Titanic is a frustrating film. Hauling in well over $1 billion worldwide (combined theatrical and video release), the movie is an obvious success. That doesn't mean it's clear from criticisms though, and there's plenty to go around.
The cause is the love story. Filling over half the film, it's out of place, unnecessary, and ruins the otherwise stunning recreation of the ship's single voyage. All of the detail, down to finding the same company's who created the materials for the real Titanic, is tossed aside for a fake story of two people who seem to have the right connections.
It's too convenient that Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) happen to come across everyone necessary to tell the story. As they're fleeing to the deck, they find the ship's designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), stop to chat, and then take off again. It's unbelievably frustrating, both that the circumstances are so forced and the first half of the movie exists solely to have these two characters guide us to the end.
It gets worse as the ship goes down. Completely vertical and possibly seconds from death, Rose looks at Jack to say, "This is where we first met." This is the type of dialogue that nearly kills the drama of the actual event occurring around them. To think that James Cameron thought two fictional characters were necessary for an emotional pull at the end is one of the most absurd ideas in the history of Hollywood. There are thousands dying around them, but the audience should feel sorry for the stowaway.
However, the film is saved for what people came to see. The actual sinking is a stunning film achievement. The use of miniatures, full size sets, camera tricks, green screen, and of course that attention to detail make the entire movie a stunning piece, generic first half or not. It just keeps getting worse, and the sight of people jumping off the peak, hundreds of feet in the air as a last hope, is horrifying. The direction is superb, milking every ounce of terror from each shot.
In-between the segments of the actual event, Bill Paxton gets the story from Rose (Gloria Stuart), now 101 years old. These sections provide a few laughs, and break up the scenery, making this easier to watch in one sitting. It also puts a great emotional cap on the story.
Much like Pearl Harbor years later, this is an extended version of a story that didn't need to be. It could have been told in under two hours, and while it's unfortunate that didn't happen, the end result is worth fighting through. It's epic in the truest sense of the word. (**** out of *****)