12/22/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
, Kate Winslet
The actual RMS Titanic lies more than 2,200 fathoms deep, but she and her passengers come vividly, gloriously, eye-poppingly alive again in this epic. Between the razzle-dazzle special effects, sumptuous sets and genuinely affecting performances by romantic leads DiCaprio and Winslet, Titanic is as big a blockbuster as its name implies. This latest film version of the tragic 1912 sinking of the luxury liner (previous movies include 1953's Titanic and 1958's A Night to Remember) has a running time of 3 hours and 14 minutes, but it's so involving that you won't switch on your Indiglo even once.
Titanic begins with a modern-day fortune hunter (Bill Paxton) leading an expedition to recover relics from the underwater wreck (the movie uses haunting footage showing the actual sunken ship). After hauling up a safe, he finds inside it not the priceless, long-missing diamond necklace he had hoped to retrieve but rather a drawing showing the necklace being worn by a beautiful naked woman. When the pencil sketch is flashed on a TV news report, a spry 101-year-old lady (Gloria Stuart) takes a look and exclaims, "Wasn't I a dish?" We soon learn, as the movie travels back in time to the Titanic's disastrous voyage, that the woman (now played by Winslet) was a first-class passenger traveling, none too happily, with her wealthy fiancé, a bossy cad (Billy Zane, starchy as ever). Aboard ship, she meets and falls desperately in love with a bohemian dreamer (DiCaprio), who's bunking in third class.
In a clever, preemptive move, director-writer James Cameron early on shows Paxton's crew watching a computer-generated, step-by-step walkthrough of how the 12,378-foot Titanic split apart and disappeared into the North Atlantic's frigid waters, taking with it more than 1,500 passengers and crew. When the actual disaster unfolds later in the movie, the audience understands exactly what's happening.
DiCaprio and Winslet both deliver star-making performances. In supporting roles, Kathy Bates is a delight as the unsinkable Molly Brown, while Stuart, a minor movie star back in the '30s and '40s, glows. If you want an oversize, romantic holiday treat, board this Titanic—but bring along a life jacket. (PG-13)