The movie opens in present day, and the story of the Titanic is told in flashback. The film starts with a treasure hunter, Brock Lovett (Cameron regular Bill Paxton), searching for a legendary diamond, Le Coeur de la Mer (The Heart of the Ocean), which apparently sunk with the famous ship. However, instead of a diamond, Lovett's submersibles discover an old drawing, which leads him to an old woman, Rose (Gloria Stuart), who claims to be a survivor of Titanic...one who wore Le Coeur de la Mer on the night the Titanic went down.
Rose tells the tale of the fateful voyage, when, as a 17-year old girl (Kate Winslet), she is being taken back to America with her wealthy fiance, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). However, Rose doesn't much care for the life of the upper class. She is suffocating in that rarefied air, and longs for a way to get out.
That way presents itself in the form of Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a passenger in steerage who won his tickets in a poker match. His youthful exuberance is a type of liberation that is completely different for Rose. The pair are quickly infatuated with one another, much to the chagrin of Cal.
Of course, when the inevitable iceberg happens, the doomed love affair becomes even more so. A clever plot structuring has Jack and Rose traversing the ship from fore to aft, giving us an actual cross section of the tragedy, and how it effects everyone on board from the crew to the passengers, from steerage to first class.
The whole film is extremely well executed, and surprisingly suspenseful. You know what's going to happen...it's not like the Titanic is miraculously going to survive (we'll have to wait for the Disney version for that). But Cameron knows there's no use in creating suspense about the event itself. He even shows us what is going to happen with a computerized model at the beginning of the film. Instead, he involves us on a personal level. The suspense isn't "is the Titanic going to sink", or "what's going to happen on the ship". Rather, the suspense is who will live, who will die...and what will they do in the meantime.
Cameron is known for his action films, and at first helming Titanic seemed like an awful stretch for him. However, he has tackled similar themes before. His best prior work was in The Abyss, another overbudget epic which dealt with a romance amid lots of water.
The love story format he has chosen for Titanic is simple, and has been done before. But the "rich girl abandons stuffy boyfriend for full-of-life penniless rascal" story has endured because it is a good story, and told at the peak of its form here.
For those of you who aren't partial to romance, Titanic holds another attraction: the disaster-related effects extravaganza. To put it succinctly, the effects of Titanic are breathtaking. There's something eerie about the film's opening scenes which incorporate actual footage of the sunken Titanic. However, eerier still are the flashback scenes, in which the dead ship springs to vibrant life. In its worst moments, you can tell the shots are computer-generated, but they still hold you in awe.
The acting throughout Titanic is first-rate. Winslet and DiCaprio are as good as you can get as the pair of star-crossed lovers, whose only fault is the occassional anachronism. Also in good form are Kathy Bates as the nouveau riche "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, and Frances Fisher as Rose's disapproving mother.
James Cameron also fills his script with delightful character moments, such as the quirky crew of Lovett's treasure hunting ship, the fiendish company man from the White Star line, Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), the tragic Titanic shipbuilder, Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), and the musicians who play to calm the passengers as the ship slowly sinks.
James Cameron is on one heck of a lucky streak. So far, not one of his films, since he began as a writer/director in 1984, has proven disappointing. Titanic is one of his best, and raises the bar yet again.
[PG-13 - disaster related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality & brief language] (Paramount)