Titanic

Let’s get the obvious out of the way — the stats you’ve been hearing constantly, unless you live at the bottom of the Atlantic: Titanic cost $200 million (at least), and it runs over three hours. By the end of the movie, I didn’t care if it had cost $500 million, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing another hour or two. More than just the thousand-pound gorilla of the season, Titanic is clearly the movie of the year — a big, beautiful, excessive spectacle, the kind of lavish moviemaking that only Hollywood can finance and that only a few directors can pull off. Spielberg is one (though not in the recent Amistad). James Cameron, as he proves definitively here, is another.

Since Aliens eleven years ago, Cameron has made a career of pushing the envelope, straining his budgets, and topping himself. His next movie, I imagine, will be filmed entirely on the moon; that’s the only way he can possibly top Titanic, which exceeds our expectations by making the ill-fated ship (and its passengers) real to us. Cameron centers his story on a romance between two fictional characters — resourceful poor-boy Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and upper-class Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) — and he risks trivializing the historical tragedy: Who cares about two young lovers when the Titanic is cracking apart? But the risk pays off. The romance is a familiar, comforting spine for the movie, and Cameron makes it work by sheer, stubborn force of will. By the time the ship hits the iceberg, ninety minutes into the film, we’ve had time to get to know Jack and Rose, and to care about them.

Titanic is actually an epic flashback seen through the eyes of 101-year-old Rose (Gloria Stuart), who recognizes a sketch of herself found in the wreck of the Titanic. As Rose relates her story to the expedition leader (Bill Paxton), we see the dead Titanic literally come to life — its rotted, barnacle-crusted hallways and rooms restore themselves, via computer imaging, to mint condition, and we’re smoothly transported to 1912. The Titanic’s first and final voyage kicks off with a sense of optimism bordering on arrogance. “God himself couldn’t sink this ship,” says Rose’s upper-class (i.e., hissable) fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). The ship, we later learn, contains less than half the lifeboats needed to save its 2,200 passengers. Why? Because the lifeboats spoil the ship’s beauty, and it’s never going to sink anyway.

The heart of Titanic is the romance, played out at an epic length that allows time for the mismatched Jack and Rose to fall plausibly in love. I had worried about Cameron’s decision to rest his massive film on the shoulders of the leads, who still look like teenagers; DiCaprio in particular had lost some of my good will after his annoying, pouty performances in Total Eclipse and Romeo + Juliet. Whatever Cameron did to bully DiCaprio’s bad habits out of him, it was worth it — DiCaprio makes a fine epic hero, brave and honest but never insufferably noble, and Winslet, as always, conveys trembling vulnerability concealing reserves of strength. Always a feminist, Cameron gives his Titanic two gutsy female survivors: the young Rose, who finds grace under pressure, and the elderly Rose, who lived to tell the tale.

About two hours in, the real destruction begins, and it’s both thrilling and terrifying — that $200 million is on the screen. The repeated image of people falling to their deaths, glancing off rails and propellers on the way down, has a heart-stopping grandeur far beyond the reach of a routine disaster movie. Like Spielberg, Cameron can find incongruous beauty in tragedy: dozens of corpses in the icy water, frozen into an eternal upright position, as if still praying to be rescued; the broken china plates and exquisite furnishings, rendered meaningless by the brutal logic of disaster; and the actual footage of the gutted Titanic itself, which has an odd elegance in death that it didn’t have in life. At least it looks lived-in now; the fish swimming around inside have no class distinctions, unlike the tuxedoed old money and the scrappy immigrants who shared the Titanic’s last voyage. Cameron’s anti-upper-class touches are sometimes too broad and facile, and his dialogue is often anachronistic (did anybody say “That’s pretty much it” in 1912?), but these are small flaws on a huge canvas — a blockbuster work of art. Titanic delivers and then some.

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