The real triumph of James Cameron’s 1997 extravaganza is in its complete plausibility as a modern-day recreation of what was, in 1912, the biggest vessel on the seven seas.
Forget the upstairs/downstairs love story between Leo and Kate. Forget the pell-mell chase through the rapidly flooding ship as Billy Zane fights to protect his property (aka his errant would-be wife). Forget the saccharine-coated prologue and epilogue with an elderly woman restoring a secret to the cold depths.
No, the star of Titanic is Titanic itself, for the combination of budget and effects technology allowed Cameron to duplicate the White Star Line’s finest in a manner that, until that point, had been impossible.
The 11 Oscars won by Titanic are testament to its achievements as a motion picture of size, scope and spectacle. The sheer scale of the ship is awe-inspiring, dwarfing the (largely fictional) human drama being played out on board. In that respect the romance between DiCaprio’s feisty Jack-the-Lad and Winslet’s reluctant fiancée to boorish snob Zane.
The joy is in the fine detail and some of the supporting cast. Frances Fisher is delightfully desperate as Winslet’s mother. Bernard Hill is the stoic and doomed Captain Smith. And David Warner oozes menace as Zane’s pistol-packing heavy.
Cameron always envisaged Titanic as an old-fashioned epic – a contemporary cousin of past classics like Ben Hur. And indeed it is. This is not a movie boasting a cerebral script or career-making performances. Instead it honours technical wizardry, gadgetry, folly and courage. It counsels against hubris, points to the power of nature and warns that the seas are not to be trifled with.
Is it the best adaptation of the Titanic story? No. That honour is still held by 1957’s A Night to Remember. But it is the most impressive. In fact, it almost demands to be admired.