everything about it, and perfectly binds together the film’s genre, storyline, and themes. That’s not a plot hole. That’s Oscar-worthy.

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In short, literally everything in the world has conspired to ensure that scene not only isn’t a plot hole, but in fact is a microcosm of everything phenomenal about the film. It makes sense on every level, from the most pedantic to the most meaningful. It successfully grapples with the movie’s most powerful themes. It powerfully communicates meaningful emotions and messages to its audience. In short, it’s an utter gem of a scene because it’s focused on being a scene, and not a discussion of buoyancy. And most importantly, it isn’t afraid of the army of people ready to tear it down, and embraces sincere, moving emotion rather than tedious discussions of the mechanics of survival. I love it unabashedly, and am more convinced than ever that those who don’t are simply watching it wrong. In fact, if you were to sum up the ways in which I’ll vigorously defend this scene until my dying days, you might say:

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Next week we’re back on the water again, but we’re trading our Titanic for a steamboat piloted by the esteemed Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex