When I last saw James Cameron's massively successful, Oscar-dominating epic Titanic, it had been in theaters for just a few days, the hype was deafening, and I was a newly-minted 16-year-old boy, and thus I was duty-bound to hate it. Oh, and hate it I did - a hate that slowly drifted into sheer unadulterated indifference as the years marched on. Suffice it to say that of all the films in this Cameron retrospective, it was the one I was most eager to revisit, for I am of course not a 16-year-old boy any longer, and the things that I know now about sweeping romantic historical epics (which everyone has always claimed Titanic to be) and Irwin Allen-style disaster pictures (which is absolutely what Titanic really is, and I don't know why more people don't pick up on that) would make the me of 12 years ago - my God, it can't really be a 12-year-old movie, can it? - wonder if I ever went out and partied or got laid or did anything whatsoever in the intervening years besides watch movies and form theoretical frameworks about them. Then I would make him cry by mentioning the 45-day Disneython.

As much fun as I'm having verbally taunting myself as an imaginary teenager, I expect the rest of you would rather that I get on with it already, and say whether or not I've changed my mind about the movie. The answer is: yes, of course, because if I were the sort of person who couldn't change the opinions I had as a damned 16-year-old, I'd be of no use to anyone. Facts are facts, and the fact is that Titanic delivers exactly what it says on the label: a deliciously overwrought melodramatic love story, capped off with one of the greatest special effects achievements of the 1990s. I've said it before of James Cameron, and I'll have cause to say it again: he might spend unfathomable amounts of money, but by God, you see every penny on the screen. I still have some very particular complaints about the movie - including, for a start, a 195 minute running time that could be snipped by 30 minutes without even trying, except that the director has a crippling affection for one very particular technical achievement - but do I like it? Yes, I do. And I am not going to feign shame at that fact.

Not going to bother recapping the plot of the first movie to break $1 billion at the international box office. If you don't know what happens in Titanic, it's your fault more than mine. Anyway nobody could argue in good faith that the story is particularly innovative or difficult to follow in all its twists and turns, and that is unquestionably part of the charm: sometimes you need a probing, uncomfortably intense character study, and sometimes you need a straight-up torrid weeper. God knows, the love story of Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) is more of the latter than the former, and despite Winslet's level-best attempt to dig out something personal and particular about her character, these figures are never anything other than archetypes. Though in fairness, who outside of the protagonists in any James Cameron film - and sometimes not even them - has really been other than an archetype. His approach to narrative has always been based on defining characters quickly and efficiently, ideally within their first onscreen appearance, so that we can stop worrying about who they are and instead about what happens to them. Luckily for the filmmaker, he's good enough at his job that "what happens to them" is usually something so tremendously exciting and well-executed that his customarily shoddy characters aren't really a detriment.

It must be said, though, that even for a Cameron picture, Titanic has some pretty ripe & awful performances. Winslet, dear Kate Winslet, is totally lost at sea (um...) in the role of a prim young lady of money: we wouldn't have ever known it in 1997, before she'd become such an omnipresent fixture in cinema, but she's consistently at her best when playing earthy, sexually vivacious women who are rather more crude and direct than refined and circumspect. For the first and only time in her career, you can actually see as she strains to bring a character together. As for the rest of the folk around her: Leo, in his starmaking role, is stunningly anachronistic,giving a devil-may-care "it's the late 1990s so why pretend that it's 1914?" performance of admirable simplicity - I prefer it at any rate to his maddeningly twitchy turn in Gangs of New York - but it also stands out as dreadfully modern and teen-movie-ish relative to everyone else in the film. Among the minor players, Kathy Bates is wholly undistinguished as a loud-mouthed women who only speaks truth - one of the first times she played this particular speciality of hers, I believe - while Billy Zane is incredibly, awesomely terrible as The Villain, and boy oh boy, but he really is just so over-the-top wicked in performance, in writing, and especially in his hypnotically over-acting eyebrows that the capitals on The Villain doesn't even begin to describe it. I do rather like David Warner as Zane's equally evil manservant, and Frances Fisher as Rose's desperately venal mother; but at the same time I don't dislike anyone, so much as recognise that they all have the unenviable task of playing non-entities in a story driven entire by operatically oversized emotions and situations. There is no Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor in Titanic; no opportunity for a gifted performer to grab hold of something rich and driving. The story propels these characters and not the other way around, and it is not fair to demand that they have legitimate depth and personality.

When I say that the film is more of an Irwin Allen disaster movie than an epic historical love story, here is what I am referring to: the perverse structure of the plot which invites us in with the knowledge that we are going to see something awful and spectacular happen, and then keeps putting us off teasingly with a lot of character drama based on thinly-drawn stereotypes played by a lot of recognisable people. It would actually be pretty easy to do up one of those '70s-style "box posters" for the film, don't you think? Winslet and DiCaprio and Bates and Zane and Bernard Hill and Bill Paxton and all, their little faces right at the bottom of the poster. At any rate, the film's narrative progression is a hell of a lot closer to a The Towering Inferno than it is to the film's most often-cited analogue, Gone with the Wind: that film, like Doctor Zhivago or Reds, follows a single star-crossed couple through years of history, full of different incidents; Titanic takes place over four days, and involves a love affair interrupted by the most famous maritime disaster of the 20th Century. And not to belittle the affection that some people have for the movie as a whole, I think that most of us can probably agree that the second half of the film (actually, it's a touch under half, but close enough), the sinking, is of significantly higher quality than the first half, the "character" stuff - a better tell that this is a disaster first, a love story second, I cannot think of.

The sinking is one of the great technical achievements of cinema, a resolutely convincing mixture of huge models, tremendously ambitious set design, and some of the last really outstanding CGI before CGI became de rigeur and unconvincing in the '00s. As sheer spectacle, I think that to dislike the back half of Titanic is to be dead; there are good dramatic and ethical reasons for finding it dubious, I suppose (all these years later, I'm still rankled that Cameron would dedicate his Best Picture Oscar to the many lost souls whose deaths had been treated as so much cannon fodder in his popcorn thriller), but it's overwhelming and exciting, yet another mark of the director's love for pushing moviemaking technology as far as he possibly could. Titanic was just about the most state-of-the-art movie ever made in 1997, and it has lost not one scintilla of its effectiveness in the intervening years. This is the one point where the Irwin Allen comparison fails me: for Allen's films were more often dull and terrible, even with their splashy destruction porn.

On the other hand, the first half is a little bit pokey in spots, and not even the hand-wave of, "aha, melodrama!" can completely obscure all its dramatic faults. The chief of these indeed has nothing to do with the love story or the relative speed with which it develops, but with the film's bizarre framing narrative, set in 1998 as a team of deep sea recovery specialists led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) search for the insanely valuable Heart of the Ocean necklace, owned by Billy Zane's character before the ship went down. It didn't make any sense to me in 1997 why we needed to spend 20 minutes watching these fellows before the actual movie started, and it doesn't make sense to me now. The only thing I can imagine is that Cameron, noted technophile and deep sea fancier, wanted to make the first narrative movie with shots of the actual RMS Titanic, lying in its black grave. Because other than sheer, unadulterated "hey, look, I can do this!" showing-off, there is nothing useful about the thirty minutes devoted to the 1998 plot: it doesn't actually tell us anything about Rose that we wouldn't know otherwise, it's not terribly effective drama (Gloria Stuart's listless performance is almost as bad as Zane's - I cannot possibly understand how even Titanic fever led to her Oscar nomination), it spoils the very nice reveal at the end that Rose has adopted Jack's surname, and it pushes the film into the red zone north of three hours, and while I certainly know of good films to be that long and longer, I think 180 minutes is definitely the point where you need to seriously consider how to jettison some running time.

Ah, but Cameron's indulgent phase had been in full bloom for ten years by the time Titanic came out, and there was no re-bottling that genie. And if he wanted to spend pots of money on a 3.25-hour movie with a monstrously self-serving opening sequence that let the director spend studio money on a submersible dive to the wreckage; well, nobody was going to complain after the film hit $600 million at the domestic box office, anyway.

But that first half of the movie: it tries so hard, and it comes close, but there's a lot of clumsiness to the romantic drama, most of it having to do with the director. As in True Lies, he revealed here a certain heavy touch when it comes to sensitive character moments; and it doesn't help that Titanic is burdened with some of his all-time worst dialogue. Not that Cameron was ever Noel Coward, mind you. But writing period films brings out the worst in any writer, whether its stilted vernacular that abuts nastily against modern slang, or leering, nudge-nudge lines like "Something Picasso? He won't amount to a thing. He won't, trust me!", my pick for the single worst piece of dialogue in any one of James Cameron's features.

As long as I'm slagging on the film, I might go ahead and take a swipe at composer James Horner, and particularly that ghastly "My Heart Will Go On" that is even worse now than I remember it. I also have no use for the score: much as I preferred his work on 1986's Aliens when it was used in 1984's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, so did I find the music in Titanic better the first time I heard it, as the score for Braveheart. Except for that horrid synthesizer piece that accompanies the ship's journey out of dock. That's new.

And yet- so deep is Cameron's commitment to presenting the reality of the Titanic community in the days before the disaster that the film manages to transcend his clumsy writing and characterisation, the bad acting and worse music to become something fascinating and spectacular anyway. It's lurid and garish, but in the most exhilarating, entertaining fashion; and there's hardly a single moment in the film that isn't absurdly beautiful. Sometimes that's just what a movie has to be: simple, glowing melodrama, and post-card ready visuals, and a 70-minute disaster movie showstopper. Okay, so no other movie quite combines those three things, and that's just why, warts and all, Titanic really does deserve its classic status, even if a record-tying number of Oscars and a box-office take that would make God blush seem a tiny bit out of proportion to the fact that this is basically just an extremely big-budget soap opera b-movie.