A few years after the success of James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, he and actor Bill Paxton returned to the subject matter a second time with the documentary Ghosts Of The Abyss, shot in 2001 and released in 2003. The premise this time is a very different one - to use the latest in submarine and video technology to explore the outside and, whenever and wherever possible, the inside of the wreck of the actual Titanic itself. Given that the ship had been resting on the ocean floor for the better part of a century when this was shot, this would be no easy task and the fact that it lay over twelve thousand feet down certainly wouldn't make this any easier. Cameron, however, was obviously quite driving, his enthusiasm and fascination with the subject matter (not to mention his deep pockets) allowing him to spearhead this expedition with the help of some Russian submarine crews and other researchers and historians.
Paxton basically serves as our narrator here, or our host if you will. When the film begins we catch up with him as he's boarding the Russian ship that will take he and Cameron and the rest of the crew out into the middle of the ocean for the dives. From there we learn a bit about the pair of two-man submarines that will be used and the lighting rig that will have to be hung above the wreck for this to work. Cameron goes in one sub with a Russian pilot, Paxton in the other, each small submersible ship carrying a small remote controlled mini-sub with a camera mounted to it for the express purposes of exploring the interior of the wreck, something that would be impossible to do otherwise. Despite the obvious hesitation and legitimate nervousness on the part of Paxton in some scenes, he is game for all of this and his enthusiasm becomes far more obvious once they reach their destination, as does ours as we're treated to some beautiful footage of the wreck of the ship that they said could not be sunk.
As the two mini-subs, which the crew dub Jake and Elwood, are launched, we then journey vicariously into the hull of the mammoth wreck, exploring different rooms and locations, from the engine room to the dining hall to what's left of the grand staircase to bedrooms that the researchers are almost certain belonged to various key passengers and crewmembers of her one and only voyage. As the narration keys us into the validity of this speculation, almost all of which seems to be based on schematics and diagrams and legitimate research, live action footage is laid over top of the wreck footage to create a ghost like effect. This allows the documentary to show us what the wreck looks like now but also to simultaneously show us what the ship would have looked like when she was in proper working condition.
The documentary ends with some input from Paxton wrapping up the dive, which ended on September 11, 2001 - and which then allows the filmmakers to make some astute observations as to the preventability of such grand disasters as the sinking of the Titanic and of course the attacks that would take place on the World Trade Center on that infamous day.
Released to theaters in 3-D and in a sixty-minute running time, the documentary has been flushed out to ninety minutes here for home video release and it does an interesting job not only of giving us what essentially amounts to a guided tour of one of the most amazing shipwrecks in the world but also of explaining why so many people are fascinated by the history of this ship and the disaster that would befall it. The movie makes the case that it is more than just the morbid curiosity inherent in humans but just as likely a legitimate want to know what it would have been like to have been on that boat, still one of the most luxurious sea vessels ever made. As such, we learn about the technology that made so many believe this ship could not be sunk and then learn how the iceberg hit in such a way as to overcome that technology - proving that nature remains a more powerful force than science. We also learn about the little touches that were put into place by the ship's designer to make it a more hospital environment not just for the passengers but for the crew as well. Of course, some time is also spent discussing the decision to carry only the minimum amount of lifeboats as required by the law of the day, something that would obviously turn out to be a horrible decision, and as this discussion occurs we also see what it would have been like to watch the ship sink the way that it did.
A tale not just of tragedy but of human bravery and extreme valor, the ship's story will remain forever a sad one but Ghosts Of The Abyss not only shows us what was sad about the ship but also, first hand, what was and is still remarkable about it. The end result is a fairly fascinating and frequently beautiful looking movie that allows us to experience through the camera something truly remarkable.
Ghosts Of The Abyss arrives on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D on the same disc. Without the required hardware, this review will discuss the Blu-ray version of the film, though it should be noted that the Blu-ray 3D disc contains only the sixty-minute version of the feature, not the ninety minute version and the standard Blu-ray version contains both versions.
Presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and framed at 1.78.1, Ghosts Of The Abyss looks.... well, it's all over the place depending on what cameras are being used and where the shooting is taking place. The footage shot above the water looks almost flawless, showing excellent clarity, definition and color reproduction and nice lifelike skin tones. Once we head below the surface of the ocean, things take a different turn. The footage shot from the two-man submarines used for the expedition generally fares quite well and shows very nice detail considering that there's a fair bit of silt and debris and what not in the water between the lens and the objects they're trying to capture. Color looks as good as you can expect given how deep below the surface they are and that the only light sources are the ones that they've been able to bring with them. Once we shift over to the remote control mini-subs - Jake and Elwood as they're called in the movie - clarity understandably drops and detail isn't as impressive but this is to be expected given that by necessity smaller cameras have to be used for these shots. Overall the good definitely outweighs the bad here and it's rare that we're not well aware that we're watching a high definition presentation as the movie plays out in front of us, but be aware that as the documentary progresses and as the smaller cameras travel inside the wreckage of the massive ship, quality does and will shift.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which comes with optional subtitles provided in English SDH and French, sounds very good. Scenes shot above the water show some great directional effects and channel separation, especially in scenes like the one where the crew are trying to rig up the two-man sub during some seriously intense waves. The score is spread out very effectively and helps to add atmosphere and tension to the documentary, while the narration and dialogue that takes place between the various participants is always clean and clear and easy to understand. There are no issues with any hiss or distortion and there's really nothing to complain about. Obviously there's more to take in during the scenes that take place on the larger ship - background and ambient noise is plentiful here - than on the scenes in the two-man subs but the mix really does a great job of helping to bring the movie to life.
There aren't a ton of extras here but there are a couple of goodies to be found hiding within the confines of the animated menus, the first of which is the half hour long featurette Reflections From The Deep which takes us behind the scenes of the documentary as it was being shot and which includes input from Cameron and Paxton as well as a few others. There's some nice footage from the dives included in here that didn't make it into the feature as well as some insight into how computer graphics were used to create the 'ghosts' that we see on the wreck in the movie as well. Aside from that, there's also a two minute clip called The Cheese Sandwich Prank which explains the mystery of why James Cameron needs to eat cheese sandwiches while diving. Aside from the Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D discs, this set also includes a standard definition DVD - all three discs fit inside a Blu-ray case which in turn fits nicely inside a slipcase with some keen lenticular cover art.
Ghosts Of The Abyss is a different kind of Titanic movie but a no less involving or gripping one than the picture for which its director is best known. Paxton's involvement gives the film an approachable 'every man' angle that makes it easier to relate to than it would have been had he not been on board, but the real reason to watch this is for the amazing footage of the wreck itself, something that very, very few of us will ever get to experience in real life. Additionally, we get some interesting insight into the real life events that caused the wreck in the first place and a look into some of the technology used on the shoot. Disney's Blu-ray looks and sounds very good, all things considered, and despite the fact that the disc isn't loaded with extras, this release still comes highly recommended simply because it's as interesting as it is involving.
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.