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Ghosts of the Abyss

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // PG // April 27, 2004
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted April 19, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The Movie

No stranger to success, director James Cameron has enjoyed massive popularity and acclaim during a career that has spanned over two decades. He has been at the helm of some of the most ambitious projects of recent memory, including Terminator 1 & 2, The Abyss, Aliens, and Titanic. The latter was his most recent big-screen outing, and his most commercially successful. Like it or not, Titanic (1997) was the largest blockbuster in cinematic history, and it undoubtedly had a profound impact on Cameron's career. Since then, he's generally stayed out of the public eye, having directed only a few projects for television (although he's served as producer on many occasion). Cameron would not return to film until 2003 with Ghosts of the Abyss, an epic underwater documentation of the Titanic wreckage. However, this was no ordinary film, but a larger-than-life 3-D IMAX production. This was truly an ambitious undertaking, and was produced more out of artistic fascination than commercial possibility.

Of course, the evidence of this is obvious: while IMAX is quite a spectacle to behold, it doesn't remotely compare to the number of screens available for traditional movie theaters. In other words, this had much more of a limited theatrical run than your typical blockbuster, and this commercial disadvantage can easily be seen in the box office numbers. The total domestic gross was roughly $15 million, and Ghosts of the Abyss never cracked the Top 10 during its theatrical run. Critically, though, it was more of a success, earning decent word-of-mouth and generally positive reviews.

Like most IMAX films, the running time is kept rather short, as Ghosts of the Abyss clocks in at about one hour (NOTE: this DVD also features an extended 90-minute version of the film, which will be covered shortly). However, the short running time is quickly eaten away, as this film is packed with great footage and memorable visuals. In fact, it's more of a traditional documentary than anything else; an underwater road trip of sorts. Taking part in this expedition is none other than James Cameron himself, who is aided by the appropriate team of technical and nautical experts. Also making a significant appearance is actor Bill Paxton, who plays the part of the audience; more than anything, he just seems lucky to be seeing these visuals firsthand. Obviously, the bulk of the documentary serves as a historical re-telling of the ship's unfortunate demise, although there's also some down time that shows the crew in lighter spirits.

As mentioned earlier, this release also features an extended version of the film, which adds roughly 30 minutes to the film's running time. This was a most welcome addition to the DVD, and should be of much interest to those who saw this during the IMAX theatrical run. On the disc itself, this new footage is showcased as three new chapters (which brings the total up to 15), including "The Millionaire's Cabin", "Life on The Keldysh", and "The Creatures of the Titanic". Overall, I found these new scenes to be very interesting, and they helped the movie to flow much more smoothly. Of course, the original theatrical version is also included on Disc 1.

On the whole, Ghosts of the Abyss provides an eye-opening experience for viewers of any age. However, this film is not without a few faults, which mainly fall within the boundaries of the film's pace and structure. For one, I'd have preferred a little less participation from Bill Paxton, who provides somewhat of an uneven performance as our 'tour guide'. More often than not, his overdone narratives and wide-eyed stares seem a little strained, and occasionally lead the film from traditional documentary into awkward drama. In short, the majority of this narrative doesn't add much to the emotional impact of the footage, and occasionally becomes distracting. Still, Ghosts of the Abyss remains fascinating from a visual standpoint, and could easily be considered a successful undertaking by James Cameron and the rest of the crew.

This new 2-disc release from Buena Vista is quite an interesting package, but it's not as striking a spectacle as the original IMAX presentation. For starters, the viewer is greeted with a somewhat disappointing warning before the film begins, and I paraphrase: "This film was originally shot in 3-D, and the presentation has been significantly modified for 2-D home viewing". Of course, I'm not expecting an attempt to retain the 3-D experience of IMAX, as it really can't be duplicated at home (even with a large-screen TV or projector). I really doubt that a cheap pair of 3-D glasses would really make a difference, either. While this undoubtedly lessens the visual impact of the film, Ghosts of the Abyss remains a fascinating look into the wreckage of the Titanic, and is really worth checking out. This release features a fantastic technical presentation, although the extras leave a little something to be desired. In any case, let's see how this one stacks up:

Quality Control Department

Video Presentation:

James Cameron is no slouch in creating great looking films, and Ghosts of the Abyss is no exception. In short, this is a beautifully-shot film, especially considering the harsh conditions and difficulty of the subject matter. Again, this was originally presented in 3-D in theaters, but this is not an option for home viewing. As it stands, the visual impact will be much more effective on a larger TV, but don't let that hold you back...even on a smaller setup, there's some stunning footage here. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Ghosts of the Abyss is clean, clear, and sharp. The black levels are generally rock-solid, and the subdued color palette is also represented well. In particular, footage that takes place above the ocean's surface is especially sharp and detailed. Alternately, a small portion of the underwater footage appears washed-out and grainy, but the shooting conditions must be taken into account. Overall, this is a great-looking disc that did an excellent job of capturing this reviewer's attention.

Audio Presentation:

Although the audio presentation is much more subtle in design, it's a perfectly understated presentation that is almost as impressive as the video. Presented in THX-Certified 5.1 Surround Sound, this unique undersea environment is brought to life in great detail. While the lengthy portions of dialogue keep the audio from being consistently enveloping, ambience and atmosphere are solid enough to keep your ears happy. Overall, this is a great technical presentation, as expected, from James Cameron and company.

Menu Design & Packaging:

The fantastic 3-D menu designs were fairly typical for the subject matter, and the navigation and layout were nice and simple. The packaging itself is also striking, and does a fairly nice job of represtenting the tone and purpose of the film. A chapter selection insert for both versions is included. Overall, this is a solid presentation, although it's not as "immersive" as the packaging would have you believe. Read on for more...

Bonus Features:

For a 2-disc set, Ghosts of the Abyss is surprisingly light on extras. I'm not sure if the two versions of the film on Disc 1 were presented separately or via seamless branching, but there's really no reason why this had to be a 2-disc set. First up is Reflections From The Deep (30 minutes), a collection of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew. While this was well-done and informative, it wasn't as exhaustive as it could have been. The second and final extra is the interactive MIR Experience (10 minutes), which is basically footage of a trip to the ocean's floor. The interesting catch here is a multi-angle option, which allows the viewer to select from five different camera angles during the trip. Unfortunately, that's all that we get here...not even an hour's worth of extras on a whole disc. Of course, the extra footage on Disc 1 is nice, but an audio commentary would have been awesome, not to mention some more historical-based extras...even some DVD-Rom material would have been a welcome inclusion. While the quality of these supplements is very good, you might walk away disappointed if you're expecting a 2-disc set full of extras.

Final Thoughts

Ghosts of the Abyss was a unique cinematic achievement, but its strengths were more evident on the big screen. Obviously, this makes the DVD a little less memorable for home viewing, but the technical presentation is still impressive on any level. While the bonus features were a little slim, they were well-produced and will please any fans of the film. Even so, this really shouldn't have been a 2-disc set, and the overall viewing experience suffers slightly from the material being spread too thin. In fact, it almost seems like an extended bonus feature for a future Special Edition release of Titanic itself. Still, this isn't a bad purchase for anyone interested in the subject matter, as the technical achievements and vision of the director are highly evident. Ghosts of the Abyss is a solid look at this most interesting piece of history. Despite a few flaws, the DVD release comes Recommended.

Other Links of Interest

The Official Site of the Titanic Historical Society
RMS Titanic, Inc. (Research and artifact information)
James Cameron filmography at IMDb

Randy Miller III is a part-time cartooning instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.
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