Disney // 2003 // 90 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 19th, 2012
You've seen the voyage, now experience the only movie to take you a trip deep inside the Titanic.
I have a strange perspective on Ghosts of the Abyss since my dad has been in the research submersible business most of my life. With nothing else to do one day, some of his colleagues did some quick cocktail-napkin calculations: the money used to fund a single launch of a NASA shuttle would have funded their research outfit for several hundred years working 24/7, 365. Because space is cooler than the ocean (at least in Congress' mind), that kind of money simply isn't available to study what's on the ocean's floor. Unless, of course, you're James Cameron. When that guy takes an interest in something, suddenly there are cubic dollars to spend. Of course, Cameron has long been interested in the sea (The Abyss), but it's the Titanic that seems to have really captured his imagination. Even after creating one of the highest-grossing films of all time Cameron couldn't leave well enough alone. So, with all his dollars he took some subs to give viewers a surprisingly intimate tour of the remains of the Titanic. Ghosts of the Abyss: 3D will appeal to fans of oceanic exploration and the lore of the Titanic.
Originally a 60-minute IMAX experience, Ghosts of the Abyss has been expanded to a 90-minute feature for home video. The basic structure is that we follow submarines with cameras as they explore as much of the Titanic as they can safely. Cameron gets Bill Paxton to return to narrate the experience. The footage was shot in 2000-2001, and the film also explores some of the challenges of capturing the footage (including a final dive on September 11th, 2001).
I'm jaded; I've spent most of my life around submersibles (including in them) and have seen more underwater footage than 99% of the people walking the planet right now. So, take it from me when I say that Ghosts of the Abyss is pretty neat. Eagle-eyed viewers of Avatar will have noticed just how much the flora and fauna in that film owe to the creatures that live under our oceans. When James Cameron cares that much about something, he goes the extra mile. The underwater footage here is pretty wonderful, offering new looks at what's going on down in the depths. Fans of historical archaeology (especially of the underwater variety) and the Titanic in particular will enjoy seeing these new perspectives.
Ghosts of the Abyss really uses Paxton as the "actor" for the adventure of uncovering more of the Titanic. He narrates the whole experience, and he's present for much of the diving so we experience the film. Paxton is obviously invested in the Titanic beyond his role in the film, so he's a perfect entry into the mysterious world of submarines and dangerous diving. Though he's a world-famous actor, he comes across here as just a regular Joe who has been lucky enough to be invited on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Ghosts of the Abyss 3D (Blu-ray) comes in a fairly spiffy three-disc set. Disc One is a 3D Blu-ray presentation of the original 60-minute feature. Disc Two is a Blu-ray that includes both the 60-minute theatrical and 90-minute extended version, and a DVD with both versions as well. The Blu-ray discs are unsurprisingly gorgeous to look at. Encoded with the AVC codec, these 1.78:1 transfers are gorgeous. The film was shot in native 3D, so those images add depth to the underwater footage; it feels less like a gimmick but hardly essential. The regular Blu-ray shows strong shadow detail and beautiful color saturation, especially in the blues. Detail is strong throughout, despite the difficulties in filming the image. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track included on both Blu-ray discs is impressively immersive. Not much happens underwater as far as sound is concerned, but the voiceover and documentary sound are well-balanced and appropriate.
Aside from the inclusion of the DVD copy (and the extended cut), extras start on the 2D Blu-ray disc. The main extra is a 30-minute behind-the-scenes documentary that combines footage of the production with interviews with the crew. It's an informative piece that demonstrates the lengths the crew sometimes had to go to get the footage. There's also a short video of Cameron getting pranked by the crew. It's pretty light overall, but the inclusion of the various versions on different discs plus the behind-the-scenes footage make this package feel complete.
I'm a little hesitant to unreservedly recommend Ghosts of the Abyss. I have the feeling that the 60-minute cut is a bit stronger. In the 90-minute version, there are some lovely extra moments, but also places where things slow down. Some of the reenactments are a little cheesy, and the attempts to sentimentalize what happened are kind of cheap. Of course, the Titanic sinking was a tragedy, and I think that the rusting hulk of a ship 10,000 feet below the surface is testimony enough. Paxton is also a weird narrator at some points. He's nervous about diving (which I get), but putting the focus so much on him feels like a cheap move at times.
Ghosts of the Abyss is a top-tier documentary that offers a scientific counterpart to the infamous sinking-ship drama. It's the kind of document that will be invaluable as the ship deteriorates in the next several decades and becomes less and less accessible even as our ocean-exploration technology gets more and more sophisticated. Beyond its historical value, though, the film is a beautifully shot look at an underwater world, and gives an interesting perspective on the sinking of the Titanic for fans of history. This three-disc set isn't the most bonus-laden package to hit the streets, but it offers a solid peek into how the film was shot and offers viewers multiple ways to view the film. It's worth a rental to fans of good documentaries, and worth a purchase to anyone interested in the Titanic and its current state underwater.
You know how it's going to end, but Ghosts of the Abyss is not
Review content copyright © 2012 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* 2D Version
* Theatrical Cut
* DVD Copy