Ships have always been called on to haul more than their share of
metaphorical baggage, and none more so than the RMS Titanic, the
seagoing Tower of Babel that became an instant emblem of technological hubris
when the supposedly unsinkable vessel went down with 1500 passengers after
hitting an iceberg in April of 1912. Jim Cameron, the filmmaker who most
embodies technological hubris, has had a few shaky voyages of his own, but none
as ill-omened as this cinematic Titanic, the most expensive movie ever
made and one besieged by highly publicized problems and delays. Yet the subject
certainly fits the director, and though it might have been nicer to have made,
say, 20 more films like The Terminator for that $200 million, this
unwieldy leviathan restores the blockbuster-event movie to artistic legitimacy.
Not only does Titanic elevate its special effects with a story,
characters, and a point, it also brings to them the long-missing qualities of
awe and vision. When that vast bow surges upright, turning the universe upside
down, the human freight spilling like peas, it's a vision of Armageddon.
Eight decades or so later, technology has taken a few new hubristic turns. In
scenes reminiscent of his The Abyss, only much eerier, Cameron shows
real-life footage of insect-like deep-sea submersibles probing the ship's
crusty hull as it lies in state on the ocean floor. The research crew headed by
Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) are not altogether altruistic in their scientific
ideals, however -- they're looking for "The Star of the Sea," a peerless
diamond they've learned was on board when the Titanic sank.
They don't find the diamond, but they do recover a nude sketch of a beautiful
woman, and soon thereafter the woman herself turns up, Rose Calvert (Gloria
Stuart), 101 years old and with a tale to tell. In a compelling transition (and
a technique perhaps overused throughout the movie), Rose watches a video of the
ship's hoary and derelict ballroom door filmed by Lovett's cameras, her aged
face reflected in the monitor screen. The door springs to life as it was 84
years ago, opening to music and gaiety, and then is gone. The search for a
diamond, the epitome of inanimate beauty, leads to a frail bit of art and the
woman who inspired it. And just as a miracle of technology almost cost Rose her
life back in 1912, so now a miracle of technology brings her memory of the
Titanic to life.
It's an impressive conceit, and representative of the poetic intelligence that
keeps the film afloat. The story Rose tells, though, is not so extraordinary.
She starts out as spoiled and desperate 17-year-old American socialite Rose
DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet in a career-making performance) whose mother, Ruth
(Frances Fisher), a dowager facing ruin, is marrying her off to a millionaire's
son, the impossibly villainous Cal Hockley (Billy Zane, who just wishes he had
mustachios to curl and a railroad track to tie poor Rose to). Cal's engagement
gift to Rose is the "Star of the Sea" and a trip on the Titanic to their
wedding in America. Meanwhile, plucky young American Jack Dawson (Leonardo
DiCaprio), an impoverished, itinerant artist, has won steerage passage on the
ship in a poker game. The free-spirited Jack and the gilded-caged Rose meet on
board, and so on.
It's a standard story given a Jamesian depth with its (sometimes simplistic)
subtext of money, class, power, and sexual repression. Winslet brings
delightful depth and range to her role, overcoming its lapses in development --
only her capricious sensuality and spontaneity makes Rose's sudden decision to
pose nude for Jack believable. DiCaprio, for his part, has trouble rising above
the cute-boy snottiness that tends to be his stock in trade. He does so,
however, in a scene where he's fitted in his first tuxedo, which is given to
him by the understanding vulgarian Molly Brown (Kathy Bates). He fills the
outfit nicely, and at a dinner with Cal and Ruth and their supercilious
retinue, he responds to their insults with wry wit, dignity, and panache.
But all the sexual intrigue and the chases and the gunfire and the passion
submerge below the great disaster of which they are only vivid reflections. In
a scene reminiscent of the death throes of King Kong, the ship goes down. It's
not a roller-coaster ride. Like Cameron's best work, Titanic shows that
the fascination with such technological wonders as the White Star liner and
this movie itself is a fascination with the inanimate, with death. The film's
long final phase is a harrowing series of sublime images of death and those
about to die. It will fill your dreams, as it did mine, with the terror and
release of drowning, of the dread of what iceberg lies in the path of the vain
vessel of our lives and our civilization.