Titanic

A reprint of something written for the old Film.com upon this little movie’s release in 1997. Janet Maslin reviewed Titanic for the New York Times and also invoked Gone With the Wind; this was written before that ran. With Cameron’s Avatar about to open and the best movies of 1997 about to post, this seemed a good time to re-visit the review. I am happy to stand by the piece today, because it’s still the right call. – Robert Horton

James Cameron’s Titanic is the Gone With the Wind of disaster movies. In its own delirious way, Titanic shares all the attributes and shortcomings of that juicy American epic: the size, the length, the simplified (but sweeping) melodrama, the hoke, the corn, the blood-red sunsets. Like GWTW, this film isn’t seriously interested in the social system of its era (even though there is time spent describing it) except as that social system affects the melodrama of the gorgeous young lovers. For all of writer-director Cameron’s fussy, painstaking accuracy in re-creating the great ship, this is fantasy of a kind that only movies can deliver. Like it or hate it, Titanic lives and breathes as a piece of pure cinema.

The 1912 sinking of Titanic has proved a natural for the movies before, of course, notably in those heartbreaking 1950s dramas, Titanic and A Night to Remember. There was also a very wiggy early-sound film by E.A. Dupont called Atlantic, which creaked along by eavesdropping on rich folks drinking in the ship’s bar. Cameron has dreamed up two new approaches to the story. One is to narrow the focus to a Romeo and Juliet tale about a lower-class artist-adventurer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and an aristocratic Philadelphia girl (Kate Winslet). They “meet cute” during her suicide attempt at the stern of the ship; she’s in despair over her impending marriage to sniveling rich boy Billy Zane, and the life of boredom that obviously yawns before her.

The relationship is dewy, silly, sweet. If DiCaprio (more disciplined than in his recent performances) sometimes stretches the limits of 1912 believability, Winslet provides the corrective heart and soul, a wild woman waiting to pop her corset. We meet others on board the ship, but they tend to be cameos along the lines of Winslet’s huffy mother (Frances Fisher), the “unsinkable” Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), the shipbuilder (lovely performance by Victor Garber), and DiCaprio’s steerage buddies. Very few of them register, but this is a love story, not an ensemble piece.

Cameron’s other idea is to frame the period story with a present-day look at a shipwreck scavenger (Bill Paxton) nosing around the sunken Titanic. (Cameron himself photographed the actual wreck with sophisticated new equipment.) Winslet’s character, still alive at 101 (and played by lovely Gloria Stuart, a starlet from 1930s Hollywood), narrates the flashbacks. The MacGuffin for the flashbacks is a fancy necklace that Paxton is searching for, a wonderful piece of nonsense that Cecil B. DeMille would have appreciated.

For a man with a $200 million investment riding on the results, Cameron displays an unhurried, confident authority. Everything is in its place, even the foolish stuff (why do we spend time watching Zane chase DiCaprio with a pistol, while the ship is sinking into the North Atlantic?), and Cameron believes in every minute. Movies these days tend to want to pare down every conversation, every plot point, and then rush on to the next explosion. Amidst all of his special effect gizmos, Cameron lets people talk; that’s why we buy the relationship between the mismatched lovers. We don’t have to take their mutual attraction on faith, we’ve seen it develop.

Which is not to say that Cameron isn’t stoked by the possibilities for spectacle, for this movie has more than its share of mind-blowing sights. When the ship is sinking, and the stern rises to a perpendicular tower out of the black water, with DiCaprio and Winslet up at the very tip of the stern (it’s where they met, too), Cameron shows you what it feels like to look straight down that terrible distance, what it feels like when the ship begins to slip down on its final descent. No one has ever seen that before, save for the freezing souls who went down with the real Titanic. Cameron understands the allure of that sight, that somehow this is one of the key reasons that movies were invented, to show us things that we can otherwise only see in dreams, or nightmares. The earliest movie audiences were hungry to see those dream images: what does the African savannah, or the view from an aeroplane, really look like? Titanic seeks to capture that kind of wonder. Through most of its three-hour-plus running time, it succeeds, thrillingly. Yes, we may pause to observe the faults of the film, its clearly fake digital re-creation of the ship plowing through the ocean, especially in the daytime; the sketchy nature of the supporting characters; the one-note dastardliness of the villains; the broadness of emotions. Duly noted. But frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.