A documentary that brims with both an old-fashioned spirit of adventure and a self-congratulatory  hubris, “James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D” takes you to the “last frontier on Earth”, the deepest place in our ocean, not seen since its first and only exploration nearly forty years ago.

Following up on a childhood dream, and on his experiences doing undersea exploration for his film about that big ship with the hole in the side, Cameron and his team of technicians, scientists and filmmakers decide to take it to the next level. “Deepsea Challenge” follows his journey to build and sail (sink?) a sub that can take him to the deepest trench in the ocean, Challenger Deep, a place that could hold Mt. Everest and a, uh, a bunch of Empire State Buildings without breaking the surface. 34,000 feet of cold, wet down-ness.

No one will ever accuse Cameron of lacking ambition or being a girl’s blouse. The film makes the hazards of this journey very clear—Cameron uses the phrase “meat cloud” to describe what would be left of him if the hull were breached. So the stakes are high in the physical danger department. And they’re using unproven tech on their sub, to boot.

So it’s interesting to see the play of personalities in such a high pressure environment, and there is a hefty “wow” factor in the beautiful underwater photography (in fact, a larger slice of undersea life would have been nice). The 3D photography isn’t intrusive, and adds a lot of flavor without distracting. I could have done without the historical recreations, but I appreciate the feeling behind the well-considered nod to the two explorers who first reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and inspired Cameron when he was a child.

A tragedy that strikes the team midway through filming adds a note of somber determination to the proceedings, and strikes an emotional, human note that might otherwise be lost in the technical considerations, and the vastness of the film’s particular stretches of ocean.

But this is a feel-good, man against nature thing, so the focus is on the manly, step by step process of testing and correcting the vehicle, from its first sailing only one meter underwater to its storm-launched Big Day. Cameron never betrays much in the way of doubt about his teams’ eventual success, but this should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

What did surprise me is that Cameron, a man who has enough money to wallpaper that trench he’s headed to, needs corporate sponsorship to make this trip a reality. At an important moment, a watch is shown strapped to the sub’s mechanical arm, and notice is made of its ability to resist the pressure. I didn’t understand this until I noticed the Rolex insignia on the Blu-ray case. Politics isn’t the only thing too expensive even for rich people.

“Deepsea Challenge 3D” is presented in 16×9 full screen, with options for English SDH and Spanish subtitles. The picture quality is excellent, rich and detailed, with crisp color and effective 3D. It’s even exceptional at times, given the circumstances of some of the shoot. The 3D Blu-ray includes a 2D Blu-ray version, and a DVD disc.

The audio track is Dolby True HD, and serves its purpose adequately.


  • two disappointingly short and bland featurettes, “The Deepest Point on Earth,” and “An Alien World”

Parting thoughts:
Energized by its own earnest appreciation for the natural wonders it explores, and by the idea that true exploration is still possible in a jaded world, “Deepsea Challenge” is an enjoyable trip that brings needed attention to our last frontier.