December 8, 1997 7:10 PM EST

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In 85 years, the Titanic tragedy has spawned a dozen or so film and TV adaptations. A silent one-reeler, Saved from the Titanic, was released just one month after the event and starred an actress who had been onboard. There was a Teutonic Titanic, a Nazi-financed epic featuring an imaginary German hero. The 1958 British A Night to Remember is still revered for its balance of newsreel realism and humanist pluck. But diving into crowded waters is James Cameron’s M.O. except for The Terminator and The Abyss, all his films have been sequels or remakes, each grander and pricier than the movies that preceded it. What gargantuan retread can be next–History of the World Part 2?

Bigness was, of course, an attraction of the actual ship. In the film, the ship company’s boss says, “I wanted to convey sheer size.” Cameron could be his spiritual heir. The man who made The Terminator for $6 million has become the high priest of Hollywood bloat. He is also the movies’ mad toymaster: he keeps falling in love with an imposing machine (a cyborg, an alien, a submarine, a Harrier jet, an ocean liner) that he then spends great amounts of time and energy destroying.

Fine, Jim–build the damned ship, sink the damned ship. But in the 90 or so minutes before the iceberg slices open the starboard side, some compelling romantic fiction is in order. Here the film fails utterly. It imagines an affair between free-spirited artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) in steerage and Philadelphia blueblood Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet), unhappily engaged to wealthy Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). DiCaprio has a smooth, winsome beauty, and Winslet, who at first seems bulky beside him, comes to look ravishingly ravaged by the climax. Everyone else is a caricature of class, designed only to illustrate a predictable prejudice: that the first-class passengers are third-class people, and vice versa.

Once the ship starts sinking, people do die becomingly, and the R.M.S. Titanic takes on the personality of a magnificent beast–King Kong or Moby Dick in extremis. The brilliantly realized visual effects are invisible and persuasive. The digitized water looks like real water; the computer blobs look like human beings tumbling down to their deaths from the severed ship’s nearly vertical stern. But the narrative events that should add emotional heft are substandard action tropes: kids in jeopardy, bad guys menacing pretty women, Jack manacled to a water pipe. “I’ll just wait here,” he says gamely, and idiotically, as Rose runs for help.

The film doesn’t play to Cameron’s strength as a ringmaster of burly metaphorical fantasy. His story of Jack, Rose and Cal isn’t half as poignant as the true ones known from books and films of the event. On this vast canvas, the problems of these three little people really don’t amount to a hill of beans.

Tales of this film’s agonizing gestation and tardy birth, though already the stuff of legend, will mean little to moviegoers, who will pay the same $7 or $8 to see Titanic that they spend on films made for a thousandth its cost. Ultimately, Titanic will sail or sink not on its budget but on its merits as drama and spectacle. The regretful verdict here: Dead in the water.

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