The last decade of Hollywood has accustomed us to "event" film making a marketing strategy that tries to define practically every film of any ambition (above and beyond, say, a Pauly Shore comedy) as a turning point in Western civilization. Movies compete to be perceived as the biggest, most expensive, most spectacular productions ever, in hopes of rousing the great surly mass of once-a-year filmgoers who alone can put a picture into the box office stratosphere.
"Titanic" doesn't need to compete. With a budget of $200 million and a shooting schedule that ran for 160 days, it is unquestionably the biggest, most expensive movie ever made, an "event" by default. It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be in order to automatically become the picture of the year.
But "Titanic" is not merely good. It is a magnificent object, a feat of engineering and an overwhelming visual, aural and emotional experience that alone justifies all the worrisome tendencies of recent American movies. If bigness has become a virtue in itself, director James Cameron here makes that bigness the metaphorical backbone of his movie, a conveyor and correlative to the titanic emotions that grip his characters. If computer-generated special effects have overpowered human-generated drama, Cameron seizes that dangerously cold technology and recasts it as dream and delirium, profoundly human in its sources and longings digital poetry, as personal as a sonnet.
As advanced as the technology of "Titanic" may be, the story it tells is a classic melodrama a simplified tale of class conflict that, filmed as a Biograph one-reeler, could have played to the nickelodeon audiences of 1912, the year of the Titanic's sinking. Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a poor little rich girl, returning from England on the maiden voyage of the great luxury liner in the company of her conventionally hateful fiance, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), whom her controlling mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher), is forcing Rose to marry.
Contemplating suicide, Rose leans a bit too far over the Titanic's cliff-like stern, and is saved from a fall by Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aspiring artist returning from Paris on a steerage ticket won in a poker game. At this point, the course of events is perfectly clear, and Cameron doesn't frustrate our expectations. The two young people begin a romance that blossoms into passion, as the ship steams toward its North Atlantic rendezvous.
Shakily written and uncertainly performed at first, Rose and Jack initially seem callow figures, but they grow in stature and sensibility as Cameron brings them into his grand design. Instead of treating the Titanic as a microcosm of society (the approach in virtually every other Titanic film), Cameron makes the ship a vividly realized, fluid symbol of human destiny, mapping the different levels of the ship as levels of character, from the social graces of the salon to the sexual heat of the engine room.
Fore and aft become two distinctly characterized playing areas, symbolizing future and past, personal freedom and social constraint, the course of a life inevitably linked to death. Created through a complex blend of partial sets, models and digital effects, Cameron's Titanic is breathtaking in its wholeness, heartbreaking in its destruction. The film's final hour portrays the sinking, not merely as spectacle, but as a series of harsh moral choices that must be made by all the characters as they decide who will live and who will die.
In a contemporary framing story, the elderly Rose (played by Gloria Stuart, an actress who worked for John Ford and James Whale in the '30s) tells her tale to a salvage diver (Bill Paxton), who has been searching the wreck for a fabled diamond. At first a symbol of commercial profit, the diamond becomes an image of the place the past occupies in the present, as memory and as inspiration. That's the same ennobling route that "Titanic" takes as it leaves the port of enterprise and arrives on the far shore of art.