Note: The following review is from 1997 before the film went on to become the biggest box office hit history (in unadjusted dollars) or won a passel of awards.
Of any real life event that seems perfect for dramatizing, the sinking of the luxury cruiser R.M.S. Titanic in 1912 certainly rates among the best. There's the tragic and still not completely resolved sequence of errors that led to the impact with the iceberg, and the delay of nearby ships to come to the rescue. The arrogance of the builders, and society in general, to proclaim the ship unsinkable -- and thus not have enough lifeboats for everyone on board -- is also a good dramatic element. Finally, there's the sinking of the ship itself. Taking several hours to finally disappear under the icy cold North Atlantic waters -- where fifteen hundred people perished -- you can't match that for a tragic ending, especially considering this was her maiden voyage.
Film makers, of course, didn't overlook this story and many renditions have made it onto the big screen. From 1953's "Titanic" to 1958's better known, "A Night To Remember," many people have attempted to capture the horrors and tragedy of that night. Their biggest problem, however, laid with making the sinking of an 882-foot ship look realistic. No matter how well the rest of the movie came off, the ending always looked hokey at worst, and simply fake at best with the obvious use of miniatures ruining the drama built up until then.
Eighty-five years later they're still building cruise ships -- ones that would dwarf even the enormous Titanic -- and every year there's a newer, bigger boat ready to set sail. The same is true for movie special effects where likewise every year some bigger, better effect pops up on the silver screen. With the capability to generate realistic looking dinosaurs and tornado funnel clouds, nearly nothing is impossible to create anymore.
Thus, what a perfect match for director James Cameron -- telling a big story using big special effects -- and thus this, his chance up at bat to bring the Titanic back to the silver screen. Known for his technical prowess, keen and demanding eye for detail, and the ability to tell compelling stories, Cameron seemed the perfect man for the job when it was announced he'd helm this feature. The result strongly proves that the original assumption was dead on.
No stranger to using groundbreaking special effects ("The Abyss," "Terminator 2"), Cameron has created a $200 million extravaganza. The most expensively created film to date (in today's dollars -- 1963's "Cleopatra" still wins considering adjusted figures), the money's certainly up there on the screen for everyone to behold. Physically recreating the ship and using computer effects, the results are nothing less than outstanding. While there are only a few moments where the veil of realism is broken -- where something just doesn't quite look real -- for the most part, the effects are stunningly realistic. For $200 million they should.
Some of that cost went into getting footage of the actual wreck and Cameron personally shot much of it. Seeing that underwater footage will never get boring -- and the bonus is we get to see it on the big screen. Of course, Cameron's had plenty of underwater shooting experience. His brilliant, but ultimately flawed film, "The Abyss," ushered in new underwater camera equipment and shooting techniques. It also gave him practice in filming drowning sequences. There's nothing in this film, however, that compares to the one scene where Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio purposefully allows herself to drown (there's only one oxygen tank) to have Ed Harris pull her back to the main ship and try to revive her. That still rates as one of the most difficult scenes to watch in cinema history.
Beyond the obvious ship and the sinking effects scenes in this film, the newest cutting edge additions are computer generated people showing up for the first time as extras. Seen walking on the decks of the Titanic in long shots or in sweeping "fly by's," the people are quite realistic looking. That is, of course, unless you look too closely and observe that they have a slow motion, slightly computer generated appearance. For the most part, however, viewers won't even notice that and will be amazed by thinking that they rebuilt the ship (they did for some scenes) and put all of those people on board (ditto). Other nice effects include some dolphins racing along in front of the ship, very realistic looking wakes left behind it, and nice matte jobs with the characters in the foreground looking like they're really in the scene.
Cameron doesn't rely totally on special effects to tell this tale, however, and saw that the grand tragedy of the sinking would be an interesting backdrop for a love story. Creating a fictitious survivor, the story is told in flashback where we learn of the character's short, but intense romance with a young, lower class man. Casting young Leonardo DiCaprio ("Romeo & Juliet," "The Basketball Diaries") and British actress Kate Winslet ("Hamlet," "Sense and Sensibility") at first seemed a mistake by many. Why wouldn't Cameron cast big-name stars and thus be assured of at least drawing in a big crowd? The answer is twofold. First, there will be plenty of publicity about the "most expensive movie ever made" (just ask Kevin Costner about "Waterworld"). The second part is that DiCaprio and Winslet are perfect for the parts. He's Cameron's Romeo to Winslet's Juliet, and their young love is quite believable as well as captivating.
What tremendously helps is the fairytale, near Disney-like romance plot between the two. It's an attraction of differing classes, and his daring, adventurous character is as much the lead character from "Aladdin" as Winslet is Princess Jasmine. While all of that may sound corny, it actually works -- how can it not? It's been a staple of romantic drama for a long time and you'll really root that these two get together as their chemistry is perfectly matched. Winslet is absolutely radiant on screen, and as in all of the similarly plotted stories, it's fun to watch her break free from her societal shackles and cut loose for a while. Likewise, DiCaprio has a terrific on screen charisma mixed with a certain boyish charm. Since the tragic death of River Phoenix several years ago, Leonardo has not only replaced him as the leading teen heartthrob, but he's also turned into quite an actor in his own right.
Slight problems exist, however, with some of the other characters. To accentuate the class differences, Billy Zane's character and several others are so much the epitome of upper class snobbery that they come off as a bit too calculated. Their presence, of course, is to be Rose's societal burden, but it would have been nice had everything not been so black and white. At least they could have given Zane's character just one attractive characteristic -- the "grey" characters are always so much more fun to watch than the straightforward villains. Speaking of problems, some might find the film's length -- about three hours -- to be one, but I personally had no problem sitting through it without ever feeling fidgety. The story is so compelling and the effects are so grand that they seemingly freeze time. The film also survives the fact that we know how it's going to end (yes, the ship sinks again). It does so by not allowing us to ever quite know who will survive and who won't (other than Rose, who obviously lives to tell us the story).
What also initially appeared to be a problem to me is actually a brilliant piece of storytelling by Cameron. Once the ship has hit the iceberg, it obviously starts taking on water and sinking -- a process that will take several hours (not in the movie, although it's probably not far off). What seems odd is that many of the characters seem blase about this. I know the ship is going down and appropriately feel anxious, so why don't the characters? Well, it's because they don't know what the audience knows in hindsight, but also because they think the ship is unsinkable. Why worry? It can't go down. The brilliance comes in the fact that by motivating the characters this way, Cameron lulls the audience into the same near tranquil feeling that's overcome the characters. Then, once the big moment arrives, we're shocked into thinking the same thing as the passengers -- oh my gosh, it really is going to sink -- even though we knew that from the beginning.
Of course there are many moments before that which are tense and quite riveting. Cameron's always been a master at action scenes, and these will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat. The final sinking sequence and moments afterwards are quite moving, and we're allowed to ease out of those emotions by a several minute prologue back in the present. Cameron's definitely hit this one out of the ballpark and may just earn himself an Oscar nomination for it. Award nods will probably also go to the effects team, the absolutely fabulous production and costume design, and to James Horner's sweeping score. There's also the remote possibility that DiCaprio and Winslet may get nominated as well. Yes, it's that good and we think it's easily one of the best films of the year.