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After a year of postponed arrivals announced in a series of featurette-length trailers, Titanic (unlike its namesake) has finally docked at its destination. Is it see-worthy? The answer, frustratingly, is yes and no.

Following the austere credits—sepia-toned shots of passengers boarding the vessel underscored by a wordless, elegiac female voice—writer-director James Cameron opens with a contemporary framing story. A crew of fortune hunters, headed by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), descends two and a half miles beneath the ocean surface in a deep-sea exploration craft to scavenge a section of the Titanic’s carcass. (The ship’s wreckage was discovered in 1985 by Dr. Robert Ballard’s expedition team.) The object of Lovett’s quest is the “Heart of the Sea,” a priceless blue diamond once owned by Louis XVI. Lovett resurfaces with a tantalizing clue: a drawing of a nude young woman wearing the gem. One of the ship’s last living survivors, 101-year-old Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), recognizes herself when the picture is shown on television and contacts Lovett. Accompanied by her granddaughter Lizzy (Suzy Amis), Rose is flown to the search site. Her memories trigger the film’s long flashback to the Titanic’s fateful voyage.

On several levels, this prelude shrewdly sets up viewers for an eye-popping visual extravaganza. Its modest scale provides a dynamic formal contrast with the scope of the spectacle that awaits us. Underwater shots of the liner’s contents—the haunting image of a derelict grand piano, a still life of eyeglasses perched next to a pair of boots—poetically evoke the individual lives snuffed out by the 1912 catastrophe. Computer-generated animation depicting the stages of the ship’s foundering supplies us with information necessary to comprehend the subsequent re-enactment of that event. The prologue ends with the movie’s most mesmerizing moment. As Rose begins remembering her past, the ghostly ship’s skeleton magically morphs into the Titanic’s majestic apotheosis.

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Cameron’s recreation of the Titanic, sumptuously executed by production designer Peter Lamont and costume designer Deborah L. Scott, leaves nothing to the imagination. According to the film’s press material, the ship’s reconstruction was meticulously researched, from consultation of the liner’s blueprints to exact duplication of the original carpeting and fixtures. Reproduced in its full glory, the tinseltown Titanic provides a fitting stage on which to re-create one of our century’s most harrowing tragedies.

What we get instead is a wheezy, fictional Edwardian romance. Seventeen-year-old Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a patrician Philadelphian returning first-class from Europe with her rich, supercilious fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) and impoverished socialite mother Ruth (Frances Fisher). Facing a loveless arranged marriage and “an endless parade of parties and cotillions, yachts and polo matches,” despondent Rose is saved from leaping into the drink by Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a free-spirited young artist who has won his third-class passage in a dockside poker game. Jack liberates feisty, socially constrained Rose from a future she dreads; emotionally and sexually, their relationship intensifies until the moment their love boat sideswipes an iceberg.

Cameron’s pasteboard screenwriting ill serves his masterful direction. The upstairs-downstairs love affair he has fabricated is a patchwork of clichés and contrivances. Teenage Rose is an improbably prescient modernist, quoting Freud and returning home with cutting-edge Monet and Picasso canvasses in her suite of staterooms. Orphaned Jack drifts through life with Kerouackian recklessness, exhibiting untutored drafting skills that art students would die for. Apart from the irrepressible and “unsinkable” Colorado vulgarian Molly Brown (Kathy Bates)—herself the subject of a ’60s stage and screen musical—the film’s upper-crust characters are cartoons of snobbish materialism, especially Rose’s physically and spiritually anorectic mother and the villainous Cal, who jealously frames Jack on a robbery charge and, as the ship is sinking, appropriates a wailing tyke in order to cadge a lifeboat seat. Upon meeting these characters, anybody can complete the connect-the-dots plot line. Jack’s low origins and poverty are callously mocked when he is invited to join Rose’s set in the first-class dining room. Rose blossoms when Jack takes her down to steerage, where an assortment of generic ethnics holds a festive dance.

Perhaps resourceful performers could have fleshed out these stick figures. Although Cameron’s leading players do not embarrass themselves, they can’t deliver the goods. DiCaprio, who eerily resembles the young Truman Capote, lacks the ripeness and authority to make us believe that Jack’s street-smart wanderings have taken him to Southern California and Paris in pursuit of his art. Earnest and appealing but too dewy and contemporary in style, he looks as if he’s anticipating his first encounter with a razor and, understandably, can’t figure out how to redeem Cameron’s clumsiest howlers. (Witnessing the ship’s flooding, Jack blankly observes, “This is bad!”) The lush-lipped, cavernously cleavaged Winslet emphasizes DiCaprio’s pallid callowness. Her initial close-ups are disconcerting. With arched brows, blood-red tresses, and heavy makeup, she presents an otherworldly visage reminiscent of Kim Novak’s waxed-fruit materialization as Judy in Vertigo. Her semaphore, silent-movie acting style—ocular gyrations and flaring nostrils—similarly contrasts with her co-star’s casual underplaying.

Most of the supporting cast members are as one-dimensional as props, each embodying a single trait: Zane (brilliantined malevolence), Fisher (etiolated classism), ship captain Bernard Hill (stoic dignity), valet David Warner (craven toadyism). Bates supplies a few welcome moments of mirthful warmth as Molly, and Victor Garber artfully manages to convey more conflicted emotions as the ship’s master builder, Thomas Andrews. The most luminous performance comes from Stuart, the erstwhile blond screen ingénue who once co-starred with Shirley Temple, James Cagney, and Charles Laughton. The spunky 87-year-old actress’s beauty and spirit shine through the latex webbing designed to make her appear more than a decade older.

After two hours of mundane, sub-Merchant-Ivory romance, disaster strikes, and Cameron’s genius for staging spectacular action sequences takes over. He orchestrates the film’s extended climax brilliantly, from the deceptively trivial iceberg scrape to the liner’s taking in water, splitting in half, and submerging. The disaster’s aftermath is breathtakingly visualized too, capped by a rising crane shot (patterned on Gone With the Wind’s burning-of-Atlanta sequence) of hundreds of luckless passengers vainly clinging to bits of debris in the icy waters. The denouement of the Rose-Jack plot intrudes upon but does not seriously diminish our astonishment at Cameron’s directorial wizardry, though the framing story coda, in which Rose offers up a bounteous (and to my mind, selfishly profligate) tribute to the memory of her long-dead lover, is pretty hard to swallow.

One leaves the movie perplexed by Cameron’s perversity. Why lavish three hours and 15 minutes and $200 million (nearly 27 times the construction cost of the doomed ocean liner) on a re-creation of the Titanic only to rearrange clichés on its deck? Isn’t the true story of the ship’s legendary tragedy—the failure to carry enough lifeboats to accommodate its human cargo; the deaths of more than 1,500 passengers—infinitely more dramatic than an adolescent love affair? Anyone who cares about movies is bound to succumb to Titanic’s siren call; the film is guaranteed to sate even the most ravenous craving for spectacle. But as a work of art, the experience is peculiarly unsatisfying, rather like booking passage on a luxurious cruise ship only to find Kathie Lee and Willard in the adjoining cabins.CP