Six months late, over budget, and the subject of incessant Tinseltown rumor-mongering, "Titanic" the film once seemed as doomed as the infamous death cruise it sought to portray. But consign those predictions of disaster to the ash heap of history, because the finished product is a precious cinematic gem, resolutely alive even as the object of its study is dead in the water.
Director James Cameron has elected to tell the tale of the R.M.S. Titanic through the eyes of star-crossed lovers whose disparate backgrounds symbolize the promise its launching held for all people. To penniless artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), the ship is the latest, greatest vehicle in a continuing journey of bohemian self-discovery. For aristocrat Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), it's an iron prison, speeding her to her wedding to a man she neither loves nor respects. Under their feet, the icy waters hold a different destiny, one made up of equal parts passion and death.
Don't be put off by the film's running time (nearly three and a half hours), nor by its admittedly lackluster first act. The cast is introduced in a deceptively superficial, gee-whiz style of storytelling that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical minus the songs. DiCaprio and Winslet practically dance onto the ship and into each others' arms, their every line a cue for a production number that never comes.
The triviality is intentional. The Titanic, after all, was a triumph of artifice over common sense, and the movie at first charts a similar course. But as fate looms, cardboard characters become flesh and blood, issues of class and gender assume life-and-death significance, and a film that might have turned into a hollow special-effects showcase instead taps unforeseen levels of pathos. The ill-fated passengers who seemed little more than clich$#233;s are suddenly tragic figures, their strivings infinitely more engrossing than any computer-generated wizardry. There's no time to wonder how Cameron made a luxury liner appear as if it was cracking in two, because you're too busy feeling your own heart do the same thing.
These people, you realize, didn't merely hit an iceberg and drown; they waited to die for tortuous hours, in which they witnessed the absolute depths of human venality and the heights of godlike compassion. The doctrine of "women and children first" was hardly the litmus test for survival. Whose women? Cameron asks. Whose children? And why? He forces you to live that lonely night of horror right along with them, minute by excruciating minute. When the lights go up, and you applaud, it isn't in tribute to anything as ephemeral as a mere landmark of filmmaking. It's in prayer for their souls.