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James Cameron's "Titanic" holds water.

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  TITANIC, Directed and written by James Cameron. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Danny Nucci, Gloria Stuart, David Warner, and Bill Paxton. A Paramount Pictures release. At the Cheri, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

Ships have always been called on to haul more than their share of metaphorical baggage, and none more so than the RMS Titanic, the seagoing Tower of Babel that became an instant emblem of technological hubris when the supposedly unsinkable vessel went down with 1500 passengers after hitting an iceberg in April of 1912. Jim Cameron, the filmmaker who most embodies technological hubris, has had a few shaky voyages of his own, but none as ill-omened as this cinematic Titanic, the most expensive movie ever made and one besieged by highly publicized problems and delays. Yet the subject certainly fits the director, and though it might have been nicer to have made, say, 20 more films like The Terminator for that $200 million, this unwieldy leviathan restores the blockbuster-event movie to artistic legitimacy. Not only does Titanic elevate its special effects with a story, characters, and a point, it also brings to them the long-missing qualities of awe and vision. When that vast bow surges upright, turning the universe upside down, the human freight spilling like peas, it's a vision of Armageddon.

Eight decades or so later, technology has taken a few new hubristic turns. In scenes reminiscent of his The Abyss, only much eerier, Cameron shows real-life footage of insect-like deep-sea submersibles probing the ship's crusty hull as it lies in state on the ocean floor. The research crew headed by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) are not altogether altruistic in their scientific ideals, however -- they're looking for "The Star of the Sea," a peerless diamond they've learned was on board when the Titanic sank.

They don't find the diamond, but they do recover a nude sketch of a beautiful woman, and soon thereafter the woman herself turns up, Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), 101 years old and with a tale to tell. In a compelling transition (and a technique perhaps overused throughout the movie), Rose watches a video of the ship's hoary and derelict ballroom door filmed by Lovett's cameras, her aged face reflected in the monitor screen. The door springs to life as it was 84 years ago, opening to music and gaiety, and then is gone. The search for a diamond, the epitome of inanimate beauty, leads to a frail bit of art and the woman who inspired it. And just as a miracle of technology almost cost Rose her life back in 1912, so now a miracle of technology brings her memory of the Titanic to life.

It's an impressive conceit, and representative of the poetic intelligence that keeps the film afloat. The story Rose tells, though, is not so extraordinary. She starts out as spoiled and desperate 17-year-old American socialite Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet in a career-making performance) whose mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher), a dowager facing ruin, is marrying her off to a millionaire's son, the impossibly villainous Cal Hockley (Billy Zane, who just wishes he had mustachios to curl and a railroad track to tie poor Rose to). Cal's engagement gift to Rose is the "Star of the Sea" and a trip on the Titanic to their wedding in America. Meanwhile, plucky young American Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), an impoverished, itinerant artist, has won steerage passage on the ship in a poker game. The free-spirited Jack and the gilded-caged Rose meet on board, and so on.

It's a standard story given a Jamesian depth with its (sometimes simplistic) subtext of money, class, power, and sexual repression. Winslet brings delightful depth and range to her role, overcoming its lapses in development -- only her capricious sensuality and spontaneity makes Rose's sudden decision to pose nude for Jack believable. DiCaprio, for his part, has trouble rising above the cute-boy snottiness that tends to be his stock in trade. He does so, however, in a scene where he's fitted in his first tuxedo, which is given to him by the understanding vulgarian Molly Brown (Kathy Bates). He fills the outfit nicely, and at a dinner with Cal and Ruth and their supercilious retinue, he responds to their insults with wry wit, dignity, and panache.

But all the sexual intrigue and the chases and the gunfire and the passion submerge below the great disaster of which they are only vivid reflections. In a scene reminiscent of the death throes of King Kong, the ship goes down. It's not a roller-coaster ride. Like Cameron's best work, Titanic shows that the fascination with such technological wonders as the White Star liner and this movie itself is a fascination with the inanimate, with death. The film's long final phase is a harrowing series of sublime images of death and those about to die. It will fill your dreams, as it did mine, with the terror and release of drowning, of the dread of what iceberg lies in the path of the vain vessel of our lives and our civilization.


Peter Keough can be reached at pkeough@phx.com.


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