'Titanic' Surfaces With Hefty Tab and Big Heart

With a reputed cost of more than $200 million, "Titanic" is probably the most expensive movie ever made. The reasons for its mammoth price tag aren't hard to calculate.

First, special effects cost money, and filmmaker James Cameron has filled "Titanic" with the sort of high-tech wizardry he mastered in earlier epics like the "Terminator" pictures.

Second, special effects involving water are even more expensive than the dry-land variety, since it's hard to match shots together when the background is rolling and rippling. Remember "Waterworld," the previous most-expensive-movie-ever-made?

Third, "Titanic" clocks in at a whopping three hours and 17 minutes. This accounts for a significant chunk of the budget in itself and may play a role in determining the picture's profitability. Exhibitors will be able to screen it only half as often as a normal-length feature, and some moviegoers might head elsewhere when they realize it's such a long sit. One critic has already dubbed it an interactive film: Since there's no intermission, you make your own whenever you want!

Do all these big-budget dollars and on-screen hours pay worthwhile dividends? The bottom-line answer is yes. "Titanic" is no masterpiece, but it's an absorbing entertainment with enough different moves, moods, and ideas to keep everyone happy at least part of the time.

The story begins not in 1912, when the great ship went down, but in the present. A crew of money-minded adventurers has mounted an undersea expedition to the wreck, hoping to salvage a fabulous diamond from a shipboard safe.

Hauling the strongbox to the surface, they find it contains a mere drawing of the jewel adorning the neck of a beautiful teenager. News of their discovery travels fast, and soon they receive an unexpected visitor: a 100-year-old woman who identifies herself as Rose DeWitt Bukater, the long-ago youngster in the sketch. Her memories reawakened, she describes the Titanic's voyage in vivid detail.

This episode makes a haunting framework for the main body of the film, setting up "Titanic" as a tale of time and memory as well as drama, danger, and disaster.

The next portion is less imaginative: a leisurely account of how love blooms between Rose, engaged to marry a pompous gentleman named Cal, and Jack Dawson, a young artist with a third-class ticket and a rascally streak as wide as the ocean they're crossing. Cameron is a resourceful director but a pedestrian screenwriter, and while these scenes benefit from likable acting by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, they suffer from trite dialogue and predictable romance-movie events.

All of which heightens our anticipation of the tragedy about to strike - and strike it does, with wrenching views of the Titanic's awful encounter with an iceberg too close for the fast-traveling hull to avoid. Here the movie picks up all the steam it lost during the droopy love triangle, nimbly coordinating action-adventure situations (panicky passengers, inadequate lifeboats, Jack chained to a pipe in a rapidly flooding room) with images as crisply realistic as Hollywood's advanced technology can make them.

Cameron's screenplay also takes on flashes of intelligence, as when Cal and his oily assistant both reveal how they "make their own luck," one with money and the other with a gun. This moment suggests that nothing more admirable than naked wealth and brute force supports the social power they wield - and that there may not be much difference between these forms of strength. It's a trenchant commentary on the inequalities that give upper-deck passengers a higher chance of survival than their disadvantaged shipmates.

Production information on "Titanic" is loaded with striking statistics. The original ship was 880 feet long, weighed some 60,000 tons, and carried about 2,223 people. Facilities for the movie included a 775-foot exterior set, a 17-million-gallon pool to sink it in, and 5 million gallons of water to flood it with.

And so on, from the number of wigs worn by the cast (450) to the size of the camera crane (80 feet) used for the most sweeping shots. Moviegoers who admired Cameron's technical savvy in pictures like "Aliens" and "True Lies" will flock to "Titanic" for the thrills these elements provide - and that makes sense, since the effects won't translate well to small-size TV screens.

But what's most impressive about "Titanic" is the evidence it shows of new maturity in Cameron's filmmaking priorities. While this is hardly the $200 million art film some moviegoers had hoped for, it cares as much about its characters as about its visual effects and seems genuinely mournful about the human loss caused by the disaster.

Like the musical "Titanic" that has attracted Broadway theatergoers this year, it's an epic with a heart.

And when a techie like Cameron starts cultivating human values, it bodes well for Hollywood's future.

* Rated PG-13; contains brief sex and nudity as well as vulgar language and harrowing disaster scenes.

Soundtrack Evokes Emotion

ike the epic-sized movie itself, the music for "Titanic" is anything but modest. It was composed by James Horner, a Hollywood veteran known - and sometimes criticized - for recycling styles and themes that predate his own scores. He certainly aims high when choosing allusions to earlier music in "Titanic," which features a recurring theme clearly meant to recall the "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's magnificent Ninth Symphony.

Other parts of the score conjure up very different atmospheres, including folklike tunes and textures that evoke the timeless nature of the Titanic's human tragedy. Many sections deal with romantic love as well, echoing the intense relationship between the movie's main characters. Celine Dion performs the sentimental love theme, aptly called "My Heart Will Go On."

Just released by Sony Classical, the soundtrack CD includes 15 numbers, from the opening "Never an Absolution" to the closing "Hymn to the Sea," which is almost as solemn as its title suggests. Horner conducts the orchestra, augmented with vocals and synthesizers for additional variety. It's not a great score, but admirers of the movie will find it a listenable momento.

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