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Review: 'Titanic' tugs at emotions

Titanic December 29, 1997
Web posted at: 5:27 p.m. EST (2227 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I'll be perfectly honest. Going in, the main reason I was happy to finally be seeing "Titanic," director James Cameron's much-ballyhooed $200 million epic, was because it meant that I wouldn't have to watch that damn trailer anymore. When two studios get together and make a movie that costs more than their own privately funded South American guerrilla war, you have to figure they're going to make dead certain that the world feels it has to attend when they're done blowing all that dough. So, obviously, the first question that needs to be answered is, is the end result really worth all that money?

The answer is a resounding "yes," but with philosophical qualifiers. The money, as they say, is on the screen, but, happily, there's a lot more to it than that. Quite surprisingly, when you consider that he's usually more concerned with The Terminator theatrically pulling drunken bikers' arms out of their sockets, Cameron has devised a tender love story between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio that serves as the main focus of "Titanic's" storyline, and it works beautifully.

I've been saying since the day that I heard Cameron was going to film the story that it was doomed to failure because the only thing anybody is interested in concerning the Titanic is that it took a dive. Incredibly, though, I got so caught up in his star-crossed lovers while watching the movie, I was actually surprised when that iceberg approached out of the darkness. This is the equivalent of watching "Star Wars" and getting immersed in the Han Solo/Princess Leia story while forgetting all about the Death Star.

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The film opens with a brief prologue in which Bill Paxton, as a modern-day treasure hunter, explores the wreckage of the real-life Titanic far beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Cameron actually took his camera 2 1/2 miles down to see the real thing, and the results are hauntingly impressive, with decaying railings and smashed bedframes reminding us that this was an actual tragedy, not a figment of some screenwriter's imagination. Paxton's character is looking for a huge diamond that was supposed to have been stored onboard the ship when it went down. His exploits are reported on television, and this brings him into contact with a 100-year-old woman (nicely played by 87-year-old whippersnapper Gloria Stuart) who claims to have been on the ship and in possession of the diamond at the time of the disaster.

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As Stuart tells her story, a shot of the rotting wreckage morphs back in time to 1912 and the movie-proper begins. Rose is now a beautiful 17-year-old played by Kate Winslet, who isn't 17 but has the beautiful part down cold. She's boarding the ship for its maiden (and, of course, only) voyage with her super-wealthy, uber-snooty fiancée, Cal Hockley. Hockley is played by Billy Zane, and he's easily the weak link in the film. Cal is the only character that's poorly written, and Zane telegraphs his villainous line readings (and wiggles his eyebrows) like he's about to tie Tom Mix's girlfriend to the railroad tracks.

DiCaprio plays Jack, a free-spirited young artist who's so suddenly won a ticket on the voyage in a card game that he hops onboard with just minutes to spare. It doesn't take long before DiCaprio (understandably) starts salivating over the heavenly Winslet, and a Romeo and Juliet-type love story ensues. Except that Juliet is a rich dame with ritzy cross-Atlantic digs. Romeo is down below with the riffraff, but he's cute as a shiny new dime and his hair hangs in his eyes when he draws pictures. Doncha just want 'em to kiss?

Well, yes, you do. There's an honest sweetness to the love story. This is no scoop, but the two leads make for an attractive couple, and, though their dialogue is sometimes a little too junior high school love diary to be completely effective, Winslet and DiCaprio display a great deal of gee-whiz chemistry. For once, DiCaprio's boyishness works in his favor. Jack is less cocky than he is fun-loving. He revels in the elegance and spontaneity of his journey back home to the States, and the splendor of production designer Peter Lamont's letter-perfect sets is enough to turn anybody's head. The production as a whole is exquisite, a seamless re-creation of what was, until now, a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

Then everything smacks into a bunch of ice and sinks. I really can't believe it came to this, but (for about 15 minutes, anyway) the movie actually slows down when the ship starts filling up with water. It's ironic that the actual Titanic went down on April 15, considering how taxing Cameron's depiction of the event gets in its early stages. Zane's character, who's been doing an Edgar Kennedy slow-burn while his (previously miserable) fiancée happily cavorts around the ship with Mr. Cutie-Pie, goes through all kinds of histrionics trying to pry the two apart while the entire set gradually starts to tilt. This display includes handcuffing DiCaprio to a heating pipe, which forces Winslet to make like an action movie heroine, running through waist-deep water while waving an ax. Her lipstick never smudges, though, and her eyes remain blue.

However, once the compartments start exploding with H2O and everyone commences to clawing their way into the few lifeboats that were available, things pick up considerably. The sight of this magnificent vessel pointing several stories up in the night air and splitting in half is truly staggering. Cameron pauses periodically to insert moments of real poetry during the ordeal, most memorably when he dwells on a beautiful woman who's diaphanous gown swirls in the water above her after she's drowned. The hull's final moments as it slides into the water are astounding. There's also a magnificent shot of several hundred passengers floating in the icy ocean after the ship has made its final descent. It's a peerless intermingling of believable terror and movie spectacle.

Now for those philosophical qualifiers. I don't think it's even open to debate as to whether there are better things to do with $200 million than to make one movie. By that, I don't mean that the studios need to be spending their bucks on medical research. The industry is painting itself into a corner by upping the ante every time an effects director like Cameron steps behind the camera, and, since "Titanic" looks like it's going to be a hit, the end is not yet in sight. There are a lot of young directors out there struggling to make their voices heard above the mutli-zillion dollar glub-glub, and it won't be long before each and every one of them will have to abandon ship for the more forgiving waters of independent filmmaking.

"Titanic" is an unbelievable voyage, but not all big-bucks gambles pay off like this one has, with a formidable piece of popular art. Artistically and financially "Titanic" will probably win in the final tally, but (if the movies of the past several years teach us anything) it's a "Waterworld" after all. To have to be re-taught that at even one dollar, more than 200 million will be a hard lesson indeed.

Remember how much you liked the first "Rocky" movie, how delicate, exciting, and ultimately inspiring it was? Allowing for inflation, that movie today would cost 5 million bucks.

"Titanic" is one swell ride. The gradually building intensity of the plunge could scare young children, although my 9-year-old nephew who watched the movie with me loved it. Surprisingly, considering its rating, Winslet's bare breasts are in full view as DiCaprio sketches her. There's a God-awful Celine Dion song over the end credits for those of you who like that kind of thing. Everyone else will be forced to make a face. PG-13. 207 minutes, but they zip by.


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