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by: Scott Renshaw

TITANIC, the $200 million budget. TITANIC, the perfectionist auteur's baby which missed its summer release date. TITANIC, the production where the catering table was laced with hallucinogens, sending several cast and crew members to the hospital. TITANIC, the mega-event which has two studios holding their breath as though they were actually on the fated ship. TITANIC, the entertainment industry headline. Not TITANIC, the movie...TITANIC, the story.

It's hard for a film to crawl out from under that kind of baggage, so give James Cameron all the credit in the world: for nearly half the film's running time, I forgot that I was watching that TITANIC. I was too caught up in the story of two fictional passengers on the April 1912 maiden voyage of the largest, most luxurious moving vessel ever created by man. Itinerant American artist-at-large Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) winds up on board when he wins a ticket in a poker game; upper class Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) travels with her mother (Frances Fisher) and fiance, million-heir Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Unfortunately, Rose hates her imperious fiance, the snobbish mother forcing her into the marriage, and the whole circumstance of her socially prescribed life. She is preparing to leap from the Titanic's railing when Jack saves her, and begins to show her another world. Only the jealous Cal -- and an inconvenient iceberg -- can stand in the way of their love.

That central romance -- framed by a modern-day sequence in which the 100-year-old Rose (Gloria Stuart) recounts her story to a salvage team led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) -- is captivating from start to finish. DiCaprio and Winslet share an extraordinary chemistry, two charismatic young actors with mischievous eyes who create a tangibly passionate pairing. Though most of the characters around them are more functional than fleshed-out, particularly Billy Zane's sneering patrician, the two stars likely would have overwhelmed all comers regardless of their multi-dimensionality. This may be the year's most effective and consistently entertaining love story.

Oh, and it's also about a big boat going belly-up. Those who come for the sinking rather than the swooning aren't likely to be disappointed with the spectacle Cameron offers. His obsession with historical accuracy begins with the dazzling duplication of the ship's lavish decor and ends with a virtually real-time re-creation of its journey to the bottom of the Atlantic. The chaotic evacuation keeps tensions high, and even mixes in potent understated moments like the ship's designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) mournfully correcting the dining room clock while his creation collapses arount him. The sinking ship, while awe-inspiring, also becomes a distraction from the focal romance. TITANIC is an impressively-mounted disaster movie during its second half, but it's still basically a disaster movie. Once the ship is down, and the lovers once again have time to share a powerful, quiet moment, it becomes clear that the large-scale drama can't match the small-scale drama.

People will want to go see TITANIC simply to see what a $200 million movie looks like. And it looks great, rich in period detail and sweeping views of Cameron's massive scale-model Titanic. More important than how it looks, though, is how it feels. It feels like it has a heart, real emotion powering the narrative in a way dollar signs can't. Somewhere past the headlines, the gossip, the turmoil and the accounting details is a magnificent piece of epic film-making. It's time for TITANIC, the movie, to sink or swim on its own impressive merits.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 salvaged ships: 9.

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