Searching for a lost diamond aboard the wreckage of the great, ill-fated ship, a diver finds a sketch of a young woman wearing the jewel. Amazingly, she is still alive, and recounts the tale of her time on the luxury liner - a tale of grand romance.
We were, of course, all waiting for it to sink. Or at least list alarmingly. We had our snappily punning headlines and our cleverly worded "(Mad)man overboard!" captions. "James Cameron has spent $200 million on a movie and it's a dog. He's finally had it!" we chortled. It was all going to be a great deal of fun. Only there's a slight problem. James Cameron has gone and delivered a spectacular, moving, utterly engrossing three-and-a-bit hour epic (stick that on your poster) of the kind they have putatively ceased making "any more". Bugger. There go all the albatross gags, then.
DiCaprio is Jack, a "poor boy" who wins himself a ticket home on the maiden voyage of the world's most famous - and soon to be infamous - ocean liner. Winslet is Rose, a "rich girl" cosseted by the strictures of post-Edwardian society and miserably engaged to beastly aristo Cal (Zane). In a fit of the vapours, she tries to fling herself from the prow into Davy Jones' Locker, Jack wrestles her from the seaweedy clutches of the deep, their soulful eyes meet and... well, anyone vaguely acquainted with the obstacles routinely thrown up before young couples in period costume who are that much "in love" will be unsurprised to learn that a number of insurmountable obstacles (the kind that take a couple of reels to be surmounted) get lobbed in their way. Oh, and the boat sinks.
On paper, this should be a nauseatingly dreadful, utterly manipulative, saccharine-dusted gob of tedious pap. On the big screen - and if you've got any sense you'll catch it on the biggest screen you can find - it manages effortlessly to overcome the corny predictable plot, period cliche and "you know the ending" ending, seducing with honest, old-fashioned storytelling bolted to special effects sequences that take the breath away. Like one of its obvious influences Gone With The Wind, the most impressive FX sequences are not the obvious boat upturning sequences but the digitally created moments you don't notice aren't real. The steam emerging from people's mouths being one example, and the shots of the boat itself charging through the Atlantic, never drawing attention to the fact that only half of it exists in a mainframe in Burbank.
DiCaprio and Winslet are horribly attractive as the youngsters caught first in the nasty snobbism of the hierarchical world around them and then in the nasty terror of the boat sinking. Which is when the romance turns to action, and for the last hour and a bit we are treated to Cameron flexing his action muscles.
Walls of brine crash down corridors, those holding only third class tickets are locked below decks and drown in their hundreds, and in the final moments the ship upends delivering an incredible shot of our heroes hurtling face first into the sea still clinging to the ship while hapless passengers who have chosen to jump plunge by.
Here Cameron proves, as he hinted at in The Abyss, that while you can count the action directors to rival him on the fingers of one finger (John Woo), he is also perfectly capable of delivering big screen emotion. Titanic is not subtle by any stretch of the imagination but it will leave even the most cynical, heartless swine with a lump in the throat. And for once it won't be their lunch coming up.
It should be no surprise then that it became fashionable to bash James Cameron's Titanic at approximately the same time it became clear that this was the planet's favourite film. Ever. Them's the facts.