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— Colm Meaney, Con Air

MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Modern-day treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) hears the story of one survivor from the sinking of the Titanic. When her story is done, Brock says that even though he’s been working on the Titanic for 3 years, he never got it. Until he heard her story, he never saw past the wreckage on the bottom of the Atlantic.

The same might be said of the audience after seeing the movie. Without a good story, the sinking of the Titanic could have been just another special effects movie, more interested in the ship itself than on how it affected lives. Instead, Cameron made the Titanic the background for his story.

Titanic is great. The melodramatic love story is the perfect foreground for the sinking of the largest passenger ship in history. The film is a technical marvel, and even without the spectacular sinking, the story is engaging.

The melodrama involves Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a poor boy who wins a ticket to America on the Titanic in a poker game, and Rose (Kate Winslet), a young socialite who is traveling to America for her wedding to Cal. Though Rose doesn’t love Cal, she must marry him because she and her mother are penniless, unbeknownst to the rest of high society.

Jack falls for Rose as soon as he sees her and is determined to win her in spite of the class barrier. Rose doesn’t even know Jack exists until he comes along as she contemplates throwing herself into the Atlantic. Not only does he talk her down from the ledge, but when her handlers suddenly arrive and assume the worst of Jack, he keeps his mouth shut, protecting her.

The two fall deeply in love and talk of how they might escape together when the ship lands. If this were any other ship, the conflict of two lovers fighting class barriers would have been interesting enough to make a movie. Instead, their relationship faces an even bigger conflict . . . .

There is a love scene in the movie that, for me, is one of the best in quite a while. The two lovers don’t have sex, or even touch. Rose knows that Jack is an artist, so she insists that he sketch her in the nude. Both are just shy enough and just eager enough to make the amorous tension wonderful.

DiCaprio is great in the male lead role. Ever since his astonishing debut in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, his presence brings high expectations. Not all of his films have been great (The Basketball Diaries, for example) but he shines in Titanic. His character loves life, and DiCaprio “lets his heart soar,” as Cameron aptly put it.

Kathy Bates was good in a small, sympathetic role: the unsinkable Molly Brown. In Jack and Rose’s story, Molly was a bridge between their social classes. She had new money but started out poor, so she was interested in seeing Jack succeed among the upper crust.

The biggest flaw for me is the inexcusable 2-dimensionality of the movie’s “villain,” Cal (Billy Zane). I have already called the story a melodrama, and in melodramas, the villains are made of evil. But when Cal had already lost the girl, and a chance for redemption presented itself, he continued to be a prick.

The special effects of the launching and the sinking of Titanic are fascinating. Roger Ebert even called them seamless, but he was wrong. Some scenes are clearly made of computerized cartoons and composites. For example, when the ship launches and the camera flies overhead, some of the figures on deck move very artificially. These effects may be more elaborately made than ever before, but they are still not seamless.

No amount of computer animation can yet pass for reality, which is probably why Cameron chose to build a huge set that could actually sink. The investment was worthwhile, for if the entire sinking only happened on a computer, the effect would not have worked. The reality of the wood and metal and water needed to be felt and seen. (See the last plane crash in Air Force One for a “realistic” cartoon that just isn’t real enough.)

Because everyone knows the fate of the Titanic, Cameron (who also wrote the script) included some ironic foreshadowing. There’s almost too much and it distracts in parts. Nevertheless, I found myself rooting for the lovers to make it in America, in spite of their certain fate.

And because the previews tell you where the lovers are when the ship goes down, one would expect a predictable ending. But one doesn’t need surprise to create tension, as Cameron deftly showed. The slow march of floodwaters, the violent cracking of a doomed ship, and the unpredictable human response to certain death add to an incredibly tense, emotionally draining experience.

In fact, some might say that there is no best “part” of the movie; that the best thing about it is the entire experience, the spectacle of it all. The daunting length and melodramatics of the movie ask a lot from audiences, but that contributes to the sense of Titanic being more an event than a movie. Also, the sheer size, not just of the subject matter, but of the length, the cast and the cost of the film makes it a once-in-five-years movie.