Titanic (1997)

A band of latter-day pirates plunders a ghost ship, invading its lonely, watery grave with cameras, lights and robotic submersibles. The ship lies still in the serene waters of the ocean floor, looking for all the world like a decaying green corpse, its skin falling slowly away in mossy strands. A silent piano grins like a skull with 88 crooked teeth. Here a footless boot, there a decapitated doll's head, haunting reminders of the 2,200 souls who once waltzed and skipped and swabbed the decks of the Titanic.

The pirates are modern treasure hunters seeking a legendary blue diamond called the heart of the ocean. Instead of the gem, they find the girl who wore it, now 101 years old. As Rose DeWitt Bukater (Gloria Stuart) recounts the voyage of the Titanic in flashback, hers is as much a tale of colliding worlds as of colliding ships and icebergs, an engrossing, mythic, fiercely romantic tale of young love and social class.

Writer-director James Cameron perfectly recreates the ocean liner Titanic with exacting, obsessive detail, but far from being merely a spectacular replica of the ship, a precise but detached reenactment of her first and final voyage, Cameron's film is devastatingly personal, a unique recreation of the full horror and human tragedy of the ship's sinking. Where once the unsinkable Titanic was an abstraction, an example of human hubris and its consequences, in *Titanic*, Cameron, a brilliant technical innovator infamous for his own hubris (as well as spectacular, expensive films), achieves, through a virtuosic accumulation of meaningful details, the individualization of virtually every passenger aboard the ship, creating a dense, rich tapestry of human experience, of passion and love, greed and selfishness, and terrible loss.

Amid the hustle and bustle of Southampton, as excited, awestruck passengers board the "ship of dreams," young Rose (Kate Winslet) is a virtual prisoner, boarding the Titanic in symbolic chains. She is being pushed by her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) into a loveless marriage with Cal (Billy Zane), destined to be the trophy wife of this callous, controlling and cruel man who is wealthy beyond imagination. Rose bristles at the restrictions of high society as much as the steerage passengers object to the pre-boarding lice inspections. Among the third class passengers is Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a vagabond artist who won his ticket to destiny in a card game. Jack is the resident dreamboat aboard the Titanic, charming, independent, carefree, and everything Rose, wilting in the hothouse atmosphere of a first class existence, wants to be. Like the proverbial two ships in the night, they will collide, with the desperate intensity of emotion only young lovers know.

From the start, *Titanic* is a story of the incompatibility of love and class distinction: the privileged rich are shallow and dull, obsessed with manners and appearances, while the poor are lively and down to earth. The decks of the ship recreate the strata of society, a microcosm for the larger world. Below decks, men sweat and toil in an inferno, shovelling coal into the fiery furnaces that will drive the massive engines. Above them, steerage passengers are crammed into tight quarters; second class is above them, and above all, the elegant accomodations of the first class passengers, the state rooms of Astors and Guggenheims. Rose will bring Jack up to her level, and he will take her down to his, their romantic union hinting at the dissolution of class demarcations that will come as the ship sinks and the literal barriers between the classes are crushed. Even the tragedy of the Titanic, the film makes clear, might have been avoided if not for class-conscious conspicuous consumption: laden with the luxurious trappings of wealth, the ship has too few lifeboats for its passengers and too small a rudder for its fast, powerful engines.

The swoony romance between Jack and Rose is the pure, old fashioned stuff of movies, but it effectively personalizes the disaster to come. Knowing that the Titanic will inevitably sink, knowing that Rose will surely survive the night of April 14, 1912, does not diminish at all the terrible sense of dread and suspense that permeates the film, for even before the catastrophic collision, there is a mood of aching and longing for these young lovers, two people for whom the very thought of separation is almost unbearable. Winslet and DiCaprio carry the full, enormous weight of the story ably -- from the first stirrings of love to fierce devotion and faith, Jack and Rose anchor the Titanic tragedy, reducing the scale of an almost incomprehensibly huge event, transcending history with experiences and emotions that are intensely personal and real.

When the iceberg finally rips into the ship, we know something about the other people on board the Titanic that night as well, something that transcends the abstractions of socio-economic class. There are parents and children, old couples well past the first hot blush of love; there are people in love with their own power, wealth and social position; and there are those who love the Titanic, men whose faith in technology and their own marvelous achievement is easily ripped asunder by the mountain of ice floating in the calm, dark sea. The destruction of the Titanic is excruciatingly played out, almost in real time, as the ship fills with icy water, slowly sinking into the North Atlantic, and the passengers remain largely oblivious to their impending doom. Early in the film, a computer animated recreation of the ship's sinking is studied by the treasure hunters -- it is a chilling portent of things to come, and one that will later guide the audience through each step of the sinking with terrible clarity.

For well over an hour, the horror of the Titanic disaster escalates, finally reaching a crescendo of hysteria and terror, the desperate screaming of passengers and the groaning of the ship, in her extended death throes, the only sounds in the eerily calm night. The flooding decks, the bursting of glass, the destruction of all the lovingly recreated details of the ship become merely symbolic -- what was once the soul and substance of our experience of the Titanic, a sort of detached, historical, technological perspective is made terribly real, replaced with a romantic ferocity as Rose and Jack fight to surive not for themselves but for the sake of true love and each other, as parents try to save their children, as the poor fight the rich for seats on the lifeboats, as the crew try to save the last vestiges of class that their ship once symbolized. As the ship of dreams goes down, crumbling, as the band plays "Nearer My God To Thee," *Titanic* remains fixed on individuals -- the enormity of the total loss is almost unfathomable, but not the loss of each and every person who falls into the icy North Atlantic. As Rose and Jack cling to the sinking ship, cleaving to each other, they come to represent everything that can be lost, everything that was lost that terrible night.

*Titanic* is a technical wonder, and a gorgeous, elegiac and poetic film that is haunting, moving and terrible to behold. This is art that makes life more real, that transforms historical facts and numbers into a meaningful, evocative and resonant accounting, a full measure of what was really lost to the dark sea that night.