Aliens of the Deep
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // G // $29.99 // November 1, 2005
Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 29, 2005
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James Cameron has spent much of the past few years helming documentaries set deep in the ocean, examining the sunken wreckage of the Titanic and the Bismarck. His latest voyage combines the knowledge he's gleaned from his work on the likes of Ghosts of the Abyss with better-known science fiction outings such as Aliens and The Abyss. Aliens from the Deep explores the wonders of what nature has hidden in the furthest reaches of the ocean. These are areas never touched by sunlight, and as hostile and remote as they may be, numerous creatures have managed to adapt and thrive there. Cameron likens this environment to another world, not just because of its strange appearance or the necessity of an enormous amount of technology and scientific knowledge to venture there, but because what scientists learn here on Earth is likely to play an essential role in mankind's visits to other planets in the coming years.

I sought out Aliens of the Deep primarily for the fascinating imagery of the strange and wonderful creatures that exist in this far-removed environment, and the documentary delivers sights that even manage to astonish an astrobiologist, someone who's devoted a lifetime to imagining the sorts of creatures that may exist on other planets. One of the first they encounter may be the most memorable -- an ethereal being that looks something like a translucent scarf twisting in the wind. It's amazing to think a creature so wholly unlike anything I've ever seen before can even exist, but it's just the first of many oddities; others include a hideous fish with something resembling stubby feet and a malformed squid they dub 'Dumbo'. Aliens of the Deep casts a wider net than just photographing the creatures that reside
"How can something like that be alive?"
at these extreme depths, also taking the time to comment on the physical characteristics of the ocean floor, such as the chimney-like structures that belch hydrothermal fluid resembling black smoke at temperatures of hundreds of degrees. These chimneys are responsible for the chemical processes that are the basis for life at these depths, contributing to the theory that there may be life in the oceans believed to exist under the miles of ice on one of Jupiter's moons.

Aliens of the Deep is a documentary overflowing with compelling imagery and ideas. As the Disney logo and its G rating suggest, this is a documentary that's suited for a wide variety of ages, accessibly expressing its scientific theories concisely and without being mired in jargon. The sights it shows are deeply impressive, and it's quite something that these strange environments and bizarre creatures outclass anything Hollywood's special effects wizards have dreamt up.

As striking as that imagery may be, Aliens of the Deep isn't without its flaws. Even though this is a documentary with a clear central concept, there isn't a strong narrative connecting all of its different ideas together, leading to awkward transitions, a fair amount of repetition, and some sequences that drag on for too long. Even at 47 minutes, Aliens of the Deep strains to fill its allotted time, often returning to cover a concept that had already been discussed in some capacity or showing the same imagery of the venting chimneys and shrimp yet again. It alternates between narration and comments recorded live in the field, and although these spontaneous comments capture the excitement and enthusiasm of the scientists involved, they often seem too much in awe to say anything insightful. There are so many variations of "that's amazing" that their exclamations start to sound like the documentary equivalent of a laugh track, as if I couldn't figure out on my own that I'm supposed to be impressed with what I'm seeing. I could harp about the crew's outdated urban slang dictionary, with James Cameron saying that the expedition is "off the hook" and one of his scientists muttering "that is da bomb...hee-yeah", but the less said about that, the better. Having so many enthusiastic scientists contribute their voices and presence gives the documentary a human touch that many lack, but honestly, I was more interested in what was going on under the ocean than in the bubblecraft. I was also disappointed in the computer generated fantasy that closes the film, a clumsy, ill-conceived encounter with aliens under the moon of Europa. If you can gloss over its shortcomings, Aliens of the Deep documents some truly amazing sights, and it's certainly deserving of a rental.

This DVD includes two versions of the film -- the 47 minute cut that debuted in IMAX theaters earlier this year as well as a 99 minute extended version. In this age of Director's Cut DVDs, it's natural to assume that the extended cut is inherently the superior of the two, but don't think of it in terms of shorter and longer or better and worse. The theatrical version is faster and leaner, placing its emphasis more squarely on the exploration and getting the team into the water fairly quickly. The extended cut is almost like having a deleted scenes gallery and a making-of documentary incorporated into the film, spending more time fleshing out the scale of the expedition and more heavily delving into the logistics and talent involved. Nearly every segment in Aliens of the Deep is extended, and there are several scenes unique to the lengthier cut. One documents a catastrophe that nearly derails one leg of the expedition and is overcome by sheer will and determination. Others have a more deeply scientific bent -- how the skills and technology used to venture to the deepest corners of the ocean could be applied to a future expedition on Mars in the search for life there and what the likelihood may be of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe. I was primarily interested in the glimpses of this unique underwater world that Aliens of the Deep offers, so the theatrical cut was more to my tastes, and it's also the more accessible of the two for younger viewers. Those who crave more scientific details and would like to know more of what goes into assembling this sort of operation would be better served by the extended cut.

Video: Aliens of the Deep's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video approaches perfection, boasting a richly saturated palette and razor-sharp clarity. As the documentary was primarily shot on high-definition video, none of the flaws associated with film-based transfers are present, and I didn't spot any authoring concerns throughout the entire length of the movie either. This is a gorgeous movie, one that I'm looking forward to giving a second look when the next-generation high-def formats roll around. It may be worth noting that the documentary isn't presented in 3-D as it was during its IMAX run, but it's hard to find anything disappointing about the way Aliens of the Deep looks on DVD.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (448Kbps) is clean and clear, boasting an impressive amount of bass without the music or sound effects overwhelming the narration and scientific observations. The mix is more heavily weighted towards the front channels, reserving the surrounds primarily for the roar of the ocean, reinforcement of the score, and assorted ambient sounds. This is undoubtedly one of the more impressive documentary soundtracks I've heard. A French 5.1 track, encoded at the lower bitrate of 384Kbps, is also provided. The DVD is closed captioned and offers subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Supplements: Aside from the inclusion of an extended version of the film, there are no extras. The closest Aliens of the Deep comes is a gallery of "sneak peeks" for other Disney releases. The DVD includes a set of 16x9 animated menus, and the chapter stops for both versions of the movie are listed on an insert tucked inside the keepcase.

Conclusion: Aliens of the Deep is too uneven to warrant its $29.95 price tag, but the truly spectacular visuals it documents make this DVD well-worth a rental.


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