It's $200 million-plus worth of old-fashioned melodrama in a state-of-the-art package. It's both the shortest 3 1/2 hours you'll ever spend at the movies and spectacle of such magnitude that it's hard to imagine feeling you didn't get your time and money's worth.
It begins with eerie underwater images of the Titanic's remains, resting beneath the Atlantic since its close encounter with an iceberg in 1912. The footage comes courtesy of a salvage expedition led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), whose hidden purpose is to recover a fabulous blue diamond. The gem was bought by caddish roue Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) for his fiancee Rose (Kate Winslet), and apparently lost -- with the girl -- in the wreck. Imagine Lovett's surprise when he's contacted by a 101-year-old woman (Gloria Stuart) who claims to be the missing Rose and offers to tell all about what happened that cold, dreadful night. Everybody knows the plot in its broad outlines: The Titanic -- marvel of modern engineering and floating monument to hubris -- will sink, and more than half its passengers will die ("Not the better half," says the hissably shallow Cal) because there
aren't enough lifeboats for them.
The drama is in the details, and Cameron pays lip service to the human tragedy: women and children saved while their men stay behind to die; first-class passengers ushered into lifeboats while steerage passengers are held below; the band playing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the icy water rises; individual acts of valor and cowardice that have been told and retold in books, movies and even songs. Cameron concocts a fictional romance between poor little rich girl Rose and penniless free-spirit Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), the better to highlight the brutal class struggle and give tragedy a dewy young face. But his heart is in the spectacle: The drama is cliched, if competently effective, but Cameron's dissolves from the Titanic's rusted hulk to her brand spanking new decks are breathtaking, even poetic. And the sight of the great ship foundering on the black, black sea, its massive stern rising up from the water like a whale's tale, is simply unforgettable. You can cavil that it doesn't look real -- who in this digital age believes seeing is believing? -- but think about it: It probably didn't look real that night 85 years ago, either.
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