1997, PG-13, 194 min. Directed by James Cameron. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Danny Nucci, David Warner, Bill Paxton.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 19, 1997
Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic, if you haven't heard yet. The costliest film ever made is also one of the best, unlike the second costliest, Kevin Costner's ill-fated Waterworld (and just what is it with aquatic over-expenditures these days, anyway?). Reams have already been written on James Cameron's wild cost overruns, so I'll spare you that and say right off that every penny spent is up there on the screen.
Like the doomed vessel from which it takes its tale, Cameron's film is a behemoth, svelte, streamlined, and not the least bit ponderous, even with its lengthy three-hour-and-fifteen-minute running time (the film is practically as long as the sinking of the Titanic itself). DiCaprio is charmingly rakish in the role of lower-class scoundrel-cum-artist Jack Dawson, who wins his way onboard the HMS Titanic during a card game moments before the ship sets sail on its maiden and funeral voyage from England to New York City. Once onboard, he meets Rose DeWitt Bukater (Winslet), a 17-year-old first-class passenger, who is engaged to the wealthy, utterly pompous Cal Hockley (Zane). In short order, Rose and Jack fall in love, he sketches her in the altogether, and Cal, predictably, grits his teeth and scowls meaningfully. Just over halfway into the film, the oceanliner grazes the fatal iceberg that will, 80 minutes later, send it plunging into the icy depths. It's a matter of historical record that 1,500 passengers perished that night due, in no small part, to the fact that there were less than half the necessary lifeboats on board. Cameron, who is inarguably the greatest living action director working today, milks this for all it's worth and does a splendid job, cutting between Rose and Jack's ill-timed romance and the fate of the ship in general. His crosscutting between those two stories and several other, minor subplots is the stuff film courses are made of.
At his core though, Cameron, for all his Terminators and True Lies, is a savagely sentimental romantic, and it's this interplay between the lovestruck steerage lad and the first-class dream girl that fires everything else about the film, including the modern-day wraparound that features Cameron favorite Bill Paxton as a salvage engineer intent on plundering the Titanic's silted corpse. I've always had trouble getting past DiCaprio's spirited self -- he seems unable to fully vanish into any role other than that of himself, though he comes very, very close under Cameron's iron thumb. Winslet, on the other hand, is so perfectly cast that it's as though she's a brand new face, and not the Hollywood superstar she's currently becoming. The two of them play wonderfully off of each other, as do the host of lesser players (notably David Warner as Cal's conniving valet and Bernard Hill as the ship's captain), resulting in a monster of a film in which, for once, the astonishing special effects are overshadowed by the characters onscreen. Just barely, though. Cameron's dialogue has never been as good as his direction, which makes for a few stilted clunkers along the way, but the unstoppable flurry of Action! Romance! Etcetera! sweeps them away like so much driftwood. It's obvious this is Cameron's bid for historical relevance, and though it may fall short of the Lawrence of Arabia mark he was aiming for, it's still by far and away a grand, gorgeous, breathtaking spectacle.