by Jerry Herron
First it stinks, then it sinks. (Didn't somebody say that about Waterworld? Ditto this bloated extravaganza.) Titanic, written and directed by James Cameron (Terminator 1 & 2, The Abyss, Aliens) takes longer to go down on screen than the real liner did in 1912 (3 hours 14 minutes vs. 2 hours 40 minutes). This picture -- the most expensive entertainment vehicle in human history -- cost more than 25 times as much as the boat did, with a price tag, reportedly, of around $200,000,000. Cameron's sinking venture is going to try to take you along with it, but it's a trip easy to resist, although not without its pleasures.
In the easy-to-resist category are the casting, acting and writing -- all right out of the senior-class-play school of dramatic art. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (the romantic leads in this Lady and the Tramp-meets-the-Poseidon Adventure plot) are pathetically awful, miscast and clichéd in their 90210 slip-and-slide in and out of character. She's rich; he's poor; but she has a certain hot spot for artsy working stiffs. "This is it!" the silver-tongued DiCaprio calls out as the great ship goes under.
For a film that cost so much, a lot of its special effects just look phony, especially the high-angle gawking sequences (of which there are plenty). Oh, the marvel of the great ship, and on and on. (The present-day sequences of the Titanic wreck site are much better done, even interesting.)
Another reason not to board is Celine Dion, whose wispy non-voice will be accompanying you through all the ethereal, love-boaty parts of the cruise -- the ones not presided over by the other musical motif, the big-motor symphony that plays whenever machinery is in view.
But there is cool stuff here. The engine room sequences are great, a celebration of the machine. The present-day treasure-hunter plot has a certain appeal too. And the effects, whenever things are breaking, snapping or exploding, are first-rate. (Cameron hasn't completely lost it.) What's not great is the wasted opportunity, dramatically, to ask questions about the vanity that expensive technology breeds, in boat builders and filmmakers alike.
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