It looks, at first, rather small, at least for the most infamous iceberg in history: a lumpish gray-white mound jutting placidly out of the black ocean night. The giant luxury vessel grazes it almost casually, the side of the ship subjected to a single prolonged scrape, the sea-voyage equivalent of a fender bender. The damage, however, has been done. Few aboard know it yet, but the ship’s bottom chambers have already begun to fill with water, a process as irreversible as it is gradual. An hour or so later, the ship’s nose begins to droop into the sea. Its back half cracks off and, in an image of impossible nightmare grandeur, it tilts up out of the ocean and then plunges straight down, a man-made mountain disappearing into the void.

James Cameron’s Titanic (Paramount) is a lush and terrifying spectacle of romantic doom. With extraordinary physical verisimilitude, Cameron re-creates the sinking of the Titanic in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912. He puts us right on board that ship, so that we experience the shock and horror of what it must have felt like to confront instant death, to see the largest vehicle of its time sucked into the waves beneath one’s feet. Simply as a triumph of logistics, Titanic is an amazing achievement. Cameron, though, whose films (the Terminator pictures, True Lies) have usually been more interested in machines than in the men and women who control (or battle) them, has also brought off something poetic and haunting.

In Titanic, he restages the defining catastrophe of the early 20th century on a human scale of such purified yearning and dread that he touches the deepest fairy-tale levels of popular moviemaking. Titanic, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as winsome, class-torn, angel-eyed young romantics, is a resplendently old-fashioned cornball love story that, in its collision with the reality of technological disaster, takes on the resonance of genuine tragedy. The movie is almost sure to be a big success, but then, lots of movies are. This one, I think, is going to stir people all over the world.

At the beginning, a crew of scruffy present-day explorers search for a long-lost jewel amid the Titanic’s undersea ruins. This framing device is funky yet spooky (it lets us know that we’re watching a ghost story), and Gloria Stuart has a lovely, beatific presence as one of the calamity’s ancient survivors; she’s Kate Winslet’s character at the age of 101. The movie then flashes back to the day the Titanic set sail from Southampton on its first and only voyage. Cameron shows off the vessel, with its gleaming decks and aristocratic ballrooms, its deliriously extended, five-block-long facade, as though it were the ultimate movie set. The majesty of this ocean liner isn’t simply its size but its looming metaphorical heft. Unearthly pride is required to create a vehicle this grand. Organized by tiers, each of which houses its own social class, the Titanic, though a product of a new era’s technology, is also a kind of floating version of the 19th century, the last mighty bulwark of a Victorian world that has no idea it’s literally about to perish.

At first, you wonder if the two stars are going to have the presence to fill that space. DiCaprio, at 23, still looks 15, and when his Jack Dawson, an orphan and devil-may-care American vagabond who has won a steerage ticket for the voyage in a poker game, first spies Winslet’s Rose DeWitt Bukater, a milky-pale Philadelphia debutante with a snobby-effete fianceé (Billy Zane, acting as badly as he can), and then rescues her from a melodramatic suicide attempt, the love story seems to be courting callowness. Cameron isn’t a great screenwriter (a few of the lines clunk), but he turns out to be cleverer than you think. The relationship between Jack and Rose is played quite consciously as a young romance. They’re a couple of kids, really, caught in the first flush of infatuation. Jack, the guy from the wrong side of the tracks, woos Rose by refusing to treat her as a princess; he teaches her to spit and sketches her in the nude. As Rose throws off her high-flown airs and lives, for the first time, as a ripe, desirous adolescent, and Jack, drawn briefly into her moneyed world, stands tall and begins to vaguely resemble a young man, Winslet and DiCaprio develop a touching, sweet-souled chemistry. In their ”free” and full-bodied courtship, Rose and Jack are leaving the 19th century behind too.

The film’s apocalyptic irony, of course, is that the two face death just at the moment their spirits are born. It was a masterstroke to reveal, early on, via computer graphics, the exact physical process by which the Titanic sank. When the cataclysm begins, we know just what’s happening. The tilting decks and waterlogged corridors make visual sense, and the film’s real suspense derives from the passengers’ slow-dawning awareness of their fates. Cameron’s fanatical attention to detail allows him to stage the ship’s slow descent in what feels like real time. There’s a surreal anxiety in the details — the rats scurrying into view, the on-deck musicians fiddling madly away, the increasingly violent squabbling over who’s going to get into the lifeboats.

The final hour is suffused with a cathartic tumult of emotion. We’re torn between our desire to gawk at the sheer size of the disaster and, at the same time, a kind of shivery empathy with the people on screen. By the time that Rose and Jack are floating in the icy sea, the movie comes face-to-face with annihilation itself. Yet it’s at that moment that their love glows brightest. If the two have left the 19th century behind, here, then, is the new world, one in which the center will not hold, in which ”progress” breeds terrifying new forms of catastrophe, with modern love itself a dream of transcendence built on fear. Titanic floods you with elemental passion in a way that invites comparison with the original movie spectacles of D.W. Griffith. It’s the first disaster movie that can truly be called a work of art. A

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  • 194 minutes