Late at night, a beautiful young woman clinging to a makeshift raft looks
up into the distance. The sky over the Atlantic Ocean is cloudless and
her tired, desperate eyes gaze at the stars, glistening in the heavens so
very far away. The scene is simple, elegant and haunting, nicely
illustrating why "Titanic" works. Director James Cameron uses a grand
sweeping backdrop to tell an elementary love story, and he tells it very
well. "Titanic" contains some of the most spectacular visuals ever to
appear on screen, but despite the jaw-dropping special effects, it's the
human story that lingers after you leave the theater. Cameron has crafted
an epic that triumphs because he remembered the crucial fact that affairs
of the heart are far more compelling than any special effect.
"Titanic" received massive press coverage for production delays, clashes
on the set and, of course, its record-breaking $200 million dollar budget.
Over the last decade, we've become a nation of media insiders, receiving
tremendous amounts of behind-the-scenes information from the
entertainment world. At the end of each weekend, movie buffs study the
box office results as if they were football scores, measuring the success
of a movie by how much money it takes in, rather than by evaluating the
actual substance of the film. It's an absurd mindset; one that needs to
be put aside in order to best enjoy "Titanic." Production and budget
information may be intriguing, but the only question that really matters
is whether or not the film is any good, and "Titanic" certainly is.
The story begins in the present, as an explorer (Bill Paxton) and his
crew search the wreckage of the Titanic for a legendary diamond called
"The Heart Of The Ocean." Framing the historical saga with present-day
scenes is more than a gimmick. Cameron uses the conceit to give the story
an almost fairy-tale quality. Additionally, the crew presents a computer-
graphic simulation of the precise mechanics of the Titanic's sinking,
making it much easier to follow what's happening when the disaster
Rose, an elderly Titanic survivor (Gloria Stuart) joins the group after
recognizing some personal possessions from a news report of the
expedition. Peering into the glass of a hand mirror recovered from the
ship, she quietly says "It looks the same as it did when I last saw it,
but the reflection has changed." Her ancient eyes grow distant as she
recounts her tale to the crew.
Cut to April, 1912, as the Titanic prepares for her maiden voyage. The
opulent ship is magnificent, a paean to Victorian excess. Cameron
provides a leisurely tour of the vessel as the passengers board and we
meet the two central characters. Young Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet)
is desperately unhappy. She dreads her pending marriage to wealthy snob
Cal Hockley (Billy Zane,) but can't break off the engagement. Despite
their upper crust trappings, Rose and her mother (Frances Fisher) are
broke and need the financial security the marriage will provide. In a
moment of panic, Rose climbs over the rail of the ship, contemplating a
suicidal dive, when penniless artist-at-large Jack Dawson (Leonardo
DiCaprio,) who won his ticket in a poker game, intervenes and romance
blossoms between the two.
James Cameron states adamantly that "Titanic" is not a disaster film and
he's right. Disaster films generally take 10-15 characters and try to
tell all of their stories. The result is typically a jumbled mess of
clichés. Cameron instead chose to take the very basic story of one
representative couple and keep his focus there. Jack and Rose are just a
couple of kids experiencing the awkwardness and exhilaration of first
love, but they matter. Against the backdrop of a doomed vessel, these two
young lovers come alive, and we feel all the poignancy of their situation.
The magic Winslet and DiCaprio generate underscores the tragedy
befalling everyone on the ship.
Winslet is splendid, by the way. Her wonderfully nuanced performance is
among the years best. And DiCaprio, one of the most annoyingly smug
actors in the business, is warm and winning here.
And then there's the wreck. Despite some occassionally shaky special
effects, Cameron's realization of the Titanic's crash and collapse is
flat-out breathtaking. He fills the screen with images of devastation on
a scale unlike anything ever seen in a movie before. By putting the human
story ahead of the effects, the nightmarish scenes carry an emotionally
resonance far beyond mere spectacle. Tragic, beautiful and haunting,
"Titanic" uses 90s technology to create an old-fashioned Hollywood
blockbuster. It's three hours and fifteen minutes long, but the time
flies by, and you can't pay a movie a higher compliment than that.
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott