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James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge

Millennium Entertainment // PG // November 11, 2014
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted November 9, 2014 | E-mail the Author

Director James Cameron is no stranger to filmmaking and deep-sea exploration, which first intersected with The Abyss and Titanic and extended into pure non-fiction with later projects like Ghosts of the Abyss. Cameron originally considered himself a filmmaker first and explorer second, though his recent output suggests the opposite is now true. Deepsea Challenge is his latest undertaking and chronicles the development of the "Deepsea Challenger", a state-of-the-art deep-diving submersible designed to reach Earth's lowest known point: Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, which reaches a depth of over seven miles. Designed and built over the course of several years, the one-man craft would potentially be the first of its kind to reach Challenger Deep's surface and the fourth successful mission overall. The dive was finally attempted on March 26, 2012 after ten open-sea test runs and countless roadblocks.

Cameron is front and center almost every step of the way, whether he's speaking to the camera, providing voice-over narration during development overviews and flashbacks to his childhood (which are re-enacted entirely), or hunched inside the plummeting steel sphere. His personal comments occasionally intersect with footage of his wife and five children, who were no doubt just as excited, proud, and terrified of the risky mission and its potentially disastrous outcome. There are certainly moments of nail-biting suspense along the way...but Deepsea Challenge is largely an inspiring family affair, and will no doubt capture the imagination of young hopefuls in the same way Cameron was galvanized by Jacques Cousteau, Titanic's haunting mystery, and the 1960 Trieste mission. Those who prefer their documentaries more technically detailed and organic might be a little disappointed, but the film's mixture of jaw-dropping visuals and infectious enthusiasm more than make up for its slightly ironic surface-level structure.

Presented on Blu-ray by Millennium Entertainment, Deepsea Challenge also includes a DVD Copy and 3D playback if you've got the proper equipment. A stand-alone DVD is also available...but it's priced the same as this combo pack, so why bother? Thankfully, we're treated to a top-notch A/V presentation that captures its terrific sights and sounds perfectly, but the film's limited replay value is further hurt by a lack of substantial bonus features. Even so, this is a fascinating and suspenseful documentary worth watching, even if you're already familiar with the outcome.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Deepsea Challenge looks quite impressive from start to finish, especially considering the conditions under which most of it was shot. I'm guessing that portions were shot on traditional film but I spotted at least one RED digital camera along the way...but regardless of the equipment used, the end result is a consistently pleasing image that's been treated with care. Framed at its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Deepsea Challenge boasts terrific image detail, strong colors, defined textures and a distinct lack of digital issues like excessive noise reduction, edge enhancement, and compression artifacts. Some of the prep footage during the final dive looks a bit rough, but considering its rushed and one-take nature, these brief portions can be easily overlooked. On the whole, I can't imagine anyone being disappointed with how this Blu-ray looks. The included DVD also looks strong despite its technical limitations.

DISCLAIMER: The compressed screen captures featured in this review are resized and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.

The audio sounds great too, and properly conveys the weight and atmosphere of deep-sea exploration. Presented in DTS-HD 5-1 Master Audio (with an optional Dolby 2.0 mix, as well as a Spanish dub), there's plenty of excellent channel separation and strong LFE effects when the situation demands it. For the most part, though, this is a largely front-loaded affair with crisp dialogue, strong music cues and excellent dynamic range. It's kind of disappointing that the 2.0 track isn't lossless, but I'd imagine those with the proper equipment would choose the surround option anyway. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles have been included during the main feature, which are helpful.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The interface is smooth and simple, though a few warnings, logos and advertisements must be dealt with beforehand. This two-disc package is housed in a multi-hubbed keepcase; also included is a glossy slipcover and insert.

Bonus Features

Not too much, unfortunately, and it's here that Deepsea Challenge dips from an easily recommended keeper to a weekend curiosity. The only supplements are two extremely short Featurettes (6 minutes total); one is a promotional overview of the final dive before it occurs, and the other is a post-dive wrap up (with spoilers, of course). The Trailer is also included, as well as a few previews for other new releases from the company. Even though this film---and documentaries in general---usually serve as their own "behind-the-scenes extra", I'd have appreciated an audio commentary, deleted scenes, or just a more in-depth look at the vessel's development, for starters.

Final Thoughts

The only thing familiar about James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge is that, once again, it finds the director doing what he loves: exploring uncharted territory with a camera in tow. The film's passionate, personal approach translates well to the format, and its smooth pace builds suspense nicely as the final dive approaches. Aside from a bit of foul language, it's also suitable for the whole family. Participation from key team members is also valuable, but this is essentially a one-man show as expected. The film's technical pedigree is also top-notch, and this Blu-ray follows suit with a pitch-perfect A/V presentation. Unfortunately, the lack of substantial bonus features cuts the experience a little short, while the film's limited replay value doesn't make this a disc you'll reach for often. Deepsea Challenge is definitely worth a look, but the weekend should be more than enough time to take everything in. Rent It.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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