Below is Newsday's original film review of "Titanic," which premiered in theaters on Friday, Dec. 19, 1997.
The love story at the center of James Cameron's $200-million-plus re-enactment of the sinking of the Titanic is ripe, old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama, but the ship is spectacle enough, and its sinking is one of the most perversely thrilling adventures ever put on film. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane. 3:07 (intense peril, violence, nudity, sensuality and brief profanity). At area theaters.
THE SINKING of the Titanic has been explored many times, many ways; in books and film, fiction and nonfiction, with and without the accompaniment of Nearer My God to Thee. ' We've heard or read scores of survivors ' accounts, we've toured the great ship through pre-launch photos and newsreel footage, we've even been to its grave to roam its carcass in documentaries made for the smallest (TV) and largest (IMAX) screens.
The only thing that has eluded our imagination is the sense of actually going down with the ship. Nobody aboard the Titanic that fateful night in 1912 lived to tell that story, and no filmmaker has had the resources or the gall to speculate . . . until now.
Welcome writer-director James Cameron's Titanic, ' a staggering re-enactment that cost about 25 times more to make than the original ship cost to build (about $7.5 million to $10 million), takes 25 minutes longer to watch than the Titanic took to sink, and arrives - some five months later than expected - as one of the most perversely thrilling adventures ever put on film.
Titanic ' is not the masterpiece it might have been. Cameron, whose previous films include the Terminator ' movies and The Abyss, ' is a magician with special effects, modelwork, and action choreography, but his writing leans toward matinee-movie cliche, and the love story at the heart of Titanic ' is too transparently contrived for the kind of epic drama he intends. But as a maker of spectacle, Cameron will end the century on a list that began with D.W. Griffith.
To his credit, Cameron rejected the disaster movie formula that Titanic ' begs to accommodate. He doesn't develop a handful of mini-dramas that come to a boil as the iceberg approaches. Instead, he focuses on two people, the drifter-artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), who wins his steerage-class ticket in a last-minute poker game, and Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a 17-year-old American returning home with her domineering mother (Frances Fisher) and the wealthy English snob, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), with whom she's miserably engaged.
The first-class / steerage romance is a tired but inescapable cliche of Titanic lore. Few times have the lines between social classes been so clearly drawn, or the stakes as carefully measured, as they were with the Titanic. Not only were the passengers segregated by class, but when the ship began to sink, the steerage compartment was sealed off and blocked with armed guards in an attempt to save those holding the higher-priced tickets first.
A romance between a have and have-not, which is also the dramatic linchpin of the current Broadway musical Titanic, ' is the most convenient way to bridge the class issue. And Cameron milks it for all it's worth, and then some.
Rose is a caged spirit, buckling under the weight of her mother's greed, her fiance's ego and the manners of her class, while Jack Dawson, free as the wind, holds the key to her liberation. After a chance meeting - she's about to jump overboard, he happens by to rescue her - and some skittish class foreplay, Jack and Rose begin a lightning, sexually charged romance that will become the scandal of the upper decks.
Titanic ' is framed within a contemporary story about the finding of a sketch of a nude woman in the hull of the sunken ship, and with the reminiscences of the 102-year-old woman (Gloria Stuart) who claims to be the girl in the drawing. That girl is Rose, of course, and with marine scavenger Bill Paxton and others looking on in misty-eyed wonder, she takes us back to that day in April, 1912, when the first of the Titanic's 2,207 passengers begin boarding in Southampton, England.
If the numbers describing the Titanic's size are incomprehensible - three football fields long, 18 stories high - so is Cameron's nine-tenths scale replica. When the elderly Rose begins her story, we see the image of the gray, decayed sunken hull of the Titanic dissolve into its maiden glory, sitting dockside in Southampton, a mountain-size symbol of man's technological genius.
The image on screen is also a symbol of man's technological genius, albeit of another age. There may be telltale moments in Titanic, ' particularly those aerial shots of the ship at sea, where the seams of the graphic overlays are faintly visible, or where the water seems to take on a metallic shimmer. But the scale of the ship's exterior is so overwhelming, and its interiors so finely and authentically detailed, that you very quickly surrender to the illusion, and allow the Titanic's inherent drama - the approach of doom - to sweep you along.
Titanic ' takes its time getting there. The iceberg isn't spotted, by lookouts in the crow's nest, until 1 hour and 35 minutes into the movie, after Jack and Rose are madly in love, and being pursued by her furious fiance and his gun-toting companion (David Warner).
The scenes with Zane's spurned lover and Warner's brooding thug provide the worst moments in the movie. Zane and Warner are playing villains out of a Perils of Pauline ' plot, and the melodrama they create just as the ship begins to sink is truly wretched excess.
But the chase nonsense gives Cameron the opportunity to take us where no moviegoers have gone before, into the imploding bowels of the Titanic, from its flooded boiler room, where the crew is trying to follow rats to safety, to the steerage compartment, where panic is fueling riot, to the forecastle, where Captain Smith (Bernard Hill) stares in catatonic shame, to the decks, where stewards are trying to maintain order while loading the lifeboats, women and children first. '
Cameron devotes minimal time to the actual historical drama played out aboard the Titanic, that being the reckless insistence by a White Star Lines executive (Jonathan Hyde) that the ship travel full-speed through the treacherous ice fields to get to New York a day early. It's there, as subtext, as are such noted Titanic figures as the ship's builder Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), and super-wealthy passengers John Jacob Astor (Eric Braeden) and Benjamin Guggenheim (Michael Ensign).
But Cameron's aim was to set the most intimate love story possible against one of the century's biggest tragedies, and he very nearly pulls it off. DiCaprio has a captivating presence in a role that might have been written for a young Clark Gable, and Winslet, an Oscar nominee for Sense and Sensibility, ' imbues Rose with enough passion to fuel a shelf of romance novels.
In the end, this Titanic's ' weakness seems a small one, Cameron's penchant for overstatement. Maybe that's because he started out making a summer movie, not the heavyweight holiday release / Academy Award front-runner it has become. And it's certainly not enough to sink the ship.