Titanic (1997) / Romance-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for disaster related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality and brief language
Running Time: 194 min.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Gloria Stuart, David Warner, Bill Paxton, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Victor Garber, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Danny Nucci
Small role and cameo: Ioan Gruffudd, James Cameron
Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron

Review published December 28, 2014

For me, James Cameron's Titanic has always been a tale of two halves.  The first half -- the setup -- is schmaltzy and not particularly well written.  The second -- the disaster movie -- is balls-out, jaw-agape, cinematic glory.  And, for as much as I think Cameron (True Lies, Terminator 2) would have been better served finding someone who can actually write good dialogue for his characters, this is clearly a director who knows how to properly stage and deliver intricate and grand-scale action sequences like no one else.

I've read recently about viewers who've seen the film for years only to later be shocked to later learn that the Titanic was a real ship, and it is based on an event of keen (and actual) historical significance.  I've also heard about these same moviegoers being stunned to learn Madagascar is a real island as well, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the lack of basic understanding of things one should have learned in grade school.  Yes, the Titanic was a supposedly unsinkable luxury ship that struck an iceberg and went down in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912.

The film is framed by a crew of contemporary treasure-hunters delving down into the wreckage in search of valuable items, encountering a drawing of a nude woman wearing a fancy necklace.  Looking for the whereabouts of what could be a priceless jewel, they discover the woman in the portrait is still alive, 102-year-old Rose (Stuart, My Favorite Year), who tells them the story of what happened on that fateful journey.

The film spends most of its run time in flashbacks to 1912, when Rose (Winslet, Sense and Sensibility) was a fetching upper-crust fiancée of the wildly wealthy Cal Hockley (Zane, The Phantom), though she is feeling a bit boxed in to that decision due to societal expectations more so than her own affection for the man.  During the voyage, she's befriended by a two-bit scamp named Jack (DiCaprio, Romeo + Juliet) who takes a keen interest in her, and sees her for who she truly is, instead of a prize to brag about, and the two begin to fall for one another.  However, love is tricky, especially when a jealous Cal is about, refusing to believe he could lose her to such a penniless scoundrel, and he is set to make sure their love goes unrequited.  Meanwhile, tragedy befalls them all when the Titanic suffers a massive collision that puts everyone on board in mortal peril, causing Jack and Rose to have to fight for their lives, and their love.

Pre-release buzz for Titanic had industry pros and pundits anticipating that the film, like the ship, would likely be a disaster of epic proportions.  After numerous production delays, $200 million dollars went into the lavish production of the film, by far the most expensive film of all time at the time of its release.  Negative buzz surrounded the film for months leading up to its release, as few could see any appeal to a 3.25 hour film revolving around a depressing disaster as recouping its gargantuan budget.  Cameron would get the last laugh -- it would later become the most successful at the box office, breaking the all-time record for receipts - a record that stood all the way until James Cameron's follow-up, Avatar, eclipsed it in 2009.  It would also not only tie the record for most Academy Award nominations at 14 total, but it would also tie the record for most Oscar wins as well at 11. (Notably, the weakest aspect of the film, Cameron's screenplay, did not get a nomination).

Additional trivia: Celine Dion's contributed song, "My Heart Will Go On", would go one to be 1998's best-selling single around the world, and ninth best-selling physical single of all time.  James Horner's (Courage Under Fire, Ransom) beautiful, soaring score weaves elements of that song in and out, and does carry forward Cameron's overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the era and thrill of seeing his dream come to life.

Titanic was a passion project from Cameron almost since the day he saw a documentary on the footage of the ship's wreckage ten years before.  To make the film, a smaller (but still quite large) replica of the Titanic was built to 90% scale and housed in a film studio in Mexico.  It was cntained in a massive tank holding 17 million gallons of water.  The meticulous effort and detail shows on the screen.  This project feels massive, and when things start going south for the great ship, Cameron certainly conveys the breathtaking magnitude of it in a way that makes one lose one's sense of self for over an hour of armrest-strangling anxiety.

Though backlashers may scoff at the fictional melodrama set aboard the ship, which Cameron uses mostly to keep the lovebirds sneaking and being chased around the ship enough so that they can explore various aspect of it like some sort of manufactured travelogue, it is also the reason that the film would become a raging success around the world.  It was in the casting of a young and spunky Leonardo DiCaprio, a very fine actor capable of an Oscar-worthy performance of sheer honesty, that drew in the young girls to the cinema, time and time and ten times more.  Add to this a breakthrough performance by a tender and vulnerable Kate Winslet, who proves without question that she's an actress to be reckoned with, and they manage to transcend Cameron's clunky efforts at romantic dialogue to make their burgeoning love something that rings authentic.

Try as one might to resist Titanic as bloated Hollywood filmmaking of the highest order, and its puppy-dog sweet delivery of young adult romance, there's perhaps no disaster film that has ever been churned out that can match the blistering intensity of this film's final 90 minutes.  Cameron delivers a powerful, and quite horrific re-enactment of one of the most cataclysmic non-wartime disasters of the 20th century, as important for the technical wizardry involved in the making of it as it is as a cultural phenomenon of the latter part of the 1990s. 

 Qwipster's rating::

©2014 Vince Leo