Titanic (1997) Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Bill Paxton, Gloria Stuart, Frances Fisher. Directed by James Cameron. 197 minutes Rated PG-13, **** and one half stars (out of ***** stars)
Review by Ed Johnson-Ott www.nuvo-online.com/film/
Late at night, a beautiful young woman clinging to a makeshift raft looks up into the distance. The sky over the Atlantic Ocean is cloudless and her tired, desperate eyes gaze at the stars, glistening in the heavens so very far away. The scene is simple, elegant and haunting, nicely illustrating why "Titanic" works. Director James Cameron uses a grand sweeping backdrop to tell an elementary love story, and he tells it very well. "Titanic" contains some of the most spectacular visuals ever to appear on screen, but despite the jaw-dropping special effects, it's the human story that lingers after you leave the theater. Cameron has crafted an epic that triumphs because he remembered the crucial fact that affairs of the heart are far more compelling than any special effect.
"Titanic" received massive press coverage for production delays, clashes on the set and, of course, its record-breaking $200 million dollar budget. Over the last decade, we've become a nation of media insiders, receiving tremendous amounts of behind-the-scenes information from the entertainment world. At the end of each weekend, movie buffs study the box office results as if they were football scores, measuring the success of a movie by how much money it takes in, rather than by evaluating the actual substance of the film. It's an absurd mindset; one that needs to be put aside in order to best enjoy "Titanic." Production and budget information may be intriguing, but the only question that really matters is whether or not the film is any good, and "Titanic" certainly is.
The story begins in the present, as an explorer (Bill Paxton) and his crew search the wreckage of the Titanic for a legendary diamond called "The Heart Of The Ocean." Framing the historical saga with present-day scenes is more than a gimmick. Cameron uses the conceit to give the story an almost fairy-tale quality. Additionally, the crew presents a computer- graphic simulation of the precise mechanics of the Titanic's sinking, making it much easier to follow what's happening when the disaster finally occurs. Rose, an elderly Titanic survivor (Gloria Stuart) joins the group after recognizing some personal possessions from a news report of the expedition. Peering into the glass of a hand mirror recovered from the ship, she quietly says "It looks the same as it did when I last saw it, but the reflection has changed." Her ancient eyes grow distant as she recounts her tale to the crew.
Cut to April, 1912, as the Titanic prepares for her maiden voyage. The opulent ship is magnificent, a paean to Victorian excess. Cameron provides a leisurely tour of the vessel as the passengers board and we meet the two central characters. Young Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) is desperately unhappy. She dreads her pending marriage to wealthy snob Cal Hockley (Billy Zane,) but can't break off the engagement. Despite their upper crust trappings, Rose and her mother (Frances Fisher) are broke and need the financial security the marriage will provide. In a moment of panic, Rose climbs over the rail of the ship, contemplating a suicidal dive, when penniless artist-at-large Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio,) who won his ticket in a poker game, intervenes and romance blossoms between the two.
James Cameron states adamantly that "Titanic" is not a disaster film and he's right. Disaster films generally take 10-15 characters and try to tell all of their stories. The result is typically a jumbled mess of clichés. Cameron instead chose to take the very basic story of one representative couple and keep his focus there. Jack and Rose are just a couple of kids experiencing the awkwardness and exhilaration of first love, but they matter. Against the backdrop of a doomed vessel, these two young lovers come alive, and we feel all the poignancy of their situation. The magic Winslet and DiCaprio generate underscores the tragedy befalling everyone on the ship.
Winslet is splendid, by the way. Her wonderfully nuanced performance is among the years best. And DiCaprio, one of the most annoyingly smug actors in the business, is warm and winning here.
And then there's the wreck. Despite some occassionally shaky special effects, Cameron's realization of the Titanic's crash and collapse is flat-out breathtaking. He fills the screen with images of devastation on a scale unlike anything ever seen in a movie before. By putting the human story ahead of the effects, the nightmarish scenes carry an emotionally resonance far beyond mere spectacle. Tragic, beautiful and haunting, "Titanic" uses 90s technology to create an old-fashioned Hollywood blockbuster. It's three hours and fifteen minutes long, but the time flies by, and you can't pay a movie a higher compliment than that.
copyright 1997, Ed Johnson-Ott
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