Ghosts of the Abyss

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 04/11/03 08:47:07

"Bill Paxton in 3-D! Do you need another reason?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

We’ve been waiting nearly six years for James Cameron to get off his born-filmmaking-butt and follow-up his historic Titanic. As the scrutiny of the most monetarily successful and Oscar-winning film in history reaches proportions as epic as the project itself, the last thing any of us wanted was for him to go back there. But that’s just what he’s done and he’s taken the IMAX cameras and Bill Paxton with him to create one of the definitive records of the crypt in which the great ship lies. Not that the actual footage we saw in Titanic was anything to shake a stick at, but the new dimensions provided by the giant IMAX screens, plus those enhanced by the 3-D glasses, put us right on deck.

In the summer of 2001, Cameron and his crew ventured out to document what remains of the great ship. The “rusticles” eroding Titanic’s steel will cause standing sections of the wreck to collpases within 20-30 years, so he felt a definitive record was owed for future generations. Paxton becomes our vessel for the experience, from the moment he arrives onboard to the genuine fear he feels about any possible complication that could compromise the trip to the bottom of the ocean. Paxton is a great host, asking all the questions that come into our heads and reacting with the awed eyes of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

With Cameron in one submersible and Paxton in the other, multiple trips bring us not just to the Titanic but on it and inside. Through still photographs, CGI recreations and newly-filmed live-action segments we get a kind of fill-in-the-blanks history of the story that Cameron wasn’t able to squeeze into his three-hour plus narrative. This includes a somewhat apologetic tone for making First Officer Murdoch one of the scapegoats for the disaster. Here, his heroic leadership comes into play for doing whatever he could to get people into the lifeboats.

The best moments of these journeys occur when the divers discover portions of the ship that still remain intact since its subsidence in 1912. Not the giant metal monstrosities but windows or a glass that remains upright in a stateroom. “Those glasses were normally stored upside-down, so we know that somebody pored a glass of water and set it there. Somebody was in that room,” says Cameron. And the words echo in our brains as ghostly images are superimposed over the actual locations that are explored.

The overriding question of such an expedition, however, is why exactly its necessary. In the evolving days of reality shows, there’s something a little disconcerting about people turning tragedy into a tourist attraction. How many times can we hear the words “creepy” and “spooky” used to describe the view? A moment of wince materializes as Cameron says its lucky that the glorious stairwell collapsed to grant easy access for the cameras. These two specially designed cameras (nicknamed Jake & Elwood) even take on a life of their own when one trip below is made specifically for a rescue mission when one of them breaks down. An extraordinary sequence to be sure that’s tainted by the choice to play “Just the Two of Us” by Bill Withers. To the film’s credit, they are backed into confronting such an issue when their filming coincides with an even greater tragedy. One that’s also become a recent tourist attraction.

Ghosts of the Abyss is still an extraordinary adventure that’s worth your attention. 99.9% of us will never get to take this excursion up close and personal and IMAX allows us weak-willed, non-celebrities to encounter it firsthand. Cameron’s association with the Titanic from hokey dialogue to “king of the world” silence-asking Oscar speeches will continue to be mocked. We even wait with belated anticipation for one of his famed tirades when things go wrong on the ship. No one can ridicule his passion for the subject though. 900 hours of footage was filmed for this project and between that passion and Paxton’s human touch, Jules Verne would be damn proud.

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