Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, ...

The most successful movie in history ($1.8 billion at the box office worldwide) is poised to become one of the most popular VHS tapes ever (with a reported 25 million copies initially shipped to stores), and almost nobody is choosing to see the movie the way it looked in theaters.

Not that viewers don’t have the option to do exactly that. Using his clout as king of the you-know-what, Titanic writer-director James Cameron has Paramount Home Video releasing two different editions of the movie (neither with any extra footage added). The one that most faithfully re-creates how the film played in theaters is the wide-screen edition (the one with the bronze box spine), which shrinks such vistas as the ship’s full, four-smokestack expanse and frames them within black bands. However, few Titanic fans seem to give a hoot about such pictorial fidelity. Judging from conversations with store managers leading up to the title’s Sept. 1 debut, something less than a tenth of the first wave of distributed copies have been wide-screen. Few customers showed much interest in pre-ordering this edition–the typical reaction being “I hate letterboxing”–and some stores don’t have the wide-screen version for sale at all. Instead, the masses will mainly be watching the “pan-and-scan” edition, the one with the sky blue spine and the teeny type hidden away on the bottom of the box warning “This film has been modified…to fit your TV.”

If Titanic were a typical wide-screen production, this language would mean that every image in the film had been cropped nearly in half to fill up your TV’s squarish frame. And for most Titanic shots involving special effects–there are 550 with some sort of computer-generated imagery–that is, in fact, what’s been done. But Cameron makes his movies with an eye on the subsequent video and TV market. Knowing how unpopular letterboxing can be, he had the foresight to use a flexible film format called Super-35 that allowed him to frame every non-effects shot in the movie two different ways while filming: rectangular for movie screens, and square for TV. (Producing dual versions of all the trick shots as well would have been too expensive, even for a spendthrift like Cameron, so these are generally filmed only in the rectangular wide-screen shape and then cropped at the edges for the video version.)

Result? Virtually all of the straightforward live-action shots in the movie have been opened up, typically trimmed a tad at the sides but with a good deal of picture added to the top and bottom of the frame. Many of the close-ups between the story’s star-crossed lovers, young adventurer Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and high-society refugee Rose (Kate Winslet), thus show a good deal more of the performers. (If that news arouses your prurient interests, calm yourself: There’s barely any extra skin exposed when Rose poses in the buff for a drawing, and no untoward glimpses are revealed of Leo’s loins in that steamy backseat lovemaking scene–something that has happened to many an unsuspecting male and female star in other home-video transfers.) The squarer framing does shift the movie’s tone toward star-besotted soap opera, though. Titanic now plays like a TV miniseries, focused on the principals rather than the ship’s teeming hordes.

Is this blinkered “standard” edition as good to look at as the theatrical one? Not consistently. It’s adequate until the ship approaches its fateful rendezvous with an iceberg near the end of cassette No. 1 (the movie is too long to fit on a single tape). Then cropped effects shots begin to take over, and you’ll notice more panning and scanning of the image as Cameron and the transfer technicians try to take in the spectacle of the ship’s splitting innards. Also, since the shots of misty breath required computer-generated puffs of vapor, Rose and Jack’s tender, post-sinking pep talk winds up claustrophobically cropped.

Our advice: Even if you dislike letterboxing, try mixing and matching your editions, switching to a wide-screen copy for cassette No. 2. So what if that very slightly reduces the overall size of objects on screen? Hey, sit a little closer to the TV and congratulate yourself for watching a much more aesthetically pleasing rendition. (You wouldn’t want to be an anti-artistic boor like Rose’s fiancé, Cal, who disses Picasso and Degas, now would you?) If you know anybody with a laserdisc player, that presumably better-detailed version will arrive Oct. 13; Paramount hasn’t committed to producing DVD copies yet, but there’s speculation that it could happen sometime early in 1999. Otherwise, if you simply settle for the tape version most in demand, you’ll be traveling in something less than first-class accommodations–and missing quite a few of Titanic’s picturesque nooks and crannies. Wide-screen version: A-; Standard version: B+

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  • 194 minutes