Like a great iron Sphinx on the ocean floor, the Titanic faces still toward the West, interrupted forever on its only voyage. We see it in the opening shots of Titanic, encrusted with the silt of 85 years; a remote-controlled TV camera snakes its way inside, down corridors and through doorways, showing us staterooms built for millionaires and inherited by crustaceans.
These shots strike precisely the right note; the ship calls from its grave for its story to be told, and if the story is made of showbiz and hype, smoke and mirrors - well, so was the Titanic.
James Cameron's 194-minute, $200 million film of the tragic voyage is in the tradition of the great Hollywood epics. It is flawlessly crafted, intelligently constructed, strongly acted and spellbinding.
We know before the movie begins that certain things must happen. We must see the Titanic sail and sink, and be convinced we are looking at a real ship. There must be a human story - probably a romance. There must be vignettes involving some of the other passengers, and a subplot involving the arrogance and pride of the ship's builders - and perhaps also their courage and dignity. And there must be a re-enactment of the ship's terrible death throes; it took 21/2 hours to sink, so everyone aboard had time to know what was happening, and to consider his actions.
All of those elements are present in Mr. Cameron's Titanic, weighted and balanced like ballast, so that the film always seems in proportion.
The human story involves an 18-year-old woman named Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) who has been forced by her penniless mother to become engaged to marry a rich, supercilious snob named Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). So bitterly does she hate this prospect that she tries to kill herself by jumping from the ship. She is saved by Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a brash kid from steerage class, and of course they fall in love.
The screenplay tells their story in a way that unobtrusively shows off the ship. Jack is invited to join Rose's party at dinner in the first class dining room, and later, fleeing from Cal's manservant, Lovejoy (David Warner), they find themselves first in the awesome engine room, with pistons as tall as churches.Their exploration is intercut with scenes from the command deck, where the captain (Bernard Hill) consults with Andrews (Victor Garber), the ship's designer, and Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), the White Star Line's managing director.
Ismay wants the ship to break the trans-Atlantic speed record. He is warned that icebergs may have floated into the hazardous northern crossing, but is scornful of danger. The Titanic can easily break the speed record, but is too massive to turn quickly at high speed; there is an agonizing sequence that almost seems to play in slow motion, as the ship strains and shudders to turn away from an iceberg in its path, and fails.
We understand exactly what is happening at that moment because of an ingenious story technique by Mr. Cameron, who frames and explains the entire voyage in a modern story. The opening shots of the real Titanic, we are told, are obtained during an expedition led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), a documentary filmmaker. He seeks precious jewels but finds a nude drawing of a young girl. In England, an ancient woman sees the drawing on television and recognizes herself. This is Rose (Gloria Stuart), still alive at 101. She visits Mr. Paxton and shares her memories. ("I can still smell the fresh paint.") And he shows her scenes from his documentary, including a computer simulation of the Titanic's last hours - which doubles as a briefing for the audience.
By the time the ship sinks, we already know what is happening and why, and the story can focus on the characters while we effortlessly follow the stages of the Titanic's sinking.
Movies like this are not merely difficult to make at all, but almost impossible to make well. The technical difficulties are so daunting that it's a wonder when the filmmakers are also able to bring the drama and history into proportion. I found myself convinced by both the story and the saga.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jack Dawson; Kate Winslet is Rose DeWitt Bukater; Billy Zane is Cal Hockley; Kathy Bates is Molly Brown; Bill Paxton is Brock Lovett; Gloria Stuart is Rose Calvert; Frances Fisher is Ruth DeWitt Bukater; Bernard Hill is Capt. E.J. Smith; David Warner is Spicer Lovejoy; Victor Garber is Thomas Andrews; and Jonathan Hyde is Bruce Ismay
Running time: 194 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disaster-related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality and language)