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"Titanic" rocks the boat by being good.

By Devin D. O'Leary

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  Well, damn. You wait six months to slag a guy for blowing $300 million on a film, and he turns out something as enjoyable as Titanic. Now what have you got to say, smartass? The man of which I'm speaking is writer/director James Cameron. His monumental new film Titanic was originally slated to open in summer, but Cameron lobbied to delay the release so he could spend more time editing it (and, consequently, dumping even more dough into the already bloated budget). Surely every moneyman behind this project is sweating bullets. Having avoided the lengthy summer movie season, Titanic has exactly three weekends in which to surpass Star Wars as the highest grossing film of all time--and that's just to break even!

Of course, that's not your concern. It's not really my concern either. Our only worry is whether or not the film is worth seeing for seven bucks. Almost unequivocally, that answer is "yes!"

Titanic gets underway in the modern day with a team of treasure hunters (led by shaggy Bill Paxton) exploring the wreck of the Titanic (before a script was even underway, Cameron convinced studio execs it would be smart to loan him a few million bucks so he could shoot "experimental" footage of the actual sunken Titanic). When the search for a long-lost (and fabulously expensive) necklace turns up zilch, our treasure hunters get a call from 100-year-old Rose Dawson Calvert. Seems that Rose was onboard the Titanic's one and only voyage and was the last to see the fabled "Heart of the Sea" pendant. Rose helicopters out to relate her colorful tale to our treasure-hunting pals, and it's flashback city.

Cut to April 1912. The R.M.S. Titanic is about to set sail on her maiden voyage from England. Among the 2,200 passengers are one Rose DeWitt Baker (Kate Winslet of Heavenly Creatures) and one Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio of Romeo & Juliet). Rose is an upper-class American engaged to wealthy industrialist Caledon Hockley. Jack is a Devil-may-care artist-type making his way back to America with a third-class ticket won in a dockside poker game. Clearly, these two are of different worlds and are bound to collide. One fateful eve, poor Rose realizes just how trapped she is in this gilded cage of "proper" Edwardian society and makes a suicidal beeline to the ship's aft deck. Enter Jack, who talks her out of a premature disembarkation. Naturally, Jack's interference doesn't sit well with Rose's snobbish fiance (the oily, handsome Billy Zane). Jack continues to see Rose; evil Cal frames Jack for stealing the Heart of the Sea; and then ... you know, the ship hits an iceberg and 1,500 people die.

Cameron has crafted a compelling mix of nightmarish disaster film and sweeping love story. From the massive cast to the stunning costumes to the massive sets, I don't think we've seen a film this big since The Ten Commandments. Of course, there's no way a film like this could fly without two very magnetic leads. Cameron has found them in Winslet and DiCaprio. Both were nominated for Academy Awards before their 21st birthdays. Winslet projects all the grace and beauty of an upper-class lady and all the deep romantic yearning of a closet dreamer. DiCaprio, meanwhile, gets to test his chops in the major leading man category. His scruffy bohemian Jack is a believable charmer. It's not at all surprising that the wilting Rose would seek her freedom in his vagabond arms. This is unapologetically and seamlessly constructed romantic fare. I defy anyone to escape the theater without some well-watered tear ducts.

Of course, at nearly three and a half hours, Titanic is one epic voyage. Cameron throws in everything but the kitchen stink. The mystery subplot about the stolen necklace is incidental at best, and the whole affair could have suffered a trim with little noticeable detriment. Still, I have to give credit to Cameron for keeping this whole "titanic" project afloat.

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