(movie review done in 2003, discussing the 3-D IMAX theatrical version)
"Ghosts of the Abyss" is an ambitious, if flawed work from director James Cameron. I've always looked forward to any new effort from the "Titanic" director, and the idea of Cameron making an IMAX feature sounded intriguing. The movie does succeed in offering the viewer stunning 3-D images of the sunken ship, but there's still something uninvolving about the feature. "Ghosts" has Cameron inviting "Titanic" star Bill Paxton on an expedition to the Titanic at the bottom of the sea.
Much is made of the documentary's "unscripted" (for a movie that's supposed to be largely unscripted, why does it sound so written?) nature, but that isn't exactly a positive. After climbing into the mini-sub, Paxton makes much of whether or not the submarine is in proper working order. Somewhat entertaining for a moment, but what seems like several minutes are spent on Paxton's discussion of how much the batteries for the ship would cost.
On the subject of machines, there's also a sequence later in the picture where both of the team's ROV units (named Jake and Elwood, and also designed by Cameron's brother) get stuck inside the ship. The struggle seems to be more about how to turn this into drama than actually get the two robots out of the ship. Although the scene gets more interesting as it reaches its conclusion, it hits a nauseating snag when, after one camera has gone in, hooked and brought out of the other, "Just the Two of Us" actually plays on the soundtrack.
Once the crew finally reaches the ship, things start to get a tad better. The expressions of wonder by the crew aren't anything interesting ("Gee whiz, look at that! Amazing!" is heard a lot, as well as several other similar, obvious statements), but the visuals of the sunken ship are quite impressive. We get the occasional factoid about the ship and occasionally, even see some fascinating sights (a glass remains in place) and are able to marvel at how much of the ship still remains intact. Yet, I found it odd that, although we see how many scientists are joining Cameron and Paxton on this journey, we're never really introduced to any of them, nor do we hear from them much. There's a guy who nearly gets washed away as he's trying to secure the submarine in the middle of a storm. Who's he? We never find out.
Continuing the whole technology thing, Cameron remains too eager to showcase not only the technology at his fingertips for the expedition, but in post-production. Few moments go by during the film without some CGI people being inserted into the scene. Sometimes this works to enhance our understanding of the geography of the ship and how things occured during the night of the tragedy, but often, it seems overused. Picture-in-pictures of the crew also obscure some of the footage of the ship.
"Ghosts of the Abyss" is presented in IMAX 3-D, which is unfortunate. The film doesn't use 3-D particularly well, nor does the material suggest it was necessary. I've never particularly enjoyed the 3-D IMAX glasses - theaters never clean them, they're distractingly heavy or they're slipping down. The only IMAX feature I've ever seen that's used the format correctly is "Space Station" - that film didn't really throw anything at the audience, but simply used the 3-D format to add a remarkable sense of depth to the image.
"Ghosts of the Abyss" is very impressive at times, as the images from inside the ship are remarkable. However, the film is disappointingly uneven and unfocused - there are times when it seems too fascinated with the technology accompanying them on the journey than the journey itself. A handful of moments - shots of the crew playing around during a break, the ROV retreveal and others - could have been deleted and replaced with more description of the background of the scientists that've come along or of the ship itself. Either that, or the film could have been tightened down to a better-paced 40-45 minutes from 60. Additional still images of the building of the ship or glimpses at pieces of the ship that have been salvaged might have also been an interesting, non-flashy way to gain further insights into the ship's story.
Overall, this is a good film that may have been an even better film had it been streamlined and less reliant on technology to try and visually enhance a location that's fascinating enough as it is.
A light recommendation for those interested in the Titanic or for fans of Cameron's films.
The DVD edition of "Ghosts of the Abyss" provides both the 61-minute theatrical version of "Ghosts of the Abyss" and a new, 92-minute extended cut of the picture. The 92-minute cut adds three large sections to the movie, apparent in the chapter stops of the extended cut, which shows three more chapters than the theatrical version. This footage is mostly made of further exploration of the ship, including a fascinating discussion of some of the creatures who now make the Titanic their home. There's also some additional on-board footage, but it really doesn't give much insight into the scientists and other participants.
VIDEO: "Ghosts of the Abyss" is presented by Disney in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film is not 3-D here, as it was originally presented - this is noted in brief screens that appear before both versions of the movie. The THX-cerified presentation looks largely superb, with images that are thrillingly crisp and clear (the film was apparently shot with a custom-built digital video camera).
The presentation's only real issue that I spotted was a little bit of edge enhancement in a couple of the scenes on the ship. Otherwise, the presentation looked marvelous. There is some grain present in the underwater scenes, but this is an intentional element of the photography. Aside from a little grain, the rusty, shadowy interiors of the Titanic are portrayed smoothly by this transfer.
The bright colors of the on-board ship sequences and the more subdued tones of the underwater exploration sequences looked quite good on this transfer. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked accurate. Quite a fine effort.
SOUND: "Ghosts of the Abyss" is presented by Disney in Dolby Digital 5.1. This isn't a terribly aggressive audio experience, but it's still a very satisfying one. Surrounds kick in with waves splashing and underwater ambience. Subtle background sounds are often heard from the rear speakers, making for a more convincing and immersive experience. Audio quality is excellent, as score, dialogue and effects remained crystal clear.
EXTRAS: There really isn't much in the way of supplements included on the 2nd disc of the set, which houses the supplements. A series of featurettes focusing on the journey under the ocean and on Paxton's hesitation on going into the underwater vehicles. "MIR Experience" is 8-1/2 minutes of multi-angle footage. Some sneak previews for other Disney titles can be found on the first DVD.
Final Thoughts: I actually enjoyed "Ghosts of the Abyss" more on the small screen than in the IMAX theater, where I thought the 3-D aspect was entirely unnecessary. Some aspects of the movie still bother me, but there are still several great surprises and haunting moments during the exploration of the ship.