Extraordinary effects and a classic ‘poor boy meets rich girl’ story aboard the Titantic

April 14, 1912, the world's largest and most expensive ship–the Titanic-hit an iceberg and sank. Fewer than 700 of the 2,200-plus passengers survived. Most were from the first-class section. Nearly everyone in the second class or “steerage” section died. The catastrophe captured the popular imagination of the time and instantly became a legend.

At that moment in history movies were becoming a popular art form, and as their audience consisted mainly of blue-collar workers and immigrants (all of whom would have traveled steerage class on the Titanic), many films had as their subject the difficulties of working-class life. But producers wanted to expand their market to include the middle-class. So they latched onto a staple of turn-of-the-century theatrical melodrama-the cross-class fantasy in which poor boys courted rich girls, or rich men married poor women.

The genre had certain rules. In its stories, the working people were always poor but virtuous; and the rich were idle but laden down with vices. In addition, as aesthetic counterpoint to these sermonettes on class differences, the audience of those films was always rewarded with an inside, almost voyeuristic look at the decadently extravagant lifestyles of the upper-class. The genre's popularity on screen continued into the 1920s with such feature-length hits as Idle Rich, Fools and Riches, culminating in Cecil B. DeMille's 1924 classic, The Triumph.

James Cameron, writer-director of this year's $200-million version of Titanic (there have been almost a dozen others), has revived this old-fashioned cross-class melodrama to tell the story, preserving, for better or for worse, the genre's simplistic morality about class differences. His movie has both the energy and innocence of those early 20th century silent films as well as their creakiness of plot.

Cameron's epic begins in the present time with a high-tech treasure hunter, Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), who is electronically scouring the sunken hull of the Titanic for the priceless blue diamond necklace, “The Heart of the Ocean,” that was lost when the ship went down. These opening documentary-like sequences were filmed in the actual Titanic wreck, and as the frame of an old chandelier floats by, or the camera pokes around the remains of a first-class stateroom, the story about to be told takes on a ghostly reality.

When Lovett has broadcast on TV a drawing he has just found of a young woman wearing the jewel, he receives a phone call from the 101-year-old Rose Dawson Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who claims to be the person in the picture. She is flown out to Lovett's expedition, and the rest of the movie is told in flashback as she recounts what she experienced during the catastrophe.

The 17-year-old Rose (Kate Winslett) was engaged to marry arrogant Pittsburgh-steel tycoon, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). It's a marriage of convenience forced upon her by her mother (Frances Fisher) because the family fortune has run out. To Rose's restless heart, the Titanic doesn't seem like the greatest luxury liner of all time but rather “a slave ship taking me to America in chains.”

As Rose suffers in the midst of sumptuous wealth, the action moves to the other side of the tracks where working-class artist, Jack Dawson (Leonardo Dicaprio), is winning a card game whose pot includes a coveted ticket to America on the Titanic- steerage class, of course. He makes it on board only minutes before castoff, and among the first things he sees is the beautiful, moody Rose. His fellow steerage passengers assure him that snooty debutantes like her are way out of his reach.

Rose has become so depressed by the hopelessness of her condition that she attempts suicide by throwing herself off the ship. The ever curious Jack just happens to wander by and save her, and the romance is on.

As thanks for his gallantry, Jack is invited to dinner in the first-class section where his good looks and integrity captivate Rose. But the obstacles against the young couple getting together again seem insurmountable.

Roughly the first half of the movie's three hours and 14 minutes chronicles the struggles of their blossoming love against Rose's mean-spirited, upper-class keepers, who are as crudely stereotyped as in a DeMille silent. Rose's mother is a cold-blooded, ambitious social climber. Her fiancé, Cal, considers himself superior solely because of his breeding and money and puts Rose down at every opportunity. Their blue-blooded friends seem fixated on observing the minutiae of outdated social customs and smile only when thinking of their own great wealth. Against this background, Rose and Jack project a purity and charm that win the audience's favor, and the doom, which we know lies waiting for them, makes us root for them to stay together.

The sinking of the ship itself, which takes up the movie's second half, is Hollywood at its best. Cameron's message is that too much faith in technology can be foolish and dangerous, and his grandiose images are worthy of the tragedy he's trying to evoke. Some examples: a huge tower of water overwhelms the exquisitely ornate dining room as the ship slowly sinks; an elderly couple waits in doomed embrace for the flood to wash over them; and the great liner props itself up vertically in the water before dropping to the bottom.

But the extraordinary (and very costly) special effects are not what remains in our memory at the end. It's Rose and Jack's sweet smiles and the look of adoration in their eyes whenever they meet. In this version of Titanic, young love still conquers all, even cornball plot twists and a simpleminded view of class differences that most of us thought disappeared about the time the ship sank.

The USCC classification of Titanic is A-III: adults. The film is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America.

Register arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.