In 1997, director James Cameron's Titanic took the world by storm, becoming the biggest hit in the history of movies. 2003 sees Cameron visiting the doomed ocean liner once again, this time with Ghosts of the Abyss, a lavish one-hour documentary shot on giant stock for the six-story IMAX screen, in 3D, no less.
Accompanied by Titanic actor Bill Paxton and a team of historic and marine experts, Cameron returns for an exploration of the wreckage of the luxury ship that took its one and only voyage over 90 years ago. Using technology developed specifically for the expedition, Cameron and company go places that no previous team was able to reach.
And the director pulls a few tricks out of his sleeves to make the trip even more vivid. When making Titanic, Cameron wisely realized the importance of working with his audience. During the opening sequence of the contemporary scenes that bookend the film, and later, during a conversation between one of the leads and a ship official, Cameron shows the viewer the layout of Titanic and makes sure we understand exactly what will happen to the ship once the process of sinking begins. As a result, when all hell breaks lose, we remain oriented. Instead of just watching action scenes, we know where we are in the ship and how it will go down.
Cameron uses the same tactics in Ghosts of the Abyss. Using computer graphics and overlays of ghostly figures, he keeps us oriented within the wreckage. Viewers remain aware of where they are within the ship, and the specifics of each room. This knowledge helps to keep the repeated underwater images of the Titanic wreckage from becoming dull. Well, mostly.
Despite his best efforts, Ghosts gets a bit repetitive after a while. Cameron juices up the proceedings further by turning the travels of two robotic cameras, dubbed Jake and Elwood, into a mini-adventure story within the documentary. Bill Paxton narrates and serves as audience surrogate, reacting in awe at the appropriate spots. He is effective for the most part, although there were moments when I questioned the claim that the film was unscripted.
For instance, while discussing the horribly mismanaged evacuation of the ship, Paxton states that "heroism and character will always be the domain of the individual, not the group." Now, take a few seconds and think about Bill Paxton, the "Aw, shucks!" wise guy who teamed up with Helen Hunt in Twister. Think of the way he presents himself, of how he speaks. Now tell me, does that sentence really sound like something that would spontaneously roll out of his mouth?
James Cameron remains in the background throughout the documentary. Thank goodness! The man is a highly skilled filmmaker, but public speaking is not one of his strengths. While accepting an Oscar for Titanic, he was vulgar beyond belief, first calling for a moment of silence in honor of the souls lost on the voyage, then ending the moment of silence by "spontaneously" (and unconvincingly) shouting, "I'm king of the world!" No, Jim, you were just the prince of tackiness.
By the way, for a truly scathing essay on Cameron and this expedition, go to http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/review/2003/04/11/ghosts_abyss/index_np.html and check out the Salon Magazine review of Ghosts by Charles Taylor. I disagree with the critic on several points, but love reading his well-expressed point of view.
One other qualm about the production. When Cameron, Paxton and company emerged from a session of underwater filming on Sept. 11, 2001, they were informed of the atrocities that had just occurred in America, and reacted the way that most of us did. Cameron includes this in the documentary and I wonder if that was wise. While it certainly adds extra drama to the film, the footage also jerks viewers away from subject of the documentary. That is, unless the subject is not the boat, but rather the folly of man. Is there a valid connection between the arrogance of launching an "unsinkable" ship with insufficient lifeboats and the arrogance of believing that your religion justifies suicide attacks on complete strangers? In addition to its stunning visuals, Ghosts of the Abyss gives you that to think about as well.