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by David Gerrold

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There's already been so much said about Titanic that I'm loathe to add any more words. There are at least half a dozen different documentaries showing up on the cable and satellite channels. HBO has a making of special. A&E has a 4-hour documentary, Discovery has a 90-minute show, True had a 30-minute recap. And National Geographic and Nova have both had episodes on the doomed luxury liner. There have also been at least that many dramatizations. There's the original Titanic (1948) , A Night To Remember (1959), and a couple of forgotten made-for-TV movies and mini-series. The Third Reich even made a movie about the Titanic, in which British greed was to blame. And there are several excellent coffee table books as well. So even the most casual student of maritime history can become well acquainted with the essential facts of the story.

The Titanic was the largest most luxurious ocean liner ever built. She was the pride of the White Star Line and when she sailed from South Hampton, she carried 900 million dollars worth of upper class society -- names like Astor, Guggenheim, Vanderbilt. She had been designed to be "unsinkable." She had multiple watertight bulkheads. She could keep on sailing even if she were ruptured in as many as four bulkheads. Unfortunately, she was ripped open across five.

What we know of the disaster is that it occurred because of a combination of stupidity, carelessness, pride, and blind assumption. The ship was racing through an ice field at 21 knots. She had been warned about the ice by several other ships, but the warnings were disregarded. The Captain and his officers assumed that the lookouts would spot any berg in time for the ship to turn -- unfortunately, the lookouts had no binoculars. Oops.

Further complicating the problem, the Titanic handled like a supertanker. She was too big and her rudder was too small. And her officer on duty that night was untrained in how to handle a ship that big. He made a fatal miscalculation -- when the iceberg was spotted, he ordered the engines thrown into reverse. This pretty much destroyed what little handling power the ship had. A more experienced seaman would have kept going full speed and the power of the engines would have helped the ship make its turn. They would have missed the berg.

After they struck the berg, the disaster was further compounded by the disorganization of the crew. For a while, the passengers simply didn't believe that the ship was in peril. Other crewmembers refused to let the steerage class passengers up on deck where they would have had a better chance of getting a seat on a life-boat. The Second Officer, in charge of filling the lifeboats did not know that the boats had been tested with 68 full-grown men. He thought they were too fragile and would buckle, so he lowered them half-empty.

After the ship disappeared beneath the waves, there were hundreds of people in the icy water, all screaming for help; but the lifeboats did not return for them -- for fear of being swamped by too many people trying to climb in. By the time one boat returned to scout for the still-living, it was too late -- almost all were dead.

Jim Cameron's movie Titanic is 3 hours and 15 minutes. It is a long movie and there is no intermission. Be sure to pee first. It is both emotionally and physically exhausting. But it is unquestionably the most accurate recreation of the Titanic disaster. A nearly full-size set was built -- one that could be raised and lowered into the water as needed for multiple takes.

The interior furnishings were meticulously duplicated -- statues, wall carvings, table-settings, carpets, everything! The famous grand staircase and the glass dome above it are here in all their stunning glory. Other sets recreate the gym, the dining room, the first class cabins, the second class decks, the steerage compartments, the holds, and the boiler room. A number of Titanic historians cooperated with the reconstruction and said the experience of walking the decks of the doomed ship was "eerie."

So...how good a movie is Titanic? It is the best movie of the year. It simply overwhelms everything else with its sheer size and power and majesty. It is a movie that lives up to its title.

Jim Cameron has woven a fictitious plot that threads its way gingerly through many of the most famous events aboard the Titanic. We get to see White Star Chairman Ismay's instructions to the Captain to light up the last two boilers to get the ship into New York on Tuesday night. The hymn for those in peril on the sea at the Sunday morning church service. The glorious Sunday night sunset. The moment where Ship designer Anderson goes into shock and is last seen staring at a painting in the ship's lounge. "Unsinkable" Molly Brown argues with the officer in the lifeboat over rescuing the people screaming for help. Benjamin Guggenheim puts on his evening clothes instead of his life-jacket, "We shall go down like gentlemen." And so on. What happened below decks is not as well-known. There were far fewer survivors in steerage; but after the ship starts foundering, Cameron's plot gets us below decks not once, but twice, and the extrapolations are believable.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio play doomed lovers -- she from the airless world of the upper-class, he from below-decks. This unlikely romance is the stuff of old-fashioned melodrama, but for the most part it works. Cameron touches all the bases -- more than a few of them, a little too obviously, but no matter. This is not a movie about subtlety.

The picture is getting generally strong reviews, with only a few critics here and there complaining about some of the dialog between Winslet and DiCaprio. Their complaints aren't invalid. Cameron has written a 1997 love story about a 1912 event. There are several places where it feels anachronistic -- not the relationship as much as the way it is sometimes played; some of the dialog is embarrassingly obvious -- but despite that, the relationship works anyway; there is genuine magic between these two. This is a screen relationship as compelling as Scarlett and Rhett, Zhivago and Lara, Han and Leia, Laurel and Hardy. The love between Rose and Jack has to carry the weight of the rest of the movie on its shoulders. And there is no question that DiCaprio and Winslet have done remarkable work.

In almost every other retelling of the Titanic story, the filmmakers have put the audience's point-of-view safely into the lifeboats, removed themselves safely to a distance, and watched the great liner go into the deep like a distant horror. Not Cameron. This director is courageous enough to keeps his point-of-view aboard the ship. The lifeboats leave and we stay behind with the remaining passengers, scrambling upward toward the stern as it rises higher and higher into the dark night sky. And finally, finally, in one of the most terrifying sequences ever put on film, Cameron takes us down with the Titanic, finally leaving us floundering in the icy water, screaming for help that never comes. Like Spielberg taking us inside the gas chambers at Auschwitz or aboard the slave ship Amistad, Cameron has taken us into the heart of the horror. We do not get to sit dispassionately at a distance, clucking our tongues at the awfulness. We experience it. There was audible sobbing in the audience at the screening we attended and many people looked shaken at the end. Bill Paxton's character says it best, "I never got it before. I never let it in. Until now." That's the triumph of this movie. We don't get out unscathed.

I do have one complaint about this picture -- I don't like the resolution of the mystery of the blue diamond. It's a "been there, done that" moment that defies all conventional logic. Aside from that one annoying moment, and the aforementioned dialog lapses, the rest of the picture is superb. The special effects are flawless and spectacular -- so much so that you very quickly stop worrying about the effects and start appreciating the majestic recreation of the ship. The picture is full of gasp-out-loud moments. It is Hollywood movie-making at its very best -- Titanic . It is the best picture of 1997.

There will undoubtedly be Oscar nominations all around -- best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, art direction, special effects, costumes, makeup, set design. Of special mention is 87 year old Gloria Stuart as the older Rose. She deserves a best supporting actress nomination for her work here. She provides the voice of the movie. It's likely that most of these folks will be taking home well-deserved trophies next April.

-- David Gerrold

David Gerrold is a Science Fiction writer and columnist with several very popular forums. For more about David, see David Gerrold answers the usual questions in this magazine and,

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See also:
Feature, Titanic - a powerful voice from a watery grave, by Ali Kayn
Film review by Tim Richards
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