If one is in a Biblical frame of mind, the sinking of the White Star Line's R.M.S. Titanic about 400 miles off the southern coast of Newfoundland in 1912 could well be characterized as an act of divine one-upmanship. The 46,328-ton "ship of dreams" was struck down on its maiden voyage from Southampton because mere mortals should not presume to blithely conquer the sea. Unsinkable? Ha!
If one is in a Hollywood frame of mind--in other words, vengeful, envious, anxious--the James Cameron film Titanic should also be struck down, because mere mortal film directors should not presume to run up a tab of more than $200 million dollars to make a movie that could best be described as Romeo and Juliet Get Dunked.
But hubris in Hollywood comes with the territory, and sometimes the gods smile. For all its bulk and blather, Titanic is no disaster. It's closer to being a great big romantic cornball success. The film makes it safely into port courtesy of its co-stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and its sheer golly-gee monumentality.
Movie spectaculars are often anything but. Speed 2: Cruise Control, for example, cost $160 million, which was about $160 million too much. Titanic at least lets you know you're watching a movie--or, to be exact, a movie-movie, the kind you responded to as a kid when you sat wide-eyed in the front row and couldn't even follow the plot, but it didn't matter.
Cameron, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to have conceived Titanic in precisely these googly-eyed terms--which is both the film's triumph and limitation. As a piece of storytelling, it's almost as easy to read as a grade-school primer; even toddlers shouldn't have trouble following the action. But one doesn't necessarily look to a movie like this for complexity. Cameron's script is all splash and swoon--it serves up the pleasures of the obvious. The people aboard the Titanic are instantly pegged for us, and they stay that way: They're greedy or good-natured or craven or valiant. Ambiguity and subtlety are strangers to this film. They're about as welcome as icebergs.
The Titanic disaster is one of those epochal events that allows everybody to derive from it their own meaning, their own "spin." Just recently there's been a gargantuan Tony-winning Broadway musical, Titanic, and a spectral, delicate novel, Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge. Close to a dozen movies have already been made about the Titanic, and the most famous of them, the 1958 British A Night to Remember, is, in its stiff-upper-lip rectitude, at the opposite end emotionally from Cameron's film.
Cameron's "spin" is a most familiar one: With its strict demarcations of first class, second class, and steerage, the Titanic was a floating--or sinking--microcosm of stratified privilege. Of its approximately 2,000 passengers, the 700 or so survivors were overwhelmingly from first-class. Cameron pushes the class inequities with an almost Marxist zeal: At times we could be watching a blockbuster Hollywood version of vintage Soviet realism. Almost without exception the rich in this film are effete rotters and scoundrels while the working class are bursting with the life force. The wealthy represent the vanishing, Edwardian order of things, while the immigrant poor are the frontier spirit of the future.
And yet the class "analysis" in this movie isn't really political at all. It exists to set up the film's star-crossed romance. Poor boy gets rich girl--it's the oldest romantic ploy in the book. Jack Dawson (DiCaprio), a footloose, tousled-haired scamp who has made his living for the past two years sketching on the streets of Paris, looks up from steerage deck at a first-class vision of loveliness--Winslet's Rose DeWitt Bukater, a society girl who is returning to Philadelphia with her mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher), and filthy rich snob fiance, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Jack wins his steerage ticket in a last-minute dockside card game in Southampton, yet he seems more at home on the great ocean liner than Rose, who walks around as if entrapped in a gilded cage.
She is, of course, looking for a way out of her loveless betrothal. When Jack later saves her from jumping overboard in despair, she recognizes in this golden-haired Romeo her true paramour. He tolerates a dinner with her condescending consorts in first class--it's his prize for rescuing her--and then smuggles her into a steerage hoe-down where she boozes and stomps it up. Those poor people really know how to party! Jack even teaches her to spit--which means you can expect the scene where Rose defends Jack's honor by spitting in the face of a rich prig.
But just in case you think she's slumming, we also discover that Jack has the soul of an artist. When he sketches Rose nude in the privacy of her stateroom, he's making love to her. It's a thrilling scene because it's both intensely erotic and pristine; Jack and Rose are like blushing cherubim. When they do actually make love later, it's something of a let-down--they've already done it.
The romantic scenes in Titanic are extravagantly affecting, and this is a tribute not only to Cameron but to his co-stars. When we see Jack and Rose tightly embracing on the ship's prow as the Titanic sweeps headlong through the ocean, it recalls the scene in Superman where the Man of Steel flies Lois Lane through Manhattan's night sky. Sequences like these are experienced by audiences as a collective swoon. They're schlock raised to the level of schlock poetry, and sometimes that's more boffo than the real thing.
It's popular to call Cameron an action-hardware auteur, but he's always had a ripe, almost fervid romantic streak. In his underwater epic The Abyss, which was partly inspired by the first movies brought back from the ocean floor of the sunken Titanic, there's a sequence in which Ed Harris attempts to revive a drowned Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio that is almost frighteningly rapturous. That's the same effect he's trying for in Titanic, a movie in which the rapture comes from the beauty and innocence of its lovers and the fright comes from what we know must befall them. The huge doom awaiting them gives their love an operatic poignancy.
DiCaprio has an intuitive grace before the camera--he would have been marvelous in silent films--and the high polish of his features makes him seem anointed. Jack is a romantic's vision of working-class youth, and you accept his supremacy as the natural order of things. He gives flesh to this sentimental fantasy of the bright and shining poor. DiCaprio has just the right temperature for this film: If he were swarthier he'd be competing with the ship, and if he were fey he'd disappear. He never lets the Titanic get the better of him, and, considering its size, that's saying something.
Winslet at first seems stocky and unconvincing opposite DiCaprio. She's playing the sleeping beauty who needs to be awakened by the prole prince's kiss, but it's not until she returns his ardor that Winslet really shines. In her initial scenes with the first-class crowd, her snooty society mannerisms seem actressy; but alone with DiCaprio, skimming the winds or locked in icy waters, she matches his resplendent charm. Her features become softer--she's like a maiden in a cameo from an Edwardian locket. Onscreen, DiCaprio and Winslet have the kind of innocence that can't be faked. This is a behemoth of a movie, with its near-actual-sized Titanic replica sitting in a tank of 17 million gallons of seawater, and gazillions of special effects. DiCaprio and Winslet provide the human touch--and the ethereal touch--to keep the whole shebang afloat.
It's a good thing too, as Jack and Rose are just about the only featured characters in the movie. Cameron doesn't have a very layered imagination. Usually these shipboard dramas are chockablock with subplots and supporting players; The Poseidon Adventure, for example, was practically a variety show for every B-list actor in Hollywood. Titanic, by contrast, is almost eerily empty of incidentals; just about everything that happens is keyed to the lovers' romantic predicament. Kathy Bates has a funny turn as the sashaying, new-moneyed "Unsinkable" Molly Brown--she calls out to John Jacob Astor by yelling, "Hey Astor!"--and David Warner is creepy as Cal's lethal manservant. But Cameron cares only about his lovebirds; he may be working on a humongous scale, but essentially he's a miniaturist here. He doesn't even play up the suspense of how the Titanic might have been saved; he doesn't outline the circumstances--the unheeded radio dispatches, or the push by the ship company's managing director to break an Atlantic-crossing speed record--that contributed to its destruction. He accepts the entire catastrophe as a piece of romantic fatalism.
Until the end, even the framing device Cameron introduces seems secondary: A fortune-hunting salvager played by Bill Paxton attempts to bring up from the Titanic wreck a fabled diamond, the "Heart of the Ocean," which, we soon discover, may have belonged to a survivor, the 102-year-old Rose (played by Gloria Stuart, in her 80s, who acted with the Marx Brothers and Jimmy Cagney). But these salvage sequences were filmed in actual Titanic wreckage, and they have a documentary power that goes beyond the make-believe. We look at a chandelier floating in the fathoms, or the remains of a stateroom, and it's as if an old sad story had been resurrected before our eyes--or had never really gone away. And Stuart's luminous ancient beauty matches exactly what Walter Lord wrote of the survivors in his 1955 book A Night to Remember: "It is almost as though, having come through this supreme ordeal, they easily surmounted everything else and are now growing old with calm, tranquil grace."
Great film artists--from D. W. Griffith on--have often been drawn to the colossal. But in modern-day Hollywood, the logistics and the commercial concessions involved in making a super-spectacle just about preclude any sustained artistry. Titanic is far from a work of art, but it may be the best we can expect now from the studios in their continuing, insane game of my-budget-is-bigger-than-yours. It's a powerfully ersatz experience, but at least it's powerful. There's a lot to like here: At three hours and 14 minutes, the film takes longer to watch than the Titanic took to sink.
Written and directed by James Cameron. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates. Opens Friday.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.