Ghosts of the Abyss
review by Elias Savada, 4 April 2003

James "King of the World" Cameron is back on the big, big, big screen (i.e., wider, higher, deeper) with his visually overwhelming, large-format 3-D IMAX presentation Ghosts of the Abyss, an "unscripted" documentary that takes us miles down in the Atlantic for a close-up glimpse of the wreck that was once the glorious Titanic. That ghost-filled sea queen has received the brunt of his attention for many years, particularly in one helluva blockbuster, Academy Award winning film. You remember that one, don'tcha? With Bill Paxton, one of the stars of Cameron's 1997 epic, a brainy group of technogeeks get to play with some mighty impressive toys that allow the rest of us to briefly (sixty-one minutes) marvel at one of the twentieth century's greatest industrial undertakings and saddest moments.

The unfortunate part of this $13 million production (chump change compared to its theatrical cousin) is that you may go cross-eyed watching it. Or toss your lunch. There was a pre-screening announcement by a flight attendant, er, I mean an employee of the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, where the film opens April 11, warning of possible side effects from this "unique projection technology," including nausea and/or dizziness. I had a vision she was motioning her hands skyward toward the side and back exits for quick escape in the event of a crash. Then I checked under my seat. There was no floatation device under it, or oxygen mask overhead. The screening letter neglected to suggest I bring along Dramamine.

In watching this digital three-dimensional documentary, all viewers must wear glasses with polarized lens. The naked eye will see horizontally overlapping images on the screen. These cinematic phantoms, when properly viewed through the slightly oversized polarized lens (they easily cover any normal prescription spectacles) push the images out from the screen, creating the 3-D illusion. The good news is that the glasses, made of tempered plastic, are imported from Italy (whoa!). The bad news is that no matter how you don them, those audience members positioned close to the mammoth, multi-storied screen (hence the MAX in the IMAX) will become disoriented when watching certain images, particularly those pushed up to your face. Of course, the 3-D impression can provide for some eerie trick photography, say of a submersible's exterior claw mechanism snapping at your face. Conversely, there are more than a few moments where Ghosts of the Abyss will overload your brain when forcing the added dimensional perspective. I was watching the film from half-way back and even that was a chore. I recommend heading back as far as your feet can take you. You'll be that much closer to the exit, too.

Of course, when it works -- and it's a 50/50 proposition -- it's a marvel to watch. I particularly liked the deep ocean background flaked with plankton, overlaid with several inserts floating on multiple planes. There are quite a few imaginative touches, particularly the juxtaposition between old-fashioned stereopticon slides of the mighty ship and digital recreations of the behemoth.

Basically starting from the bottom of the technological ladder, Cameron, with his brother, Michael, an engineer, took several years crafting two small cutting-edge underwater bots, amusingly nicknamed Jake and Elwood, after the characters made infamous by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and collectively known as The Blues Brothers. (Otherwise the levity is kept to a minimum.) By the time the excursion started in August 2001, the two small gadgets, attached to two Russian Academy of Sciences submersibles by lengthy, but lightweight, fiber-optic cabling, could maneuver through some of the more inaccessible areas of the ship. The remote controls were handled by drivers in the two mini-subs (one with Paxton, a nagging observer) that would spend long days several miles below the ocean's surface, scouting out the Titanic's hidden realm, including its elaborate dining room and extensive engine area.

Paxton's "role" merely adds a recognizable face. He's overanxious about the whole goings-on, whether scripted or not. Perhaps the first part of the film's tagline ("Unscripted. Groundbreaking. Historic.") is more a marketing disclaimer than a come-on, that you shouldn't expect much in the way of story. During purple-lipped Paxton's initial, annoying descent, he's constantly peppering the sub's Russian commander with concerns about oxygen, batteries, etc. Cameron would have been better off jettisoning this dialogue instead of the crew's carbon dioxide. At other extended moments throughout the hour, the camera watches Paxton from the ocean depth as the actor stares through the porthole in perpetual "gee whiz" awe. Consummate filmmaker that he is, Cameron could have tightened up the film considerably when Paxton's doing his thing, especially allowing for its short length. In contrast, the ghostly cast -- taken from the more than 1,500 passengers and crew who perished when the "unsinkable" sank -- travel through time and dimension as digital ghosts overlaying the rusting hulk and its CGI-restored original glory. Captain Edward Smith, White Star Line Managing Director J. Bruce Ismay (who occupied the ship's best suites), socialite Molly Brown, et al, appear translucently in relation to ongoing revisionist historical commentary based on discoveries show in the film. The only tension derives from a segment in which Jake rescue's a battery-drained Elwood from deep within the ocean liner.

Like its subject's fateful April voyage ninety-one years ago, Ghosts of the Abyss makes it about two-thirds of the way to its port before sinking.

Directed by:
James Cameron

Starring:
Bill Paxton

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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