‘Gloopy American schmaltz’: Our review of Titanic, 20 years on

First published in the Sun-Herald on December 21,1997

Here’s the skinny on the most expensive and possibly most anticipated movie of the year: Titanic doesn’t look like it cost $250 million. It’s half an hour too long, thanks to gloopy American schmaltz.

But, and it’s a big but, there are moments of suspense which will have even the blase digging their nails into the armrest. And the scenes involving the ship’s death throes are some of the most spectacular ever on screen.

So, does the average punter looking for a disaster movie extraordinaire, a 1990s Poseidon Adventure with whizzbang effects, get their money’s worth? Yes, indeedy. With a three hours-plus running time, what you get is almost two movies (romantic drama and action mayhem) in one.

It opens on a 1990s diamond-hunter (Paxton) who explores the wreck of the Titanic 12,000 feet below the North Atlantic’s surface.

That’s mostly an excuse for Aliens director James Cameron to flash some expensive hardware and give audiences some poignant footage of the real ship. (Cameron himself shot the deep-dive footage two years ago as a catalyst for his long-cherished project.)

The story centres on the discovery of well-born Rose, a survivor of the 1912 disaster. She tells the story, of her forbidden romance with a free-spirited artist (DiCaprio). So, cut to Cameron’s depiction of the world’s biggest luxury liner, the “unsinkable” Titanic: 269 metres in length (Cameron duplicated at 236 metres) and carrying 2,223 passengers.

Despite all the money thrown at the screen, the boat sometimes looks touched-up, fuzzy where it hits the water, noticeably round the stern. And the fatal iceberg looks like Styrofoam.

But the way Cameron’s camera roams so intimately round the first class private promenades and boxy third class quarters gives viewers a real sense of being on board.

Indeed, its immediacy, the way the pace steadily increases, the plot’s classic tragedy, makes this a movie which grabs viewers by the scruff of the neck and demands, “What would you do?”

It’s nice also to be given two characters whom you can unreservedly cheer on. As the cloistered 17-year-old, stifled by her upcoming wedding to a wealthy prat (Billy Zane), gorgeously gowned English rose Winslet is a beautiful rebel in traditional head-tossing mode.

Marvin’s Room drama genius DiCaprio occasionally takes the easy-smirking option but his impish approach (“This is bad”) is a shrewd link to younger viewers. Older viewers, if they’re not hooked by the lavish historical detail and rich gallery of characters, can enjoy arch performers like Kathy Bates as showgirl Molly Brown. Plus a story which perfectly captures the grim reality that in the 20th century, nothing in life – or technology – is certain.

Rating: M

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Bill Paxton

Critic’s Warning: Language, gunplay, mass fatalities.

Critic’s Rating: 8 out of 10.

First published in the Sun-Herald on December 21, 1997

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