By Lisa Schwarzbaum
December 11, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

In the powerful wake of Titanic, a strange CD-ROM-shaped object is sighted in commercial waters, bobbing in the waves of ancillary merchandise still washing ashore nearly a year after the film’s initial release. The cover says James Cameron’s Titanic Explorer and promises ”a historical journey on the ship of dreams” from the director of the Oscar winning movie. Is it fabulous new footage of the real boat? Pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio as a little boy?

Negative, mateys. This interactive textbook is more like a lesson in what happens when full-steam-ahead multimedia technology hits an editorial iceberg. ”Embark on a voyage of discovery,” the packaging suggests, with all the excitement of a Nova cruise for big donors to PBS. Yet this three-CD set discovers nothing that hasn’t been sighted before with clearer presentation, better graphics, and less hot air.

The discs are organized chronologically: ”Ship of Dreams” reviews the building of the vessel, during which we learn that ”no expense has been spared” on the luxuries (although some, obviously, has been spared on writers adept at navigating around clichés); ”Tragedy Strikes” picks up from the moment of catastrophic impact to the arrival of the nearby Carpathia and includes QuickTime moments from the movie, narrated by a fellow with a portentous Documentary Voice who interrupts the thrillingly moving, harrowing, fluid, big-screen action to tell you what you are about to see on your tiny computer screen; ”The Legend Comes to Light” moves forward from the rescue of survivors to a presentation of modern salvage and study projects (this is where Cameron burns off additional footage from his dives).

Throughout, you can veer off into unexceptional, footnote-y digressions — blueprints, myths, how many dogs were on board, a brief biography of Benjamin Guggenheim, etc., backed by generically lugubrious music. A moving exception to the frustrating bitsyness of the information is a complete passenger and crew list, with notations as to who lived, who died, which cabins they occupied, and which lifeboats the fortunate minority were assigned — an instance where a simple list conveys a profound sense of lost souls and the magnitude of the tragedy.

Who is supposed to be satisfied by this holiday-gift set? History buffs, presumably, have much more beautifully designed books on hand already. Titanic fan-club members will undoubtedly scroll impatiently through the time line, eventually giving up and popping a tape of the real thing in the VCR, the better to savor the tragedy Cameron so marvelously brought to the screen. And DiCaprio groupies will be mighty disappointed to learn that not one big star appears — though if you’re hot to hear Michael Gough and Olivia d’Abo do various dramatic voices, you’re in luck.

In a tremulous introduction, the director states that he made it an ”inviolate goal to honor the more than 1,500 people who perished.” Their memories are honored, to be sure, by the solemnity of the project. But James Cameron’s Titanic Explorer feels more like a deal honored to extend the Titanic franchise further, this time through new technology that — as forward-looking Rose herself would know — is worth more than a movie tie-in. C+

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