You’ve got to give James Cameron credit. He’s a fearless filmmaker, and it turns out that he’s just as fearless when it comes to daring stunts . . . like boarding a three-person submersible and descending 12,500 feet to the North Atlantic Ocean floor in order to see the RMS Titanic in its resting place.
How do we know Cameron is fearless? He invited “Titanic” star Bill Paxton to join him for the expedition—though he placed Paxton on a second Mir submersible rather than the one he was on. And Paxton is expressively worried beforehand and absolutely ashen-faced during much of the actual trip.
Unlike “Apollo 13,” nothing major happens to disrupt the mission—no giant squids, no perfect storms, no life-threatening equipment failures—so Paxton’s anxiety provides the only emotion, apart from Cameron’s continual sense of awe that he’s seeing (and now, so are we) the remains of this gigantic ocean liner for the first time since it sank after colliding with an iceberg on its maiden voyage on April 15, 1912. And it is awesome to see—even more awesome to be Cameron inside that little mini-sub that’s lowered by a Russian ship.
No bones or human remains are seen, and a microbiologist along for the ride talks about how the ocean is breaking down even this enormous ship, so that it too will disappear some day.
I thought that “Titanic” was cheesy, so it didn’t surprise me that the “Ghosts” part of the abyss into which this group descends resembles the holograms at Disney’s Haunted Mansion, superimposed on the algae and coral-encrusted rooms that the men in the submersibles see via two mini-cameras that can enter through even the tiniest openings. Some of what we see is clearly recognizable, while other scenes benefit from the picture-in-picture display of photos of the Titanic before it set sail. For me, that would have been enough—especially since the tone of “Ghosts of the Abyss” isn’t somber and the focus isn’t on the lives lost. Cameron simply takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to this documentary and allows us to come along for the ride.
In other words, “Ghosts of the Abyss” is neither terribly artful nor suspenseful. Rather, it’s like the ultimate vicarious Disney ride that allows you to see some extraordinary shots of the Titanic that, if they weren’t filming, only Cameron and five other people would have witnessed.
It’s no secret that Cameron is a big fan of Blu-ray 3D, and “Ghosts of the Abyss” was the first film produced in 3D by the Disney folks back in 2003, when it was released to IMAX 3D theaters as a hour-long film experience. The Blu-ray 3D combo pack comes with an extended version that adds another half-hour. Unlike Cameron’s film, there’s nothing in this documentary that children can’t see. But will it hold their interest? That’s another story.
Cameron used Sony CineAlta 3D cameras for the shoot, but other than adding a little more visual depth, there really isn’t much in the way of 3D effects—especially once we get inside the ship. Creature-lovers will be disappointed that there aren’t that many fish or invertebrates mucking about at that depth, and that means the only things that provide 3D depth potential are the submersibles themselves. I personally preferred the Blu-ray. In both cases, the transfers (MVC/MPEG-4 on the 3D, AVC/MPEG-4 on the Blu-ray) posed no problems other than some occasional visible edge enhancement that erased just the slightest bit of background behind objects. But this was an occasional thing, not the norm. “Ghosts of the Abyss” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The clarity of the DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio is really pretty amazing, considering the remote microphones and the fact that Cameron & Co. are 12,500 feet below the surface. There’s no hiss or pop, and no distortion of any kind. It’s all talk, though, with only the choppy waters as they surface providing a different sonic texture. The sub will kick in only then, and when the musical backdrop crescendos a bit.
“Ghosts” already strikes me as being a bonus feature—for “Titanic”—which may be why there isn’t much else. All we get, in addition to the Blu-ray and DVD of the film, is a short feature “Reflections from the Deep,” in which Cameron and his CGI people talk about how they created those hokey holograms. “Zodiac Cowboys” is a very brief look at the Russian crew that rode small craft to the Mir submersibles in order to hook a cable to them so they could be lifted onto the ship. That, actually, is footage that would have made the film a little more exciting. Finally there’s a very brief blooper reel.
I wouldn’t call “Ghosts of the Abyss” a compelling documentary or even an artistic one. It’s more like a visit to a museum—in this case, one that’s 12,500 feet below the surface. If you like all things Titanic it’s worth your time.