At last, it's here. James Cameron's leviathan labour of love finally steams into cinemas, more than two years since the first footage was filmed - epic, audacious, awe-inspiring and unbelievably, incredibly long. It's an unashamed event movie, and a project that has endured far more than its fair share of controversy: from somebody spiking the crew's food with LSD, through technical problems with the 775-foot set, to the simple matter of the whopping $280 million it's taken to bring the story to the screen. This makes Titanic the most expensive movie ever made. Only one lingering question remains, pushing all the making-of gossip aside: has the effort been worth it?

The simple answer? Yes, yes, and God, yes. Titanic is a big, bold, staggeringly impressive movie that runs a rock-steady course over three-and-a-quarter hours. It's got a bit of everything - a story where fact meets fiction and good old-fashioned romance collides with '90s stunt-packed action. Combine this with state-of-the-art computer graphics technology, and the production grabs your testicles, nails them to the edge of the cinema seat and demands your undivided attention. The five-day history of the world's most infamous ocean liner is recreated in glorious and, ultimately, harrowing detail, from its Liverpool farewell to its fateful collision with a rogue iceberg.

The catalyst for Cameron's reshaping of events is a simplistic wraparound story, which begins with Bill Paxton's salvage hunter searching for a valuable diamond necklace in the wreck of the Titanic. Instead, he uncoversa drawing of a beautiful young woman, which arouses the interest of a previously unknown survivor of the disaster (Gloria Stuart). Her subsequent visit to the site reveals her as the woman in the drawing, and unleashes a remarkable story that becomes the centre of Cameron's period disaster piece. Flashing back to 1912, a passionate tale of forbidden love unfolds, a Romeo&Juliet-type tale that sees uptight society belle Rose DeWitt Bukater (Winslet) falling for the charm and free spirit of poor artist Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) - much to the disapproval of her obnoxious fiancé, Cal Hockley (Zane). Naturally, this emotional sparring is played out against a decadent, richly opulent backdrop - a world floating to its doom.

Cameron's epic boasts a great many breath-stealing, jaw-yanking moments, moments that will continue to haunt you long after the final reel has flapped out of the projector. Through the atmospheric underwater shots of the silt-covered wreck, the full, sumptuous glory of the Titanic is revealed. The dock scene is an exemplary slice of meticulous recreation, while shot after magical shot affords glimpses of the Ritz-style beauty of the ship's plush interiors. More than an hour-and-a-half later, the dramatic sinking of the Titanic is nothing short of astounding. From the initial collision onwards, the tense, electrifying pace of the botched evacuation never lets up: stuntmen fall from the ship's railings; freezing water engulfs and drowns trapped and screaming passengers; and the final, heart-rending moment in which the great ship breaks in half is, quite frankly, phenomenal - devastating to the point of inducing tears.

And yet, in a movie where the effects could so easily have dominated at the expense of the human story, it's the two young leads - ardent but impoverished Leo and moneyed but unhappy Kate - who come out on top, complementing each other beautifully with career-best performances. They generate a feisty on-screen chemistry rarely seen in actors of their generation.

So, Titanic by name, and - with $280 million right up there on the screen for everyone to see - Titanic by nature. Wow. Cameron has managed to pull it off after all.

The annoying wraparound tale is not enough to detract from a movie fit to be called a modern masterpiece. Against all odds, this is a picture that truly delivers: top performances and effects fuse to create one of the biggest movies you'll ever see.

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