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James Cameron's Stinking Pile of Ship

Blast San Francisco Bureau

James Cameron's films loom large and in charge. From both "Terminator" films to the action-packed spy flick "True Lies" to the "I'm-Better-Than-'Starship Troopers'" outer-space sequel "Aliens," Cameron's cinema runs high on adrenaline, spectacle and innovative special effects.

His ambitious 3-hour "Titanic" runs along the same line but comes up short. "Titanic" is a clunky, high-tech mass that steams nowhere and takes a long time to sink. In other words, Cameron's latest epic is one big, wet piece of ship.

"Titanic" is actually two films of different genres: the costume period romance and the disaster epic. The first hour-and-a-half focuses on the budding love between the young Jack and Rose, while the latter part of the film delivers an intense, almost real-time tale of doom at sea.

The film's final half is at once sweeping, suspenseful and haunting, with first-class special effects recreating the historic 1912 sinking -- not bad, given we all pretty much know the ending. But the weak and laughably stupid script of the first half, as well as the inconsistent visuals, sink the rest of the film.

The film begins with an ambitious oceanographer (Bill Paxton) plumbing the depths of the North Atlantic to dig out the treasures of Titanic's watery grave. His efforts uncover a long-buried sketch of a young beautiful woman wearing an expensive gem necklace. An old woman claiming to be the girl in the drawing steps forward and relates her untold tale of love aboard Titanic.

"Titanic" then flashes back to the maiden voyage of the grand ship. The rich American teenage Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) boards the boat with her controlling asshole fiance, steel magnate Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), and her controlling bitch mom, Ruth DeWitt Bukater (Frances Fisher). Ain't first class a bitch.

Enter Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a free-spirited, well-traveled, penniless artist who likes to drink and party (that's right, a friggin' hippie). He and Fabrizio (Danny Nucci), his Italian friend with an accent worse than Super Mario, win their tickets to ride Titanic in a poker game.

Jack and Rose chance upon one another on the decks of the ship. Later, with the pressures of marrying into a wealthy but oppressive marriage closing in on her, poor little rich girl Rose attempts a suicide leap from the rear of the huge ship -- until Jack comes and saves her life.

The narrative structure of this visually complex film is simple enough here. Jack gets a mirthful peek into Rose's stuffy high-class world (i.e., he attends one of her rich people meals and has to master the differences between salad and dinner forks). Then he shares with her the joys and pleasures of the simple folk below deck (i.e., they get drunk and dance).

At the same time, Cameron offers glimpses into the lives of other colorful characters: There's the real-life passenger, nouveau rich Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), who helps Jack get a foot up in high society; the ship's managing director J. Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), a determined man who wants to push Titanic to its limits; and the ship's architect, Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), who doesn't quite comprehend the boat's fatal weakness until it's too late.

Eventually, "Titanic's" script shifts from the fictional romance to the factual disaster. The boat rips a big gash on its side after hitting an iceberg in the dead of night, and slowly sinks into the black water of the night.

The first big problem with "Titanic" is the amateur script by Cameron. The dialogue, especially that between Jack and Rose, is laughably bad, and often anachronistic for a film that goes to great lengths for authenticity (Cameron spent $200 million to get everything accurate, down to the correct type of duvet used on the real ship).

And because of the weak script, Cameron creates weak characters, all painted in simple strokes and base motivations. For starters, Zane is ham on rye as Rose's mofo fiance and his overacting tears the scenes apart. DiCapirio is OK but not strong enough a presence to carry the film.

Now I've had a crush on Kate Winslet since I saw her prancing in the woods in her underwear in her film debut "Heavenly Creatures," but her character epitomizes the film's melodramatic awfulness. Sure, it's a romantic epic -- on par, if for chrissakes you believe New York Times hack Janet Maslin, with "Gone with the Wind" -- but "Titanic" has an almost cartoonish sense of passion: it all looks large but it's emotionally empty.

A quarter of a way into the film, I actually turned to my filmgoing partner and said, "Is it just me or does this look like bad Merchant and Ivory?" I was rewriting the script in my head as I was watching it. I wanted to AK-47 Rose. "Titanic's" that distractingly bad.

The actual look of the film is often impressive. Early in the film, Rose is shown to be a collector of art by Picasso and Monet, saying she appreciates them because, and I'm paraphrasing here, "It's like looking at a dream." And there is a surreal, somnambulistic quality to some of the cinematography. The dusktime scenes on the ship's top deck is bronze-red grainy, like a fainting documentary. The sterile and restrained nature of the uppity upper class is mirrored in the first-class dining room, which seems bathed in bright white most of the times. The final scenes amid the chilly waters is given an effectively nightmarish look through blacks and suggestive dark blues.

Other times, the look of "Titanic" is jarringly unnatural, with obvious blue-screened backgrounds and telling digital sets. In two long shots of the massive "Titanic," the crisp, clean lines are ruined by gimmicky digitized characters, like a sailor choppily descending a stairway. I've seen better graphics on video games like "Resident Evil." Hey, Cameron contracted the special effects out to 20 different companies and got 20 different looks to the film.

There are a few minor pluses. The surreal bits and pieces of the final half of the film are indeed memorable: the sight of a stringed quartet playing music as the ship sinks; the final embrace of an elderly couple as they lie on a bed surrounded by water; the ship's architect sitting before a cozy fireplace and mantle as he accepts the boat's fate.

The depiction of the ship's sinking has a dash of realism as it is shown in a lengthy, almost real-time sequence of remarkably restrained action. This is unexpected in that it comes from a director known for high-octane, multiple-effects films.

Overall, there is no unified look and no unified vision to the film. In some ways the film is itself a metaphor for the ship: It sinks near the front, then sinks sharply, then it breaks off and the rear half sinks with the rest of the boat in a final, emotional gasp. The film quickly falls under the weight of a bloated romantic storyline and its final disaster conclusion drowns gloriously.

I give the last half of "Titanic" a B because it is to an extent effectively thrilling on a grand scale -- but I give the first half of the film an easy F for "fuckin' dumb." Because the film is so ambitiously huge and falters on a larger-than-usual scale, I also think it's the worst film of 1997.

Hey, if you want to watch a tale of discovered love amid the epic backdrop of action-packed, watery disaster, try Cameron's 1989 film "The Abyss" -- and watch it twice.