Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 22, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (2002)

8. Expedition: Bismarck

After making the highest grossing movie of all time and crowning himself king of the world, James Cameron decided to take a break. His next project, a long-developing and R-rated version of “Spider-Man,” eventually circled out of Cameron’s hands amidst complex legal issues. His dream project, an adaptation of the manga “Battle Angel Alita,” was put to the side because special effects hadn’t caught up with Cameron’s imagination. Even this little script for some goofy sci-fi movie called “Avatar” was too ambitious for the day. Cameron, instead, turned his attention to other interests. While researching “Titanic,” he developed a love for deep-sea diving. The idea to make a documentary about another famous ship wreck, the German World War II battleship the Bismarck, came up. The film was co-directed by Gary Johnstone and would premier on the Discovery Channel.

In May of 1941, the Nazi battleship the Bismarck was sunk but not before terrorizing the British Navy and taking two British ships down as well. Sixty years later, the few survivors from both sides meet now as friends, to commiserate and consider the wages of war. At the same time, a expedition to the ocean floor, featuring Mr. James Cameron, explores the famous ship wreck. The scientist, historians, and filmmakers attempt to see where common knowledge, history, and physical evidence line up.

“Expedition: Bismarck” is, to be perfectly frank, dry. To World War II buffs, the movie is probably fascinating. Those of us with only a passing interest in the era are likely to be lulled into a peaceful slumber by the end of its run time. The movie goes over all the details of the Bismarck’s sinking. It discusses the competing theories about whether or not the ship was brought down by enemy fire or internal sabotage. We learn about the building of the war ship and the specifics of its armaments. Hey, did you know that the giant cannon torrents were not actually affixed to the ship and instead rested inside the hull? After watching “Expedition: Bismarck,” you will.

The exact historical details sound like they’re read out of a text book, even when delivered in Lance Henriksen’s gravelly baritone. The movie is most compelling when it focuses on the survivors, the men that were actually there. The German soldiers discuss what it was like growing up as Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany, how the dictator’s propaganda programmed little boys into willing soldiers. They talk about the time on the ship, of living in the military. Most touching is their reflections on war. They remember looking into the ocean, seeing men from the other side floating there, realizing they are not that different. Sometimes, the men discuss their experiences via talking head interviews. Other times, they are taken out to sea, their memories playing in voice-over. It’s during these moments that “Expedition: Bismarck” feels like its communicating with history in a thoughtful, interesting way.

“Expedition: Bismarck” was produced for the Discovery Channel. These days, Discovery and its’ sister networks like History, Animal Planet, and the network formally known as the Learning Channel are devoted to the absolute lowest-common-denominator “reality” shows, about pawn shops, made-up ghosts, and stupid redneck tricks. Back when “Expedition: Bismarck” was made, the network still broadcasted genuinely educational programs. Many of those shows featured cheesy re-enactments and CGI recreations of historical events. “Expedition: Bismarck” features these things too. I can’t imagine James Cameron was responsible for the re-enactments, as they feature bored looking actors in loose fitting period clothes, parading around cheap sets. The CGI re-creation, of how the Bismarck fell apart when it sank, were considered cutting edge at the time. They are mildly diverting but, as I previously mentioned, will probably be of the most interest to history buffs.

As a science documentary, “Expedition: Bismarck” is slightly more interesting. The film goes into the details of the trip to the ocean’s floor. While the submarine is descending, a counter in the corner of the screen shows us how much time has progress and how far they’ve traveled. It’s a simple thing but gives the viewer a good idea of what goes into an extensive journey like this. We also spend some time with the scientists and divers involved. We see technical work being performed on the small robot probe. One of my favorite bits is devoted to the guys who wrangle the hooks onto the submarines as they surface, riding the small ships like rodeo bulls. It’s not brought to life in an especially exciting fashion but it does make you appreciate how difficult something like this is.

People without the most in-depth interests in these things usually watch science documentaries to see weird or amazing things. “Expedition: Bismarck” does deliver images like these, though sparingly. When the cameras actually get to the wreck site, it’s a real sight to behold. The massive ship lies on its back, turned a sludgy brown color from years of rust. A memorable sight is the massive cannons of the boat, covered in colorful anemones. The remote-controlled robot swims into the bowels, which look like an alien world. They’re entirely covered with debris and settlement. Beneath sixty years of discolorations, one can see the faint outline of desks and lockers. The camera pauses over a lone boot or torn fabric, wondering if these are the final resting places of men. During these all-too-brief moments, “Expedition: Bismarck” presents us with things rarely seen by any man.

So does “Expedition: Bismarck” hold any interest as a James Cameron movie? Being a documentary, little of the director’s technique is visible. There’s no cool blues contrasted with burning reds or tough female characters, for example. Lance Henriksen’s voice-over narration is another sign Jim directed this. However, there is a certain novelty to seeing the director on-screen, pursuing interests other then aliens and killer robots from the future. His enthusiasm and excitement for history and deep sea exploration is visibly evident. Seeing the guy interact with scientists and the survivors of the original wreck is sort of fun. It doesn’t make watching the whole movie necessarily worth it but does add some extra value for fans of the filmmaker.

Most of the documentaries of this sort that used to air on the Discovery Channel were an hour long. “Expedition: Bismarck” is ninety-five minutes and was probably two hours when aired with commercials. The movie clearly did not have enough material to fill out this run time. The film seems to stall getting down to the actual Bismarck as long as possible. When we are seeing the scientist exercising or playing basketball, you know “Expedition: Bismarck” has run out of things to say. As an hour-long doc, the film probably would have been interesting and compelling. As a 90-minute feature, it seriously drags in spots.

So who is “Expedition: Bismarck” for? Casual movie-goers will probably be bored by it. Cameron enthusiasts will find little to be interested in, unless they’re also interested in ship wrecks or World War II. Devotees to those topics will probably think “Expedition: Bismarck” is great, if they don’t already know everything it offers. It will likely even test the patience of documentary fans. Cameron would return to the genre soon and do better work in it. [Grade: C]

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