Titanic, James Cameron’s profligate, hollow “epic,” scantily details the “unsinkable” luxury liner’s 1912 encounter with an iceberg on its maiden voyage, which cost the lives of more than 1500 passengers. Overtaxed by a barrage of cornball clichés, this slick film’s adolescent heart belongs to the doomed romance between bountiful, young-womanly Rose, from first-class, and girlish, breezy Jack, from steerage. These two, played by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, are given an improbable point of contact through the agency of a dashingly foiled suicide attempt. In truth, the ship’s tightly regulated social architecture would have prohibited their ever meeting. But since they have met and have taken a fancy to one another, the two Americans homeward-bound from England must keep eluding Rose’s tyrannical fiancé (Billy Zane) and his thuggish manservant (David Warner). The whole thing couldn’t be sillier.
I wish silly were the worst thing that the film is. Regrettably, it is also politically reactionary. This may be inadvertent. Cameron dutifully dotes on every nuance of class division and upper-class insensitivity. But because he applies this social portraiture only to 102-year-old Rose’s flashback to her time on the Titanic, and provides no update in the 1996 framing narrative, Cameron consigns the problem, still virulently alive in America, to a distant past. Despite his attention to the minutiæ of decor and panting puppy romance, then, Cameron scarcely grasps the political implications of his own material.
This hack of two Terminators (1984, 1991), a Rambo (1985) and a frigid True Lies (1994), Cameron, like Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg, has convinced himself he is on the side of the angels. Titanic, his magnum opus, shows humanity, he believes, at its most deleteriously presumptuous and arrogant; he has stated that the ship’s sinking was caused by “human greed, trying to be the biggest and the best.” (To keep the upper deck uncluttered, the film notes, the ship carried half the number of needed lifeboats.) But how can this message be honestly delivered by a production so inflated that its cost overruns led to an eventual price-tag of $200 million? With unintended irony, this indulgent film embodies what its message takes aim at.
Yet, for all the mammoth expense, the film is curiously unconvincing to the eye—like Spielberg’s computer-generated bodiless dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993). For instance, Cameron’s cracking-and-sinking ship is depressingly fake, a blatant miniature (especially absent past conventions) contesting any but the most servile audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief.
Titanic carries no conviction among its cargo and too many computer-generated “persons” among its “passengers.” (Only the blindest eye would be fooled.) The film shows “size” but no breadth; it brandishes a (computer-generated) pseudomystical ocean, but no depth. The net result is (literally) inhuman. Titanic is the 2001 of water in lieu of space, as flat as cardboard and tritely melodramatic.
Except for DiCaprio, who is dreadful beyond measure, the acting isn’t a problem. Indeed, Bill Paxton is good as the earringed present-day adventurer marshaling high technology to salvage riches from the long-sunk ship. And Kate Winslet is magnificent as young, progressive Rose.
The older version of Rose is played by Gloria Stuart, who helped found the Screen Actors Guild in the 1930s.