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THE ESSENCE OF James Cameron's 194-minute Titanic appears fairly early, and it has nothing to do with rare jewels, class consciousness, impending doom, or naval architecture. It's a scene on the fabled liner's bow--not even a scene, really, but a moment--in which penniless Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and wealthy Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) are first becoming soulmates. Ordinarily such a setup would rely on the conventional long-shot/medium-shot/close-up style with an emphasis on the close-up or even the extreme close-up. But Cameron, with his big ambition and full wallet, isn't satisfied with conventional convention: He rhapsodizes over their presence in a dizzying and chaotic sequence of swirling extreme close-ups and sweeping extreme long-shots and whatever else comes to mind. There are at least a dozen shots in this one "moment," two-thirds of which seem to imitate the point of view of a drunken or even suicidal seagull.

Now this is luxury. The glory of any epic movie lies in seeing many broad contrasts--the emotional intensity of the main characters (love, hate, greed) and the physical dynamics of incomprehensible historic change at a great and grand remove (troop movements, a bridge blowing up, global thermonuclear war, etc.). Titanic satisfies this tradition by zooming in tight on a sweaty palm slapping the fogged-up window of a luxury motorcar during a sexual spasm, and taking a much farther (and more clinical) view of the "world's largest man-made object" as it dives directly for Davy Jones's locker. So, in simply material and physiological terms (stuff big and small coming at us in a never-ending rush), Titanic resembles its namesake as a thrill ride, a kind of moving monument.

Having said this, though, it's time to place Cameron's accomplishment in a context. He's trying to tell a story (a love story, mainly) and make a big huge thing. He's trying to be a poet and an engineer. And in the final analysis, he's a no-iron-shirt kind of a guy, split 65/35 between engineering and poetry. This conclusion seems pretty inescapable once Cameron shows us the ship's engine room: Seeming nearly three stories high, it's even more impressive than the carefully collaged and simulated scale of the ship itself. Whatever DiCaprio and Winslet do on their own to make the love story intense (and they're working pretty hard), their efforts are inevitably dwarfed not just by the scale of the stuff around them, but the visual attention paid to it.

In short, Titanic is good at showing its story but not so hot at telling it. Winslet and DiCaprio look (and are shot) better than the characters they're trying to play. Both are essentially stock figures: Rose is a dewy upper-crust teen on the brink of a cushy life, especially if she marries her outrageously rich and sadistic fiancé, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). And Jack is a footloose orphan from Chippewa Falls, a Jack London type who's been all over the place. Jack is a risk taker, and Rose needs to be. But the story's pattern is so obviously set in stone that Rose's first appearance in a giant hat, Jack's all-American grin as he swivels around to smile at her, and the steaminess of their one intimate encounter can't overcome the fact that they are not very subtle as characters.

Cameron's dialogue reveals his limitations more than anything else. While Jack can spin a great yarn about following one's bliss and grasping the moment, he's also burdened with lines that should never have been written: "There it is!" or "This is going to be bad." The nadir comes, appropriately enough, at Jack's riskiest moment, when he is handcuffed to a pipe in a room rapidly filling with water, waiting for Rose to return with a means of rescue. She shows up (half-swimming, half-wading), and he says, "Rose!" and she says, "Jack!" Don't you think they know each other's names? Isn't there something more urgent to say? Do they need to speak at all?

Cameron and his movie deserve major points for even trying to do what's been done here. The sheer scale and luxury of the ship do "speak" in their own way, as does the bone-chilling loneliness of the ocean depths in the few moments when we see something shiny sinking down. At many points, Cameron veers close to the visual magic of late silent film, as when Jack and Rose are hanging onto their raft in the monochrome blue of an unforgiving night. Morphing technology shows its value outside the sci-fi arena in some perfect transitions between a sunken ship or a wrinkled face and their much more hopeful precedents. Even the camerawork, excessive as it is, fixes the impact of the tragedy and the perverse excitement of seeing something so large and fancy fall to its grave--that drunken seagull effect again and again.

Sadly, "again and again" becomes the film's mantra. How many abandoned children are required to evoke tragedy? How stiff and stuffed can Cal's shirts (and dialogue) be? How many times do we need to see suffering immigrants denied a safe evacuation? And, finally, how many times will a promising subplot or minor character be introduced and then ignored moments later (e.g. the "unsinkable" Molly Brown, the ship's designer, the forlorn string quartet playing "Nearer my God to Thee")? Frustrations like these bedevil this ambitious, often beautiful, and always energetic movie. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, yes, but Cameron has ended up out of his own depth.

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