First Impressions: Titanic (1997)

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The Independent Culture

There are any number of reasons why the SS Titanic ended its maiden voyage imbedded in the ocean floor in the early hours of 15 April 1912 – poor visibility, a negligent captain, a big hunk of ice. To this list the film-maker James Cameron adds one more contributing factor to lessen the burden of responsibility on that iceberg: a pair of bored officers distracted from their vigil at the warning bell by the sight of a couple canoodling on the deck. This is actually one of the more plausible details in the thoroughly loopy Titanic, if only because it obeys the cardinal rule of the disaster movie, which decrees that any and all catastrophes shall occur in exact correlation to the effrontery of the characters involved. You play with fire and you get burnt. Or drowned. The voyeuristic sailors aren't to blame for the corpses littering the ocean. It's the fault of those young lovers – Rose (Kate Winslet), who is poised to marry into obscene wealth but chooses instead to desert her fiance in favour of Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a scruffy ragamuffin from the Wrong Side of the Tracks. The naivety of the characterisation is almost charming.

It's one thing for Cameron to remind us that many people felt the Titanic's ostentatious grandeur to be an affront to God. But when he speculates that this ship was doomed because a couple of teenagers dared to cross the class divide, he's promoting a new kind of tastelessness. The suggestion that over 1,500 people died as a sacrifice to the love of two fictional characters doesn't make you swoon, it makes you gag.

Cameron's gift is for staging colossal set-pieces bubbling with incidental detail, and the sinking of the Titanic provides him with a delicious opportunity to exploit this talent. The shots of the Titanic standing vertically in the ocean, one end pointing to the stars while the other lurches toward hell, have an appalling splendour.