James Cameron's Titanic, shot with a poet's eye and a tin ear for dialogue, represents the best and the worst of 1997. The film drags at three-plus hours; it cost somewhere between $200 million and $300 million, which is obscene and more than any movie has ever cost; and it is often shamelessly sappy in telling the fictional love story between Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a 17-year-old American girl traveling with her hot-tempered millionaire fiance, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), and 20-year-old Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a struggling artist who wins his steerage ticket in a poker game.
No matter. Titanic is thrilling in ways that no other movie in 1997 dared to be. Cameron, as director, writer, producer and editor, sticks his neck out, way out, in combining his romantic fiction with a real-life tragedy. On April 15, 1912, five days after embarking on its maiden voyage, from England to New York, the unsinkable Titanic hit an iceberg and went down off the coast of Newfoundland, leaving 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers dead. Cameron wants to astonish us with sights hitherto unseen and to fill us with pity and terror. Visually, he does both. From the moment the largest floating object ever built hits that iceberg, we are confronted with images that will leave jaws dropping in wonder that, yes, movies can do this. Cameron built a replica of the Titanic 90 percent to scale in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, and reproduced the original interiors down to the silverware, wallpaper and carpeting.
It's the words, Cameron's own, that fail him. For example: "I'd rather be his whore than your wife," Rose tells Cal, who oils his way around the ship like a dastardly villain out of a silent movie. You half expect to see his lines printed on title cards. It doesn't help, either, that Cameron divides the passengers so schematically into the listless rich and the lively poor, who are most often found below deck, dancing lustily or bonding with their children.
Yet we are drawn in by DiCaprio and Winslet, who play the lovers with vibrancy and feeling. After a contrived meeting – Jack saves Rose from suicide – he borrows a tux intended for the son of Molly Brown (Kathy Bates is a bawdy delight in too brief a role) and charms Rose at the captain's table with his philosophy about "making every day count." Later, Rose boldly asks Jack to sketch her in the nude, wearing only a priceless blue diamond, a gift from Cal. In a Renault touring car tucked away in the ship's storeroom, Jack trembles as he and Rose make love for the first time. When the iceberg hits, Jack has been falsely arrested for stealing the diamond, and Rose – rivaling the determination shown by Linda Hamilton in Cameron's The Terminator – braves flood and fire to get him out of handcuffs. Cameron's rep as just a hard-ass action director is belied by Titanic and a closer look at the tender relationships in such films as Aliens and The Abyss.
Titanic skimps on details about the ship's crew, the shortage of lifeboats and the distress signals that went unheeded, to keep the audience emotionally invested in Jack and Rose. But despite Cameron's claims that David Lean's Doctor Zhivago is his model, Titanic is far more than a sweeping romantic epic.
The film opens and closes with present-day scenes of Bill Paxton as Brock Lovett, a treasure hunter who uses a submersible vehicle to dive two and a half miles beneath the Atlantic to shoot the rusted ruins of the Titanic. Cameron made that dive himself, using robo-cameras to shoot inside the ship. Those haunting shots of staterooms, fireplaces and chandeliers are in the film, and when Cameron dissolves from their ghostly visage to a vivid re-creation, the effect is breathtaking.
Brock Lovett, of course, is interested in more than aesthetics. He wants to find the blue diamond that Rose wore the night Jack drew her. To that end, he enlists the aid of Rose, now 102 and played, beautifully, by Gloria Stuart. Without giving away the film's secrets, it's fair to say that Cameron sees himself in Brock the profiteer and in Jack the artist, who knows you can't be in it just for the money.
For Cameron, Titanic is an attempt to raise pop entertainment to the level of art. The film is strongest when its images are most harsh: the great ship cracking in two, its stern standing nearly straight up with passengers clinging to its sides before plunging into the sea; Molly Brown failing to persuade the passengers in her lifeboat to risk their lives to save others; and that final moonless night, the sea teeming with life-jacketed passengers – faces blue and throats raw from screaming for help before hypothermia reduces them to silent, floating corpses.
Cameron, the ultimate technocrat and the owner of the company that created the great digital effects for Titanic, has made a historical film that speaks to right now about the dangers of blind faith in technology. In an early scene, Jack and Rose stand on the bow of the ship, stretching their arms out to sea, oblivious of the 47,000 tons of steel beneath them. They're flying high on youthful optimism, unaware of the greed and arrogance that will bring the ship down. Cameron is aware. The sight of the sad ruin of the Titanic got to him. It'll get to you, too.