Few Hollywood pictures in recent years have generated as much fanfare and anticipation as James Cameron's mega-budget-reportedly $200 million-Titanic, which finally docked at movie theatres after months of delay. Sailing under two flags-romantic adventure and special-effects extravaganza-this is a relentlessly entertaining, old-fashioned audience movie which should leave all but the most intractable viewer mightily impressed.
Both Hollywood's 1953 Titanic, starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck, and Britain's 1958 A Night to Remember, with Kenneth More and Honor Blackman, couldn't resist framing the story of this unprecedented disaster in terms of its human impact, but, seaworthy as those pictures might have been in their day, they pale next to the current movie's overwhelming vision and, oddly enough, its initially off-putting but ultimately engaging love story.
Cameron launches his three-hours-and-change epic with a wraparound story involving Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), a modern-era mercenary intent on exploring the Titanic wreck and plundering what riches remain onboard. Lovett is a cold fish alright, but he is brought up short upon meeting a 101-year-old woman named Rose Calvert (played wonderfully by Gloria Stuart, who starred in Gold Diggers of 1935 and The Old Dark House), who survived the doomed ocean liner's maiden voyage. Intrigued by Rose's recollections, which happen to be linked to a priceless necklace, Lovett and his crew find themselves viewing the Titanic tale from a new, more personal vantage point.
Flash back to 1912, as a youthful Rose (Kate Winslet) and her wealthy fianc Cal (Billy Zane) board the Titanic in Southampton, enroute to America for an arranged marriage. One night, on deck, the downcast Rose catches the eye of Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), an impoverished American artist, fresh from Paris, who has won his transatlantic passage back home, albeit in steerage, in a card game. Rose and Jack 'meet cute,' if improbably, when he rescues her from a suicide leap off the ship's bow. 'Just call me a tumbleweed,' Jack advises his new companion, whom he also instructs in the presumably working-class art of spitting.
If Titanic has a few less than enthralling reels, they can be found in the movie's first hour, when the burgeoning romance between Rose and Jack occupies center stage. A predictable parade of rich notables including Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), soon to become 'unsinkable,' establishes the shipboard class restrictions which hardly matter to Jack, who spends almost as much time in first class as John Jacob Astor. Cal fumes at the young upstart with designs on his fiance, and Jack responds by whisking Rose off to E-deck, where they really know how to throw a party. But James Horner's exuberant Irish dance music can't distract us from Cameron's script, which is far too contemporary for the early 20th century. (One line from Jack-'When you got nothin', you got nothin' to lose'-is lifted almost intact from a 1960s Bob Dylan song.)
If Titanic seems a bit hesitant before the ship strikes the iceberg, Cameron more than makes up for this in the movie's second half, when image after stupendous image fills the wide screen. Let's not forget this is the filmmaker who directed two Terminator movies, Aliens, The Abyss and True Lies. Titanic is, to some degree, a romantic adventure, but that doesn't mean its special effects, especially when the panic of the ocean liner's submersion in water grips the passengers, are anything short of jaw-dropping. The movie, too, projects a sad melancholy in its final reel as one recognizes the enormity and horror of the tragedy.
DiCaprio, as the reckless but sensitive artist, comes on too strong at first, but settles into his role and actually evolves into a credible, if not physically daunting, action hero. With her English-rose features and willful attitude, Winslet's heroine emerges as a plucky, sympathetic presence. We root for her to survive, even though we know from the outset that she will. Meanwhile, the villain assignments are handled capably by Zane and David Warner, the former in a role that personifies the term 'rich cad,' and the latter as Cal's bullying aide-de-camp who is continually outsmarted by the crafty Jack.
Cameron's screenplay is lively and inventive, even if it verges on the unintentionally humorous when characters comment on the painters of the day. 'Picasso won't amount to anything,' predicts one art expert. Jack enthuses over Monet, whom no one seems to have heard of, although, by 1912, this major figure of Impressionism was already in his 70s. Far more credible, in fact dazzling, is the production design by Peter Lamont and Deborah L. Scott's costumes, which reflect both the elegance of the first-class passengers and the resourcefulness of the E-deck roustabouts.
For all the love story and splendor of the Titanic re-creation, Cameron's film reaches some of its most glorious moments when Lovett presents an eerie underwater tour of the Titanic's remains. We are reminded that this 'ship of dreams' took more than 1,500 people to their death in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Titanic spends a good part of its last hour vividly recreating that nightmare, but the footage of the actual wreck, resting on the bottom of the ocean for nearly a century, speaks volumes. But, whether dealing with reality or Cameron's fact-based fiction, Titanic is a remarkable achievement.