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On Dec. 19, 1997, James Cameron’s Titanic set sail in theaters nationwide. The 193-minute blockbuster epic went on to dominate the 70th Academy Awards, nabbing 11 wins including best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Paramount should replace that white mountain in its logo with an iceberg for the next several months. The studio will navigate spectacularly with its latest launch, Titanic, the most expensive movie ever created about what was once the largest moving object ever built.
Not only will James Cameron’s formidable cinematic vessel sail sensationally on domestic waters, but 20th Century Fox, which has international rights, will find that Titanic will propel blockbuster results around the world.
A daunting blend of state-of-the-art special effects melded around a sterling central story, Titanic plumbs personal and philosophical story depths not usually found in “event-scale” movies that, beneath their girth and pyrotechnics, often have nothing at their core.
Titanic, however, is no soulless junket into techno-glop wizardry but rather a complex and radiant tale that essays both mankind’s destructive arrogance and its noble endurance.
Ultimately, we all know the horrible outcome of the Titanic sinking. We can recite the numbers lost and the awesome dimensions of the ship, and we can construct some sort of comparative scope for the catastrophe. But all these are mere quantifications and chit-chat regurgitation.
Cameron, who wrote and directed the film, has put a face on that horrific happening; he has taken us beyond the forensics of the sinking and put us inside the skin and psyches of those who perished and those who survived. In both, we see facets of ourselves: In philosophical microcosm, Cameron shows that in the end — both the good and the bad endings — we’re all in the same boat.
On its hightest level, Titanic is no meager disaster movie, greased by generic formula and goosed by big-bucks technology, but it is rather a probing scope of what great feats mankind can accomplish and, in turn, what terrible results these feats can spawn. Fortunately, Cameron lets the film’s philosophical seams and girdings show. Titanic — and no one will ever forget — is one big, bruising movie that will appeal on different levels to different audiences.
Told in flashback as a single-minded fortune hunter (Bill Paxton) combs the Titanic’s wreckage with his state-of-the-art search ship in hopes of finding undiscovered treasure, the story is recalled by a 103-year-old woman (Gloria Stuart) who was a passenger on the ship’s ill-fated maiden voyage. Drifting back to that time in April 1912, we see the trip through Rose’s (Kate Winslet) 17-year-old eyes.
High-spirited and betrothed to a monied mill heir (Billy Zane), Rose is, nevertheless, despondent. Like a Henry James heroine, she finds that she is not suited for life in the gilded cage that society is shaping for her as the baubled wife of a leisured industrialist. She foresees her life as being measured out by serving spoons, and she wants no part of such a stuffy existence. Her ennui turns to deep depression, and she nearly ends it by diving into icy waters, where she is saved only by the wise grace of a third-class passenger, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose joy for life and eagerness for living it to the fullest soon revitalize the young Rose.
In general, roughly the first half of this three-hours-plus movie is akin to having an engraved invitation to attend the first-class functions of that glittery voyage. Navigator Cameron introduces us to a wide lot of characters, from the prigs of the paneled staterooms to the dregs of the raging furnace room. Since most of them are either rich or British, they’re an entertaining array of swellheads and loons. All of this is pinioned around Rose’s personal blossoming as Jack reawakens the artistic and personal juices in her, those nearly suffocated by the rigid and judgmental confines of Edwardian society.
All the while, Cameron plants calamitous forebodings — the inadequacies of the life rafts, equipment shortages and the vanity of the ship’s creators and captain. Narratively, Titanic is a masterwork of big-canvas storytelling, broad enough to entrance and entertain yet precise and delicate enough to educate and illuminate. Undeniably, one could nitpick — critic-types may snicker at some ‘60s-era lines and easy-pop ‘90s-vantage hindsights — but that’s like dismissing a Mercedes on the grounds that its glove compartment interior is drab.
Unlike in most monstrosities of this film’s size and girth, the characters are not assembled from a standard stock pot. Within the dimensions of such an undertaking, Cameron, along with his well-chosen cast, has created memorable, idiosyncratic and believable characters. Our sympathies are warmed by the two leads: Winslet is effervescently rambunctious as the trapped Rose, while DiCaprio’s willowy steadfastness wonderfully heroic. On the stuffy side of the deck, Zane is aptly snide as Rose’s cowardly fiance, while Frances Fisher is perfect as a social snob, both shrill and frightened. Kathy Bates is a hoot as the big-hatted, big-mouthed Molly Brown — she is, indeed, indestructible. On the seamier side, David Warner is positively chilling as a ruthless valet. As the deep-sea treasure hunter, Paxton brings a Cameron-type obsessiveness to his quest.
The film’s most captivating performance, however, belongs to Stuart, whose luminous portrayal of the 103-year-old Rose is an inspirational joy. Pencil Stuart in for a likely best supporting actress nomination this winter.
Also on the Oscar front, clear the deck for multiple technical nominations. Front and center is, of course, Cameron. A decided cut above other superstar directors in that he can also write, Cameron deserves a director’s nomination for his masterful creation — it’s both a logistical and aesthetic marvel. The film’s fluid, masterfully punctuated editing, including some elegantly economical match cuts, is outstanding: Editors Conrad Buff and Richard A. Harris deserve nominations, as does cinematographer Russell Carpenter for his brilliantly lit scopings; his range of blues seems to hit every human emotion.
Titanic‘s visual and special effects transcend state-of-the-art workmanship, invoking feelings within us not usually called up by razzle-dazzlery. Highest honors to visual effects supervisor Rob Legato and special effects coordinator Thomas L. Fisher for the powerful, knockdown imagery. It’s often awesome, most prominently in showing the ship’s unfathomable rupture. The splitting of the iron monster is a heart stopper, in no small measure compounded by the sound team’s creaking thunders. Through it all, James Horner’s resonant and lilting musical score, at times uplifted by a mournful Irish reed, is a deep treasure by itself. — Duane Byrge, originally published on Nov. 3, 1997
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