Titanic

Gambit Weekly

DIRECTED BY: James Cameron

REVIEWED: 01-12-98

All the early press on James Cameron's Titanic focused on the director's obsessive, megalomaniacal behavior, which resulted in the film's unprecedented $200 million price tag. Having seen the three-hour, twenty-minute finished product, I can attest to the picture's wretched excess. This movie is way longer than necessary and foolishly wasteful. At times it is also gratingly dumb. But all that said, you ought to go see Titanic. It's chock full of hokum, but it delivers an experience you can only get at the movies.

Set against the backdrop of the well-known 1912 maiden-voyage sinking of the world's largest and most luxurious ocean liner, Titanic is a love story across the mine field of class. Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a 17-year-old girl of the American ruling class. She is unhappily engaged to the snobbish and domineering Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), heir to a vast fortune. Rose chafes in the relationship, but her conniving mother, Ruth (Frances Fischer), insists that she see it through. The Bukaters' own resources have been devastated by the death of Rose's father. The Bukaters and Hockley board the Titanic as first class passengers, of course. Down in the bowels of steerage, meanwhile, is Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a vagabond American painter who has traveled about the world doing odd jobs and won his Titanic ticket in a card game. Rose has the world at her fingertips and knows nothing of it. Jack has seen the world without a penny in his pocket. Their meeting produces amour the way stone and flint produce fire.


Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet dash for the deck in Titanic
The critic in me is required to tell you how irksome this picture often proves itself. Cameron spent millions filming the wreck of the Titanic on the North Atlantic floor and used it to fashion a contemporary frame story about treasure hunters. The frame does produce a graceful performance by Gloria Stuart as the 101-year-old Rose, but it's not really necessary and serves mainly to add unwanted length. In the central story, Cameron introduces such characters as Jack's pal Fabrizio De Rossi (Danny Nucci) for the sole purpose of killing them at the end. Kathy Bates is employed as Molly Brown, but her character doesn't really have anything to do except wait to board a lifeboat. Meanwhile, Cal is rendered such an unalloyed villain, he might as well have grown a mustache so he could twist its ends. The story would have been much more interesting had Cal possessed a few redeeming qualities.

Mostly, though, Titanic irritates because Cameron just can't let loose of hoary, adventure-movie storytelling tactics. It's not enough that the ship is sinking; he's got to get Jack arrested and handcuffed to a pipe on a lower deck. Then he's got to send Rose after her lover through hallways filling with water. And even after Rose has set Jack free, Cameron has to see them trapped at gated portals not once but twice. And if that's not enough, the director sends a murderous Cal after them, shooting wildly as the lovers slosh from deck to deck. It's so ridiculous you want to scream.

Even worse, Cameron plays stupidly loose with the facts of a disaster this immense. No one could survive what Rose and Jack do as they ride the stern into the sea. It's the equivalent of an airplane passenger living through a crash by jumping off just before the plane hits the ground. And where's that power plant that keeps the Titanic electricity on even after the boat has broken in half? And why doesn't the icy sea water bother Rose in the ship's hallways? And why doesn't Jack register the shock of the cold when he's sucked underwater? And so forth and so on.

And still this picture is actually worth it. The grandeur of the production is narcotic. Cameron may be a madman, but he's an artist in his own low-rent way. His shots of the giant pistons in the Titanic's engine room recall the factory footage in Chaplin's Modern Times and purposely serve to remind us that people sweated and took risks to make the mammoth ship move. Elsewhere, Cameron masterfully matches footage taken along the sunken Titanic's promenade with those on his own 90 percent-scale replica. The effect is haunting. And frankly, clumsily overdone as it is, the romance works too -- not the Cal triangle part, but the relationship between Jack and Rose. Winslet is a little shaky at the start, but her performance gets better over the three-plus hours. And DiCaprio nails Jack from the start. He's terrific. An actor who has specialized in playing troubled and damaged characters, he chucks all the mannerisms and plays a winning romantic lead straight up. He makes you believe Jack's feelings for Rose, and together in the sketching scene, he and Winslet produce as erotically charged a moment as you'll find in cinema this year.

--Rick Barton

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