Titanic (1997) (PG-13)

The most famous, or perhaps infamous, of all tearjerker movies, "Titanic" is a mammoth picture that lives up to its namesake in cultural impact alone. The movie remained the biggest grossing film of all time (inflation rates adjusted seem to suggest that "Gone with the Wind" actually trumps it) and swept the Academy Awards, placing it as just one of three movies that won eleven Oscars. Its attitude is desperately romantic and carelessly campy, and yes, it's not as good as everyone says it is; but it is one of those movies that you should see.
The first time I saw "Titanic" I was amazed by the visual audacity of it all, and I totally bought the romance...the second time around, hmmm, not so much. James Cameron is not a master director and has often struggled with dialogue and natural feelings, here is no different. He's a crowd pleaser and really good at that, but by no means is "Titanic" high art cinema, though I think calling it that would be insulting to both the movie and high art cinema.
For a three plus hour movie, the first hour is dismal, it's just god-awful. Why? Because Cameron decides that the cutesy-cutesy version of everything is the best way to handle things. We get hyperbole, over-acting, horrid dialogue, and the ghost of something great to happen later. As the characters get introduced we start to notice a pattern. Good guys are poor and bad guys are rich, with few exceptions.
Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio in a star-making turn) wins two tickets onto the Titanic in a lucky game of cards. He and his friend board the ship and he is quickly enamored by the beautiful Rose (Kate Winslet) who is, alas, a few classes above him, flirting with the socialites.
She is engaged to Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) who is a rich tycoon and has an iron fist around Rose's chastity and her neck. One step out of line and his temper flares up in the typical womanizer way.
A few other characters of mention: Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) a woman whose husband struck gold and is newly rich and Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) the designer of Titanic.
But wait...there's more. What could be a simple story about a ship sinking....oops, SPOILER....is instead a movie about a treasure hunt. The movie starts in present day where a group of scientists/scavengers are trying to find an elusive diamond known as the Heart of the Ocean. They uncover a safe in Titanic's ruins and open it to find nothing, only a few papers, one of which is a naked sketching of Kate Winslet.
A woman claiming to be the dame pictured (Gloria Stuart) comes to the scientists and tells them the tale of the ship's damned voyage. While they listen to the old woman's tale, we are taken back in time to the glory of the ship.
Those are the two theaters of "Titanic". The one where the ship is living in its glory and the one in present day looking back. Because Cameron decides to use this modus operandi of shooting, there is an emotional break every time we lapse from one to another, and much of it has to do with Gloria Stuart's narration, because it sounds nothing like Kate Winslet, though they are supposed to be the same person. Also, no one likes to think of an old grandma being sexy except for the people in this movie.
"Titanic" plods along, trying to pick up steam, as the wheels churn under its feet. We are told about the romance instead of the necklace and in the end there's a huge plot hold as to why this lady thought her story could have helped the scientists at all. Also, the very ending of the movie provides us with security that our story is done but none of the needed ending emotions. Why? Why? Why? The point being that Cameron uses the Heart of the Ocean as a giant and fumbled plot device to summon all the necessary characters together.
Rose and Jack meet and their attraction is immediate, though a little hesitant because there are from such different backgrounds; but we're not idiots, we've seen the posters, we know what's going to happen. A romance blooms.
There is a mess going on that first hour to two hours. From how overly evil Cal is to how innocently naive and beautifully attracted to Rose Jack is, it's just bad writing...and how do the two meet? They meet when Rose is about to commit suicide by jumping off the back of the boat...wow! That's hot! Really? At no point did this long movie think that it should have grounded us in Rose's despair before is has her launching herself off the back? Really? Okay, I'm done...almost.
So pretty much everything in the beginning of the movie is hateful, only there to mentally stimulate the audience into thinking that Cameron has a clue what he's doing.
But just wait...it gets better.
Though in the end it's presented that the upper class is so horrid that they themselves caused the ship to wreck and sink, seeing the destruction of their bigotry is almost enough punishment for them, it's not Cameron's awkward ideology that makes some of his scenes great, it's the action. This is where the director excels and for the last hour of the movie there is nothing but sublime perfection on screen. The wrecking and sinking of the Titanic is glorious filmmaking and Cameron at his finest.
So yes, watch it for the visuals and for the romance if you care to; but don't tell me that it's a fine example of cinema because the beginning and the ending prove otherwise. Cameron does his best to try to make a very safe story, and he does...it's very secure. But the passion, the real emotion, the gravity, the horror, the astounding overwhelming-ness of it all never quite sinks it. That last hour does its best. but sadly it's not enough to make up for the rest of Cameron's sins.

Score: ★★★

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