This “Titanic” arrives at its destination. A spectacular demonstration of what modern technology can contribute to dramatic storytelling, James Cameron’s romantic epic, which represents the biggest roll of the dice in film history, will send viewers in search of synonyms for the title to describe the film’s size and scope. The dynamic of the central love story, between a brash lad from steerage and an upper-class young lady bursting to escape her gilded cage, is as effective as it is corny, and will definitely help put the picture over with the largest possible public. This fast-paced three-hour extravaganza, which had its world premiere at the Tokyo Film Festival on Saturday night, is certain to do exceptionally well at the box office, and Paramount’s $60 million investment for U.S. rights on a $200 million-plus production has to be one of the bargain deals of the century. Whether Fox can come anywhere nearer to break-even in the rest of the world than the Titanic did to New York is another matter.
In telling the story of one of history’s most celebrated disasters, the sinking of the White Star Line’s R.M.S. Titanic on her maiden voyage from Southampton on April 15, 1912, Cameron was clearly inspired by the challenge of reproducing the event with a physical verisimilitude and impact inconceivable in the numerous previous film and TV versions of the event.
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At the same time, the writer-director, best known for his effects-laden sci-fi thrillers, has pushed a human drama, and an intense love story at that, to the forefront in a way he never has before. Result works as old-fashioned melodrama, even if one can’t quite say romance is now his forte.
Capitalizing on the 1985 discovery of the Titanic’s remains 2-1/2 miles beneath the surface in the North Atlantic, Cameron frames the period drama with contemporary action in which American explorer/opportunist Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) uses deep-sea submersibles to videotape and retrieve artifacts from the vessel. Opening sequence offers a ghostly partial tour of the encrusted “ship of dreams,” which Lovett hopes will yield him a bounty of hugely valuable diamonds he believes are on board.
Instead of finding any stones, however, Lovett does turn up an intriguing drawing of a young nude woman wearing a fabulous necklace, dated April 14, 1912. This discovery comes to the attention of a 102-year-old woman named Rose (Gloria Stuart), who in fact is the woman in the portrait and is summarily spirited to Lovett’s ship at the wreckage’s site to confirm details and, at length, to tell her story as it happened 84 years before.
First shots of the Titanic taking on passengers at Southampton are truly stunning, with the brand new ship representing the consummate triumph of the industrial age. Famously dubbed “unsinkable,” she was the biggest moving object ever constructed, built at a cost of $7.5 million. Cameron’s camera swoops up, down and around, taking in the masses from all classes crowding on board, but takes an immediate interest in two people: Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a haughty society girl returning to Philadelphia to marry her rich snob fiance Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), and penniless, devil-may-care American Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), who wins his ticket on the Titanic in a last-minute dockside card game.
The launch, on April 10, is an exciting wonder to behold, as the camera zips through all sections of the ship to amply reveal its luxurious extravagance as well as the rightful pride of its designer and crew. Planted early on is the suggestion that the wish of the company’s managing director, Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), to break the Atlantic crossing speed record led directly to his craft’s collision with an iceberg 400 miles off Newfoundland.
Surprisingly little time, however, is given over to the captain and those otherwise in charge of running the ship. As soon as they are under way, Rose does everything she can to rebel against her impossibly arrogant fiance and starchily class-conscious mother (Frances Fisher). Finally, feeling hopelessly trapped, she makes her way to the aft deck, where she is rescued from jumping overboard by none other than Jack, who has been admiring her from afar.
To repay him for saving his lady’s life, Cal is obliged to invite the scruffy dog to dinner at their first class table the following night, where Jack parries his snobbish hosts’ insults with as much style as he can muster. In return, he later spirits Rose off to third class, where they join in some spirited dancing with the immigrants, giving Rose more fun than she’s ever had in her life.
And so it goes with their schematic romance, with the upper-class girl freed from the stultifying restraints of her stiffly formal world by a resourceful, never-say-die, tousle-headed American Everyman. The formula at work here would have been right at home in silent melodramas, and it is to the credit of the vigorously spirited DiCaprio and the emotionally accessible Winslet that the relationship comes to life as engagingly as it does.
Deciding to reject her intended future life altogether, Rose asks Jack, who has made his living making sketches on the streets of Paris, to draw her in the nude wearing the invaluable blue diamond Cal has given her, an effectively intense and sensual sequence.
Chased hither and yon thereafter, they find the time and place to consummate their passion — American style — in the back seat of a luxury car in the ship’s hold before all hell breaks lose.
The Titanic hits the iceberg 100 minutes into the film, and the next 80 minutes represent uninterrupted excitement and spectacle. With a deathly quiet hanging over the ship at the midnight hour, the captain and crew swallow the quickly inescapable conclusion that the unthinkable has happened and the vessel is going to go down, just as some men on deck kick large ice chips around like soccer balls. Some first class passengers are irritated at the inconvenience of being evacuated from their quarters while water rushes headlong into the punctured front compartments of the ship.
Even at this point, however, Cameron steers his attention away from the general calamity to pile on even more complications for Jack and Rose, as the latter must discover where her vengeful fiance has had him locked up and then must make like a superheroine to fight her way through nearly submerged passages to rescue him. But Cal, who would only need an oily mustache to become the complete Edwardian-era villain, still isn’t finished, as he pursues Jack and Rose with a pistol even as freezing water is engulfing one and all.
This telling covers some of the classical ground: There were only lifeboats enough for half the passengers, and many of the 60-seat crafts went out only partially filled; first class patrons were given priority, as were women and children, while the steerage passengers were kept behind locked gates for a long time; some wealthy types sat stoically sipping brandy or locked in embraces with their mates, and a group of musicians continued to play soothing music to keep a lid on the panic. Still, the film misses a suspenseful beat by largely ignoring the presence of other boats in the vicinity and not indicating why they never made it to the Titanic.
The ship’s final plunge, as it breaks in two and the aft section rises up perpendicular to the black sea, is utterly stunning and effectively places the viewer in the jaws of death. The aftermath is possibly even more sobering, as hundreds of people are left in lifejackets bobbing in the frigid waters, shouting out but certain of their doom.
Much of this would not have been possible without the latest in digital special effects; their integration into the live filming is seamless, making all the extraordinary effort pay off onscreen. Technically, there is no question that the film is a wonder, and Cameron, production designer Peter Lamont, cinematographer Russell Carpenter, costume designer Deborah L. Scott, visual effects supervisor Robert Legato and the crew at Digital Domain represent only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of those hundreds of hands responsible for the exceptional-looking package.
DiCaprio and Winslet deliver all and more of what might have been expected of them, Kathy Bates tosses off some jolly jests as the “unsinkable” Molly Brown, and Gloria Stuart, a beautiful leading lady of the early sound era, is quite moving as the elderly woman who tells her intimate memories of the Titanic for the first time.
All others, however, are stuck with stock characterizations, and one wonders if Cameron could not have brought more depth and resonance to a few more of his characters. Quite annoyingly, the British here are little more than background players, signaling the notion that international blockbusters, regardless of setting, must be populated principally by Americans.
Quite a bit of the dialogue is peppered by vulgarities and colloquialisms that seem inappropriate to the period and place, but again seem aimed directly to the sensibilities of young American viewers. And Paxton’s crass crew on the explorer ship seem separated-at-birth from the meteorological crew in “Twister.”
As a nice contrast to the heavier accompaniment to the action footage, James Horner’s main theme has a liltingly melancholy Irish flavor.
Modern-day prologue runs 20 minutes, and is bookended with a seven-minute epilogue and seven more minutes of end credits, leaving the main drama with a 160-minute duration.
The Titanic story was filmed first, under the title “Atlantic,” by German director E.A. Dupont in 1929 for British Intl. in German and English-language versions with different casts, then in 1940, as “Titanic,” by the Germans as a piece of anti-British propaganda, albeit technically very impressive. Hollywood first gave it a go in 1953 in Fox’s “Titanic,” with the British “A Night to Remember” following to general acclaim in 1958. Two TV renditions came in “S.O.S. Titanic” in 1979 and “Titanic” in 1996.