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Titanic   A-

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 1997
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: James Cameron
Writer: James Cameron
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Bill Paxton, Gloria Stuart, Bernard Hill, David Warner.

Review by Eric Beltmann

Titanic was released in December 1997, to ecstatic reviews and tremendous box-office success; a few months later it was crowned the Academy's Best Picture. By then, though, a backlash had set in which still hasn't faded. A few days ago I was in a video store, and I overhead a conversation between two teenagers. Upon seeing the DVD box for Titanic, they snickered and one called it "pure DiCaprio cheese." Obviously, it requires time -- usually years -- to accurately gauge the creative impact of a film. Hearing those teenagers prompted me to revisit Titanic, a film I praised upon release, despite some reservations. Four years ago it was impossible to emancipate the picture from its surrounding media circus, but now it's easier to see it for what it is -- and easier to feel confident that yes, it is indeed a great film.

Some revised thoughts:

It ends with two young lovers riding the sinking ship as if it were a drowning bucking bronco, yet the unembarrassed hyperbole of director James Cameron doesn't injure Titanic. The film is all artifice, but in the best way.

Cameron vigilantly captures the horrifying details of modern history's most infamous disaster, and consistently shapes his scenes with the ideas of dread, class, and blind arrogance in mind. Despite the rather clunky script and histrionic acting, the film becomes some kind of alarmist masterpiece about an event of painful cultural humbling. This is large-scale blazon as art, which begs the question: Can the idea of historical tragedy get across in a spectacle, an inherently exhibitionist and factitious form of cinema? Surface pageantry will capsize thematic ambitions without granting a final gasp. Here, though, Cameron's gluttonous temperament binds itself to an extravagant action rhythm with a sharper sense of suffering, and for the first time he seems to understand his characters as much as he does the machines and carnage.

There's nothing enigmatic about the relationship between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a third-class vagabond, and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a high-society debutante ensnared by her snob-fiancé, but the ripe vibrancy shared between Jack and Rose points toward a future that will never come for most of the passengers. The film isn't exactly tasteful -- Cameron is all too willing to kowtow to the morbid fascination of catastrophe -- but it feels classy, and the extraordinary special effects take on a certain elegance. In fact, I would argue without reservation that Titanic is the greatest visual-effects movie ever made. Miraculously, Cameron uses those effects -- and his own eye for thrilling aesthetics -- to magnify the youthful romance at the story's center into a contemporary romantic tragedy.

The film's final third, in which the passengers gradually begin to realize their peril while the boat slowly sinks, ranks as wide-eyed spectacle that cleverly mines adolescent infatuation as a springboard for authentic terror and nightmare shock. As Jack and Rose cling to wreckage rapidly being sucked under the icy waves, the moment isn't quite heroic. Instead, their frantic stab at survival makes your stomach sink -- it's a sentimental moment so honestly scary, you marvel at how capably Cameron has harnessed the mythic power of film.

Review published 10.29.2001.

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