Like the vortex created when the Titanic finally submerged, sucking hundreds of passengers down with it, the film version of history's most infamous maritime disaster has a way of sucking viewers into its emotional wake.
There is simply no denying the power of this movie. From its opening frames sepia-tinted newsreel footage of happy passengers waving goodbye to loved ones they'll never see again, Titanic creates a sense of dread that gives way to horror and then to an overwhelming sense of loss. The final hour can be almost unbearable to watch, though there's nothing graphic or bloody about it. The impact is purely emotional as director James Cameron catches the fear in the eyes of his victims when they realize they have only minutes left to live.
As this voyage of the damned nears its untimely end, human nature is stripped bare of its pretensions and the permanence of death mocks the fragility of life. Mr. Cameron's kaleidoscope of images is unforgettable: Some passengers cling to a priest saying the last rites while others, sliding toward the ocean when the ship pitches forward, try digging their fingernails into the teakwood deck. An elderly couple lie in their bed holding each other while all around them the waters rise. The ship's captain stands resolute and alone at the wheel; its engineer makes futile adjustments to the ship's clocks; and a wealthy male passenger snatches a young girl as his ticket to a lifeboat reserved for women and children.
These final moments played out almost in real time are unforgettable, enhanced by Mr. Cameron's mastery of special effects that drive home the scale of the tragedy: When the huge ship noses down into the ocean, standing almost on end, scores of passengers fall hundreds of feet, bouncing off railings and smokestacks before hitting the water. Later, when the hull has finally disappeared, the camera rises high above sea level to reveal a panorama of survivors clinging desperately to bits of flotsam in the frigid waters, waiting in vain for lifeboats that will never come.
Yet for all the huge scale of the final hour, Titanic is really an intimate love story about just two passengers. Perhaps sensing that 1,500 deaths would prove mind-numbing, Mr. Cameron spends two hours developing a love affair between Rose, the rich-but-unhappy heiress (Kate Winslett) and Jack, the poor-but-noble artist (Leonardo DiCaprio). Unable to face the prospect of marriage to her boorish, arrogant fiance, Hockley (Billy Zane), Kate attempts to jump off the ship. Jack rescues her not only from suicide but from the confines of her privileged, strait-laced world. "He saved me," a much older Kate explains later in the film, "in every way that a person can be saved."
It is a measure of Mr. Cameron's filmmaking genius that so many people will plunk down $8 to sit through a three-hour sermon, which, essentially, is what this movie is. Jack and Rose aren't really characters; they're extended sermon illustrations representing all the good and evil of their respective classes. Rose's upper-class friends are unrelentingly petty, pretentious, and artificial, and this is reinforced every time they open their mouths. When Rose realizes that half the people on board will die because there aren't enough lifeboats, her fiance replies coldly, "Not the better half."
Some will dislike the film's class-warfare message, but they miss the real point. Mr. Cameron isn't criticizing the upper classes for their money so much as their morality. If Rose could just break free of her socially imposed responsibilities, Mr. Cameron tells us, she could be happy and fulfilled.
In a key scene, while Rose's mother mercilessly tightens her daughter's corset, she reminds Rose to think of her responsibilities to her family, her fiance, and society in general. Jack's advice is rather different: When Rose protests that she can't dance an Irish jig because she doesn't know the steps, he replies, "Don't think ... just feel it." Later, Rose achieves both physical and emotional freedom when she sheds her corset, and the rest of her clothes, to pose while Jack sketches her in the nude. She proceeds to ditch her responsibilities and act on her feelings, which, unfortunately, include defying her mother and cheating on her fiance. Is this what she means by salvation?
Because Mr. Cameron is such a talented director, viewers could easily get lost in the power and grandeur of Titanic, while accepting its message uncritically. Like icebergs in the ship's path, there are dangers lurking in the course of this story, dangers all the more deadly because they're partially submerged.