From the underwater opening scenes, which are as neon-blue as anything from James Cameron’s science fiction opus The Abyss, it’s clear that Titanic will be a technophile’s delight.

Oh, I suppose it’s a historian’s delight, too, with its labor-intensive recreations of the state rooms, hallways, dining halls and decks of that doomed ship. But it’s the cash-intensive rendering of an impossible image — the Titanic, full-size, setting sail from its dock with Leonardo DiCaprio the figurehead at its prow — that makes this one for the history books. Titanic turns the ship itself into a gargantuan fetish object.

Those opening scenes (well, most of them) are deep-sea shots of the real Titanic, which Cameron insisted on photographing if the project were to proceed. Repeatedly throughout the film, Cameron offers match dissolves from Titanic’s ghost-ship remains to his own shiny creation, as if the film’s verisimillitude is somehow profound in itself. Accordingly, he is loath to simply photograph his actors walking on the deck of his scale recreation of the original boat. Rather, the camera must swoop backward alongside the railing, keeping the performers on one side of the widescreen frame while we see the ship’s hull cutting through ocean water on the other. For the first half of the movie, every other shot seems giddy with the understandable satisfaction of depicting the impossible. It’s like the Edwardian version of Jurassic Park.

Of course, the ship must be populated with people, and it’s here that Cameron’s vision falters. He’s on solid ground when he envisions Titanic as a big, floating metaphor for the Edwardian class struggle (as the sinking began, the folks in the lower class accomodations were locked inside while the well-to-do boarded their lifeboats), but gets waterlogged as he uses the thinnest of characters and most routine of love stories to make his point and jerk his tears. OK — point made, tears jerked. But it’s fortunate for Cameron that the human story here has the weight of terrible history behind it, since it’s lacking in all but the most rudimentary drama.

DiCaprio is Jack Dawson, a lovably scruffy American abroad who wins a steerage-class ticket back to his homeland in a poker game. Across a crowded boat, he spies Kate Winslet’s very first-class Rose DeWitt Bukater. Even though Jack and Rose should, by all rights, never come into contact on Titanic (where classes of passengers are kept rigidly segregated), an odd turn of events results in Jack’s saving Rose’s life and thus being invited to dinner on the upper decks. Jack is revealed as a tasteful vulgarian who shares Rose’s predilection for modern art (she brings aboard canvases by Monet and Picasso) and teaches her how to spit. Rose, meanwhile, is reluctantly betrothed to the snarling Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), an unremittingly villainous upper-cruster whose affection for her is based on vanity rather than on love. He’s even got a callous henchman named Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner) to teach Jack a lesson in keeping his hands off what doesn’t belong to him.

Although there are a wealth of stories on Titanic, it’s this cobwebbed melodrama that Cameron has brushed off and made the narrative focus of his film. Ever the jaded critic, I found myself wincing at each mawkish plot twist — this melodrama is as old as the ship itself. Even so, it would be churlish to claim that it doesn’t work — it works all right, just barely well enough for Cameron to draw his audience into and through the tragedy to come. But it’s the easy way out, and the film suffers from a lack of narrative invention to match its visual wizardry. (The cloying score by James Horner, which rummages inexplicably through Enya’s sad sack of new age tricks, doesn’t help.)

And, for a 195-minute film, Titanic seems awfully rushed, as though Cameron sat in the cutting room, jabbing the other film editors with a cattle prod. On those rare occasions when Cameron does finally strike a gold vein of pathos — I’m thinking of the ship’s stoic musicians, refusing to let silence have its way with the ongoing disaster, or the elderly couple who have returned to bed, holding one another as a river of sea water washes the world away beneath them — he cuts away impatiently, his camera once again searching out the tedious melodrama of Jack, Rose and their tormentors. And lots of rushing water. In every aspect but the special effects, Titanic takes the easy way out. There are so many tales that can be told on this ship, but Cameron opts to concentrate — almost exclusively — on his star-crossed lovers.

So I reserve the right to interpret this pedestrian tale as a succession of missed opportunites, at least until Cameron gets the chance to trot out the inevitable “director’s cut” on home video (he promised PBS talk show host Charlie Rose a copy of the extended version on laserdisc). Such characters as Molly Brown (Kathie Bates), Captain E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill) and the ship’s regretful designer, Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), drift through the proceedings in what amount to little more than cameos, yet they add some welcome heft to the narrative. Meanwhile, Cameron deploys jokes and clichés like so many helium balloons. (Some of the dustiest lines are given to Gloria Stuart, the 82-year-old actress who gamely portrays the decagenarian Rose in an irritating framing device that pulls the action into the present day and keeps interrupting the movie’s primary story with dopey narration.)

The biggest asset to the story, aside from the special effects, is no doubt DiCaprio, whose presence is anachronistic as all get-out, but without whom the romance would be not only creaky but dull. And, miraculously, it’s not dull. I never really got DiCaprio — arguably the most revered young heartthrob in American movies today — before Titanic. But in this film he rises to the occasion with potent charisma and enough charm to make these lines play leagues better than they must have read on paper. He and Cameron must be some kind of soul mates, because DiCaprio seems to understand instinctively exactly what the director is going for. Winslet, of whom I’m a big fan, fits snugly into her own role but never seems at ease. Inhabiting his character neatly, DiCaprio helps her out.

By the time Leo and Kate have made it in the back of an automobile in storage on the ship, you may be thinking, “Enough already.” And sure enough, Cameron fails to disappoint — how could the consummation of their affection not be a signal that something terrible is literally on the horizon?

Once the ship hits that iceberg, it becomes clear that Cameron is in his element, and not a moment too soon. More, there’s our palpable fascination with a disaster in the making, especially one that unfolds at such a measured pace as the slow sinking of the biggest seagoing craft ever built. Cameron tightens the cinematic screws like the expert he is, and builds this disaster to a smashing, grinding climax. As the ship cracks in two and goes perpindicular before sinking below the water’s surface, the ensuing apocalypse is one-of-a-kind. And when Cameron cuts away to a lifeboat full of survivors, giving us their vantage on the wreck (complete with roller-coaster-ride screaming and tiny bodies tumbling to their deaths like insects), it’s a moment of flamboyant spectacle. It’s hard to know whether to be thrilled, appalled, or merely appreciative of such an appropriately Grand Guignol vision. It’s almost genius — Cameron starts with a simplistic portrait of an Edwardian lovers’ paradise, and transforms it with feverish, needling strokes into a circle of Hell populated by 1,500 frozen corpses and another 700 lost souls waiting in their half-empty lifeboats for what old Rose calls (gack) “an absolution that would never come.” (As usual, Cameron feels the need to spell everything out for us. And for the purposes of this review, I won’t tackle the utterly schmaltzy final shots.)

So here’s the problem: every potentially stunning moment in Titanic is negated by another that’s merely numbing; for every image that comes close to bearing the force of truth, there are a half-dozen more that are trite and self-conscious. Meaning is cluttered by explanation.

It adds up, I found, to a depressingly flat experience. Titanic the ship is exquisitely rendered, but Cameron didn’t have such exacting blueprints for the human beings who go down with her, and the result is cardboard characters with bleakly formulaic lives — certain lines of dialogue and twists of plot are such hokum that it’s actually distracting. If only the damned ship weren’t obviously so much more important to Titanic the film than were the people on board.

And the ship is inarguably alive and exciting. It pops off the screen. Through the magic of computer graphics, it’s realer than real, a modern-day Lazarus roused from the dead by a SFX messiah. And that’s at least part of the problem. The film’s elaborate concentration on a picture-perfect Titanic can only draw attention to its status as artifice unless there’s one hell of a storyline to entrance us. But the bulk of Titanic contains no surprises and few delights. Marooned in the here and now, it’s impossible to forget that this is James Cameron’s impossibly expansive Titanic, rather than the real thing.

Written and Directed by James Cameron

Cinematography by Russell Carpenter

Edited by Conrad Buff IV, Cameron, and Richard A. Harris

Production Design by Peter Lamont

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet

USA, 1997

Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)

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