20th Century-Fox, 1997

After months of fevered speculation, James Cameron’s Titanic emerges onto the big screen with a force that is both stunningly powerful and astoundingly sophomoric. Rumors of a wildly out of control budget and troubled production ran rampant: cinematographer Caleb Deschanel was replaced early on by Russell Carpenter, director Cameron forfeited his commanding salary to reduce skyrocketing overruns, the cast and crew was temporarily stricken by PCP-laced clam chowder, among hundreds of other allegations of excess. But in the end there can be no doubt where the money went. Every penny of the reported $200+ million is right there on screen in an epic of a scale not seen since the heyday of the biggest Hollywood extravaganzas.

The story should be familiar to all – designed and billed as a ship that “God, Himself could not sink,” the RMS Titanic was four days out of Southampton in route to New York when she collided with an iceberg and crumbled into 12,500 feet of water, taking 1,523 passengers with her to the bottom – but one suspects that the film will strike its most responsive chord with an audience no doubt surprised to learn that the boat actually sank.

In an obnoxious framing story filled with contrived exposition and thickheaded plot devices standing in for real characters, treasure hunter Bill Paxton leads a crew of “researchers” into the murky depths of the North Sea in an attempt to discover the whereabouts of an incredible diamond known to have been aboard at the time of the disaster. News reports leads the oldest living survivor back to the scene of the tragedy, and her story – told in a series of protracted flashbacks – forms the core recreation of Titanic’s fateful voyage.

The first shots of the mammoth and still proud bow jutting up from the ocean floor fill the screen, and the audience with shivers of awe. This, clearly is going to be a far cry from the stage bound feel of previous Titanic-themed epics – most notably A Night to Remember, and the endlessly forgettable travesty that was Raise the Titanic! The time is 1997, twelve years after Woods Hole oceanographer Robert Ballard actually discovered the sunken ship, and Cameron uses the technology developed in the intervening span of time to stunning effect. In what can only be described as a mania for authenticity taxing even his own legendary obsession, Cameron himself photographed the remains of the mighty vessel – designing special equipment to do so – spending more time on the wreck than the actual boat spent above the waves. This footage is seamlessly intercut with excellent miniature work necessary for the development of the plot. And it just gets better from there.

And yet, for all its brilliance, there are serious flaws which can be largely laid at the feet of a brilliant film maker overextending his reach. Cameron is simply juggling too many hats (writer, producer, director, editor, and more) to deliver top notch work in every department. To his credit, though, he largely succeeds, and even when he falls short, he’s in there giving it much more than you’d expect from a lesser maniac.

“Composer” James Horner’s relentless Enya impression is both effective and annoying, this time recycling large pieces of his previous work on Glory and Willow, and his collaboration with trite lyricist Will Jennings for the requisite closing credits song will no doubt choke the airwaves for months to come.

Though it’s not an entirely valid criticism, due to the vast amount of information he’s obligated to convey, and a huge cast with which to deliver it, the acting leans to the perfunctory end of the spectrum. Having distinguished herself in such notable projects as Heavenly Creatures and Sense and Sensibility, Kate Winslet has little to do here than look elegant, then wet and harried. Yet again, Leonardo DiCaprio shrugs off the astounding work he did on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in favor of a sawed-off “Jack Kerouac as happy-go-lucky world travelling artist” impression that consists of little more than staring at the ocean or staring at Kate and the sumptuous costumes she’s eternally tooling about in.

The hackneyed relationship and ensuing romance that develops between the leads has all the depth and sensitivity of More American Graffiti, which managed to completely destroy the brilliance and timeless appeal of the preceding original. To have vaulted Titanic fully into the ranks of undisputed classics, the script could have done with a much needed polish by writers more accomplished than Cameron. Valid criticism? Perhaps. But in comparison to what comes before the iceberg, the second half of the film is an achievement of unparalleled skill and scope. The sight of the stern, its massive screws rising from the sea as the ship begins her decent into the black waters has played across trailer screens for months now, but to see it in context is all the more moving. There can be no doubt in the mind of anyone leaving the theatre, searching for their cars in the warm sunshine, exactly what it was like to experience the horror of freezing, drowning, despair and abandonment.