In this paper I argue that a reading of Georges Bataille’s work on economics and excess and his formulation of the critical concept of ‘general economy’ can be instructive with regard to understanding the role of spectacle in contemporary cinema. Thinking about cinema in relation to general economy offers a basis for a critical model of cinema which can reconcile its economic and aesthetic functions rather than holding them apart as conventional theories of film have tended to do. The paper takes as its primary case study James Cameron’s $200m blockbuster Titanic, a film notable for its phenomenal scale and expense. Also notable is the contrast between the film’s massive commercial success, and the critical tendency to dismiss the film as sentimental, nostalgic, simplistic, incoherent, anachronistic and bombastic. I suggest that this striking contrast exposes a failure of film criticism to account for cinematic spectacle as anything other than a reprehensible device for audience manipulation. What is at stake in this omission is, therefore, the exclusion of popular cultural objects from an academic discourse of film criticism (and a simplistic model of the spectatorial relationship with the text). This paper mobilizes Bataille’s model of general economy, in which excess is foregrounded, to offer a different way of understanding the attractions, complexities and meanings of popular cinema and, in turn, the meanings and pleasures of cultural activity more broadly.