Directed by Stephen Low and narrated by none other than Ed Harris, Volcanoes Of The Deep Sea, which was executive produced by James Cameron and funded in large part by Rutgers University, is a pretty impressive documentary. Filmed in 70mm IMAX format, the movie follows a team of geologists as the travel twelve thousand feet below the ocean's surface in search for a sample of a living fossil called a Paleodictyon Nodosum. Additionally, they're to attempt to document some of the massive volcanoes that operate on the ocean floor along a rift between the plates that make up the continents of Europe and North America.
The movie starts off by setting the stage, letting us get to know some of the crew who are going to be going down to the ocean floor in a high-tech submarine probe they dub ALVIN, before eventually cutting to the chase. A shot taken from a helicopter follows the boat out into the middle of the ocean, not a trace of land anywhere in sight, giving us a look at just how mammoth and intimidating it can all be. From there, our subjects start their dive, the cameras along for the ride while deft editing ensures we only really need to stick around for the good parts.
While the film gets a bit dry in spots, as the scientists explain just what exactly it is that they're doing and why they're doing it in the first place. Less scholarly types might even find some of the lingo thrown around a bit intimidating, and as such, some might find aspects of the feature straight up dull. That said, when the feature concentrates on showing us the goods and letting us soak in the alien worlds that populate the sea floor, it's pure gold. While the narration waxes poetically about various theories regarding everything from plate tectonics to the Big Bang, we're treated to an eye melting array of footage giving us up close and personal looks at creatures running the gamut from tube worms to giant crabs, and from eels to sea anemones. Many of those creatures live quite comfortably in water 'hot enough to melt iron' and have made interesting lives for themselves on or around the titular volcanoes that still remain very active (and are, as such, incredibly hot) just below the floor.
One rather quizzical aspect of the production, however, is that there's a rather obvious lack of focus given to the volcanoes. As we head deeper, passing octopuses and translucent jellyfish, we learn about the vent systems and the creatures but don't really get the full explanation on the volcanoes themselves - they're touched on, they're not so much the focus
Thankfully, there's enough stunning footage here that the documentary can still be enjoyed, even if it's likely going to be more for the visuals than for the scientific aspects of the production. Some goofy and completely unnecessary CGI insert shots stand out like a sore thumb but aren't messy enough to hurt the good stuff. Long tracking shots of the ocean floor formed by volcanic eruptions which occurred years ago have a lasting and haunting quality and look more like something you'd expect to see in a science fiction film than plausible reality. Equally amazing are the shots of pitch black smoke erupting underwater, something that shouldn't be possible but which obviously is. In the end it's footage like this that makes Volcanoes Of The Deep as captivating as it is. Michael Cussen's instrumental score compliments the alien imagery quite wonderfully. The narration and scientific meandering obviously give it all a context, but a lot of times you'll feel it's not really needed as this is one instance where the images definitely speak for themselves. Had the documentary been more focused and dealt more with what we're seeing on the camera rather than dealing with speculative theories and had it omitted the CGI, it could have been great. As it stands, it's still quite good, a testament to how remarkable some of the actual underwater footage really is.
Volcanoes Of The Deep Sea is presented in 1.78.1 VC-1 encoded 1080p and it looks pretty good even if it's not perfect. There are quite a few scenes that are just a bit soft looking and while this may be inherent in the source material, these instances are surrounded by remarkably crisp images resulting in a bit of an inconsistent transfer. That said, the good very definitely outweighs the bad here. From the opening shots of the geologist on the coast of Spain to the highlights of the presentation, the remarkable underwater footage, the image is generally very colorful and sharp. There aren't any mpeg compression artifacts to note nor is there any edge enhancement worth complaining about. A little bit of grain creeps in here and there but it's never distracting and hardly a detriment. All in all, a strong effort from Image in the visuals department.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is considerably more immersive than you might expect it to be. Waves periodically crash up around you, while the instrumental score swells up out of every channel in your sound system. Ed Harris' narration is crisp and always easy to understand while ambient and background noise adds a welcome subtlety to the presentation that makes it quite enjoyable to listen to. An alternate French language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also included.
There are two extras of substance included here, the first of which is a seventeen minute Behind The Scenes featurette that shows us just what it took for Stephan Low and his team to capture the images that we see in the feature presentation. It's an interesting look at what goes into planning and ultimately shooting an IMAX film of this scope. The second is Voyage Into The Abyss, which is a twenty-eight minute documentary about how the hypothermal vents that lay on the ocean floor affect everything around us. It's an interesting piece that ties together photosynthesis, plate tectonics, and more and also manages to give us further insight into how the footage seen in the feature was captured and, just as importantly, why it matters.
Rounding out the extras are an interactive trivia game, a text piece with some facts about the film, a text bio of director Stephen Low, credits for the University team that helped out on the project, and trailers for a dozen or so other Imax Blu-ray release. The disc is Blu-ray live enabled but at the time of this writing there wasn't much interactive content to scour through. Menus and chapter selection are also include on the disc. The trailers are in HD, the rest of the extras are in non-anamorphic standard definition.
While you can't help but wish that the feature had spent more time under water showcasing the truly remarkable, what's here is good. The documentary is as interesting as it is beautiful to look at and while it's definitely on the short side, the strong audio and video quality and smattering of supplements help to make up for that. Volcanoes Of The Deep is definitely recommended for nature and science documentary fans.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.