The picture's beauty and Cameron's amazing photographic work provide much pleasure. It's just that...there is the feeling we've been there and seen it all before.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

This 2003 documentary motion picture from director James Cameron was originally shown in 3-D on gigantic IMAX theater screens across the country. Although squeezing down the remnants of the Titanic to a television screen in a 1.74:1 ratio and watching it in regular 2-D is a mite disappointing, it's about the best we can hope for. Fortunately, the disc's THX-certified image and sound hold up their part of the deal.

Still, it's not like the theatrical experience. Of course, no home-theater viewing experience is like watching a picture on a big movie screen, but "Ghosts of the Abyss" is something of a special letdown. Despite Cameron's use of the most-modern deep-sea diving equipment, submarines, and remote-controlled undersea cameras, the home screen produces a result not unlike that which a person can see almost any night of the week on the National Geographic, Discovery, Science, History, PBS, Learning, or Nature channels.

This is not to denigrate the film in any way, understand. The picture's beauty and Cameron's amazing photographic work still provide much pleasure. It's just that throughout the documentary there is the feeling that we've been there and seen it all before. But as I say, this is largely because we're watching it on the relatively small home screen and not the giant theater screen on which it was meant to be seen.

Anyway, Cameron is an old hand at filming at sea. "The Abyss" (1989) and "Titanic" (1997) were enormous cinematic sea-story successes, while "Piranha, Part 2" (1981) and "Expedition Bismarck" (2002) also touched upon things in the water. Just keep your hands out of the water while the piranhas are around. It's not such a stretch to understand why Cameron's filming of the wreckage of the Titanic is so good, but I'm not entirely sure it needs to be a must-buy on everybody's DVD want list.

The two-disc DVD set offers the sixty-minute version of the movie as seen in theaters and a newly reconstructed ninety-minute version using additional material not seen in the original. I suppose this is a good idea, but I would question the necessity of the layout. I mean, by simply issuing the extended version alone and then putting an asterisk in the chapter index for the new, appended scenes, the movie would have been good enough for me, especially as it could have freed up the remainder of a single disc for the several bonus items now found on a second disc. But I suppose having two discs in the set is a part of the marketing ploy to sell the DVD package, even though two DVDs seems like more of a prestige thing than a practical matter. In any case, utilizing two discs allows both movie versions to be transferred at a low compression rate and leaves plenty of room on disc two for the few extras the set has to offer.

I watched the ninety-minute extended version, which is prefaced by this statement: "The following film has been significantly modified from its original 3D presentation. Many images have been reformatted for 2D viewing." Fair enough. Now, on with the show.

The movie chronicles Cameron's expedition in 2001 to film the remains of the Titanic, corroding away some 12,500 feet beneath the sea. Employing the latest deep-sea submarines (MIRs), or submersibles, and the latest in remote underwater cameras (ROVs), Cameron gets in and about every nook and cranny of the old luxury liner. A huge lighting chandelier called "Medusa" is lowered down to illuminate much of the outside of the ship, while each of the various underwater exploration vessels has its own high-powered beams.

The result of all his time, labor, and expense is some of the most revealing footage ever shot of the famous wreck. But why, ask the filmmakers, is the Titanic so fascinating to deep-sea explorers and the public alike? They explain it was the biggest ship of its day, it was on its maiden voyage, the president of the company was on board, as was the ship's builder, and there was a boatload of drama as the ship sank slowly into the sea, killing over 1,500 passengers. It's become a legend, and the ship's remains are now a memorial, one that at its present rate of decay on the ocean floor may not last much longer. Therefore, the present movie becomes an important historical document.

While Cameron does a part of the narration himself, one of his stars of "Titanic," Bill Paxton, goes along on the dives as an observer and narrates much of the film, too. Perhaps Paxton is just imitating some of his own movie characters, but as he goes down in the little sub for the first time, he acts typically whiny and worried. I'm not sure his "gee-whiz" attitude and astonishment toward everything he sees is entirely necessary.

Our first view of the big ship is rather awe-inspiring, though, and even I might have uttered a few "gee-whizzes" at the sight. I could picture Leonardo DiCaprio standing on its bow. Then, as the remote cameras explore the interior of the ship, overlays of the Titanic in her glory (some actual photos and some recreated) are superimposed to show what the scene might have been like at the time of her voyage.

Some of the sights are astonishing: the main dining room, leaded glass windows, the grand promenade, state rooms, dinnerware, bathtubs, tables, boilers, etc., just as they were left on that fateful night in 1912.

The only serious drama occurs toward the end of the film when one of the two robots (they were nicknamed Jake and Elwood, after the Blues Brothers) goes dead in the water and they attempt to rescue it. Regrettably, however, this episode takes us away from the exploration of the ship and seems extraneous to the main purpose of the movie.

All the same, the visions presented in "Ghosts of the Abyss" are grand and mesmerizing, and one cannot take that away from it. How often a person will watch the film again, though, is purely a personal matter.

In its two-dimensional, 1.74:1 anamorphic state, the video is still good if not so awesomely big as its IMAX rendering. On the other hand, the 3-D IMAX presentation was not appreciated by everyone, either, the three-dimensional effects not always showing up as clearly as they could. The DVD presentation is given THX certification and a high bit rate to insure that the picture is as crisp and colorful as it can be. Certainly, the movie's color palette comes up with rich, deep hues. Above the water and within the submersibles, the picture quality is excellent. Understandably, below the surface, where most of the film takes place, the water itself makes things somewhat murky.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduces with ease everything Cameron throws at it, which is, unfortunately, some heavy-duty bass in the musical score, slightly undermining the narration. Once in the sub, however, the music stops and silence ensues, which is a welcome relief. The surround channels are used only sporadically, but when they are, for waves and splashing water, for instance, the result is persuasive.

As I said before, I'm not sure a two-disc set was entirely necessary, but here's what we have: Disc one contains the sixty-minute, theatrical release of the film, plus the ninety-minute extended version with its new footage. Both are in widescreen, with Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. The sixty-minute version has twelve scene selections and English and French spoken languages, but no subtitles. The ninety-minute version has fifteen scene selections, English as the only spoken language, and French subtitles.

Disc two contains two bonus items, which seems a little skimpy and leads me to believe they both might have fit on one disc had only the extended version of the feature film been issued. Well, we have what we have, as I've said. The first bonus item is called "Reflections From the Deep," and it's thirty-one minutes long. It observes six aspects of the expedition, subtitled "Echoes in Time," "Paxton Under Pressure," "Zodiac Cowboys," "The Saga of Jake and Elwood," "The Unthinkable," and "Keldysh Home Movies." Together, they delve into the challenges of creating the movie, and they include unseen footage on the ocean floor, plus interviews with the director, the star, and the crew.

The second item on disc two is called "The MIR Experience." It's an eight-minute segment on one of the dives as seen through six different cameras, any one of which can be selected at any time from the viewer's remote control. At the top of the screen are choices for camera angles, which are easily accessed. I wish this element had been longer; it was as much fun as the film itself.

Parting Shots:
I enjoyed watching Cameron's "Ghosts of the Abyss" on DVD, but I don't think it's a film I'll be going back to very often. While it's captivating to look at once, it hardly makes for compelling repeat viewing, especially when a cable subscriber like me has so many other fascinating documentaries on TV to watch on any given night. Therefore, I'd say if I were interested in "Ghosts of the Abyss," I'd probably rent it for an evening's enlightenment rather than buying it. But for the Titanic afficionado, I'd also have to admit that Cameron's DVD adventure is probably a must.


Film Value