Judge George Hatch takes an in-depth look at James Cameron's Titanic documentary.
Our review of Ghosts of the Abyss 3D (Blu-ray), published September 19th, 2012, is also available.
"You've seen the voyage, now experience the only movie to take you on a trip deep inside the Titanic."—advertising tagline
Even with 30 minutes of additional footage, can the "significantly modified and reformatted" 2D version of James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss, originally screened in IMAX 3D, survive the transition to home video? It is worthy of a two-disc release, or should the whole package be deep-sixed to Davey Jones's Locker?
Facts of the Case
I've seen almost a dozen films in IMAX-3D, including Howard Hall's meditative Into the Deep, Stephen Low's historically informative Across the Sea of Time, and Jean-Jacques Annaud's Wings of Courage, the first to incorporate a storyline.
These three titles are singled out because in one of the sparse extras, Cameron states his intention was to make Ghosts of the Abyss more than a "conventional documentary, and use the wreck as a doorway to history…" He blends the best elements of these earlier films with his personal vision and the exhaustive research compiled for his meticulous recreation of the event, Titanic, producing and directing what I consider to be the most unique and visually impressive historical document of this tragedy.
Cramped into two mini-submarines capable of withstanding 12,500 feet of water pressure, and using two specifically designed and equipped underwater "bots" (nicknamed Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers), Cameron himself in MIR 1 and actor Bill Paxton in MIR 2 probe the insides of the sunken vessel with astonishing detail. A Renault that had been secured in the cargo area is almost indistinguishable, yet stacked chinaware in the pantry has somehow remained intact while the wooden cabinet supporting it has since disintegrated. We're shown what's left of the ship's luxurious dining room and the barely-livable quarters of coal-stokers (thanks for the water fountain!) whose dedication to their job kept the ship afloat as long as possible and provided the energy for the continued telegraphed SOS cries for help.
It's into this environment that Cameron brilliantly inserts his "ghosts," actors in period costumes who first appear in the wreckage, which is then digitally transformed into that area of the ship as it originally looked. We see the specters of John Jacob Astor and his wife in the dining room, Captain Smith and his crew roaming the decks, Molly Brown (yes, the "unsinkable" one), and a host of others. Occasionally these apparitions lose their transparency and become "full-blooded" in order to recreate some of the more personal dramas of the calamity.
This is one of the best edited films I've seen, not only for handling of the ghosts but for the use of computer-generated images counter pointing old news footage and still sepia stereographs in which a few people may even turn into color and start moving about; all of this is further integrated into the adventure of the expedition itself.
Ghosts of the Abyss ironically loses some steam towards the end when too much time is devoted to rescuing the bots. Maybe this was to inject some action and suspense; sure, they're extremely expensive machines, but they take second place to the cost of 1,500 lives and the ship we've been exploring for over an hour.
Bill Paxton is the only real actor in the film and he's basically a proxy for the viewer, providing most of the narration as well. I've seen him on talk shows and he's usually one the more outspoken, uninhibited and genuinely funny guests, but he looks absolutely petrified in the opening scenes when MIR 2 is taking its initial dive, questioning his sub-mate about the accuracy of the pressure gauges, the oxygen level, and voicing concern when he thinks ships battery "doesn't sound right" and is losing power. A few of the scientists sometimes look like they're trying to act, while Cameron himself is all business.
Joel McNeely's score is appropriately melancholy, and considering the title I feel compelled to say "haunting" as well, but I could have done without Lisa Torban's turgid song, "Darkness, Darkness." The cinematography by Vince Pace is genuinely astonishing, especially considering the conditions under which the film was shot, and the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer captures every color-saturated detail. That mind-boggling editing was done by the team of Ed W. Marsh, Sven Pape, and John Refoua.
There are three new chapters adding about 30 minutes to the extended version and some of this material is actually better than parts of the shorter film. "The Millionaire's Captain" fits in beautifully, providing more information about Smith and the Titanic in general. "Creatures of the Titanic" is more or less an extension of "Who Touched This Railing Last," an absolutely fascinating look at never-before-seen life on the ocean floor, and the living microscopic organisms that are still eating into the ship's steel, which as one scientist says, "are taking it back to nature." For some reason that line and the accompanying images always give me the creeps. "Life on the Keldysh," (the Russian ship that brings Cameron and crew to the North Atlantic) is inserted between these two chapters and not only breaks the mood but adds nothing to the documentary.
Both versions are on Disc One, but with so many stunning unseen visuals and more background information provided, it seems pointless to watch the shorter version, and you can always skip the "Keldysh" chapter.
Two extras totaling a whopping 40 minutes "fill out" the second disc. Reflections From the Deep runs a half-hour and is broken into several chapters. Echoes in Time is an absorbing but all-too-short explanation of how the digital elements of the film were conceived and developed, and frankly, I could have watched an hour's worth of these revelations. Zodiac Cowboys is a brief look at the Russian "wranglers" who hop on and secure the MIRs in the violent North Atlantic waters in order to haul them back to the Keldysh. These are pretty ballsy guys for taking on such a dangerous mission, and their few scenes in the film are more action-packed than the entire rescue of the bots. Paxton Under Pressure, The Saga of Jake and Elwood, and Keldysh Home Movies are not all that interesting, and The Unthinkable is about the crew's reaction to 9/11. The trip started on August 20, 2001, and toward the end of the film one scene looks like a calculated "afterthought" as someone points out that it's "6:16AM September 11, 2001"
The other extra, The MIR Experience, gives viewers the option of watching certain scenes from six different angles. This "multi-angle" gimmick has been better handled before as an extra on M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, among others, and as an entire film in Max Allan Collins's Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market.
The Big Question: Does the IMAX 3D Ghosts of the Abyss look as good in 2D on your home TV? Well, of course not, especially when a savvy director like Cameron knows how to use 3D to its best advantage by keeping the "effect" within the frame. If an anchor comes flying at you, it has to almost hit you in the face before it drops out of the frame, otherwise the illusion is lost. But Ghosts of the Abyss is such an awe-inspiring accomplishment it more than holds its own on this DVD release. Some scenes, in fact, still retain their emotional impact, as when the Titanic is seen in the distance and suddenly hundreds of black-and-white and sepia portraits of those who died fly back and diminish toward the sinking ship, powerfully concentrating just how many lives were lost into just a few seconds of screen time. I replayed this particular scene several times, almost overwhelmed by grief for the victims while being elated by Cameron's talent as a director and his intuitive knack for grabbing a viewer and wringing his guts out—even in 2D.
Somewhere down the line, I'm sure there's going to be a re-release of Titanic and the 90-minute version of Ghosts of the Abyss will be the bonus second disc. That's a Special Edition worth waiting for. In the meantime, if you're Titanic-obsessed—or just appreciate an outstanding documentary with a unique and off-the-wall approach—$29.99 may sound pretty steep, but Ghosts. goes pretty deep, and I'm sure you can find it discounted.
Director James Cameron is found not guilty and is free to extend his "King of the World" domain to include "King of the Deep" as well.
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