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With director James Cameron at the helm (a veteran of The Terminator, Aliens, and True Lies), I expected a whopping good action yarn in Titanic, and he certainly delivers the goods. But what I wasn't expecting was the surprisingly poignant romance story that takes center stage. In fact, the romance story is so good that it could almost stand on its own . . . almost. But Cameron is no fool. He hasn't just grafted a love story onto the story of the greatest ocean disaster in history. No, he has crafted a movie where the love story actually gains a greater sense of poignancy because of its relationship to the Titanic sinking. Without the love story, the special effects would still certainly be awe inspiring, but with the love story, we're given much greater reason to actually become concerned about the lives of the central characters.
In the past, most big-scale disaster flicks (such as Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno) traditionally gave us dozens of characters. However, the huge casts had the effect of simplifying the characters to the point that the people became two-dimensional and dull. Not so with Titanic. Cameron deals with a relatively small group of characters, and we get to know those characters exceptionally well. As a result, we aren't just spectators when the ship hits the iceberg: we're strongly attached to the characters and what happens to them.
The story itself concerns a young drifter, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), who wins his Titanic ticket with a lucky hand in a poker game. His exuberance for life is contagious, and it rubs off on a young woman, Rose DeWitt (Kate Winslet), he meets on board the ship. To help fend off the family's creditors, Rose's mother pushes her toward marrying millionaire Cal Hockley (Bill Zane). Hockley is arrogant and conceited and fiendishly handsome. He treats Rose like a possession and can't stand to see her exercise her own free will. Rose is clearly unhappy about her impending marriage to Hockley, so unhappy that she considers killing herself by jumping off the ship and into the Atlantic Ocean. But Jack stops her and soon afterwards, as Rose begins spending more and more time with Jack, they quickly fall in love.
This story is framed with contemporary scenes that show a group of salvagers (led by Bill Paxton) investigating the wreck site. They are looking for a jewel--"The Heart of the Ocean"--believed to have gone down with the Titanic and reportedly more valuable than the Hope Diamond. What they discover instead is a charcoal drawing, long hidden in a safe aboard the ship, of a woman wearing the diamond. To their amazement, a woman watching a news report of the salvage operation sees the drawing and immediately recognizes it. "Can you tell me who's the woman in the picture?" "Oh, yes. The woman in the picture is me." As she tells her story, we quickly find out that she is Rose DeWitt, now 101 years old. As Rose recalls the past, we discover how profoundly she was affected by the short time she spent on board the Titanic.
With a huge running time of over 3 hours 15 minutes, Titanic spends almost half of its screen time developing the story of Jack and Rose. But don't think that means you'll be shorted on disaster special effects, for once the Titanic hits the iceberg, over an hour and a half of movie lies ahead. And the special effects you'll encounter are some of the most mind-boggling, terrifying visions ever captured on film. As the ship quickly sinks and the ship's deck begins to tilt at an ever increasing angle, the passengers must scramble up the deck, avoiding the near freezing water as long as possible. Along the way, Cameron treats us to some incredible crane-like shots created with matte paintings and computer-generated effects that seamlessly pull us onto the Titanic. The camera seems to swoop over the decks, sliding past the smokestacks and up into the air as if carried by a helicopter.
However, much of the credit for the success of Titanic goes to Leonardo DiCaprio. He becomes the true heart of this movie, and his exuberance keeps the special effects from overpowering the love story.
Titanic is a magnificent piece of filmmaking. It's easily one of the best films of the year and it contains one of the most powerful love stories to ever hit a movie screen.
[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]