Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (2003)

9. Ghosts of the Abyss

As previously established, James Cameron really likes the ocean. Lots. In his ten year vacation from narrative film making, he made a trilogy of documentaries, each one focused on submarines exploring deep into the ocean. The first of this trilogy was the underwhelming “Expedition: Bismarck.” That movie went straight to the Discovery Channel. The second doc Cameron made got a better presentation. “Ghosts of the Abyss” was originally released in an abbreviated hour long version that screened in Imax 3-D theaters. A longer version, the one reviewed here, became available on DVD. Maybe this wider release is due to “Ghosts of the Abyss” sharing a direct connection with Cameron’s most popular film at the time. The documentary is about the Titanic. The real one, the massive shipwreck moldering at the ocean’s floor.

After visiting the Titanic’s final resting place during production on his fictional movie, James Cameron became fascinated with the shipwreck. Teaming again with the same exploration team he made “Expedition: Bismarck” with, Cameron returns to the ship. Accompanying him on this voyage is Bill Paxton. As the team explores the eerie beauty of the wreck, they reflect on the ghosts of the past, the events that happened, and the unusual way they lined-up with the modern events.

The biggest difference between “Expedition: Bismarck” and “Ghosts of the Abyss” is that the later film has a protagonist. Jim talked his favorite actor, Bill Paxton, into coming on this journey with him. Paxton is an outsider in this scenario. This is his first deep sea dive. Bill Paxton is a lovable actor, with a charming down-to-Earth affability few other character actors have. He provides the audience an entry into the high science, historical world of “Ghosts of the Abyss.” His narration is funny. He addresses the real world concerns of such a voyage. You have to make up a will before going down because things can go wrong. After his first trip back to the surface, Paxton gets sea sick and throws up. Paxton’s wonder and astonishment at the sights he sees and the trip he takes is the same kind anyone in that situation would have. Paxton’s weird everyman status makes “Ghosts of the Abyss” a more entertaining and relatable film then Cameron’s previous documentary.

It doesn’t hurt that the Titanic is a more visually impressive shipwreck then the Bismarck. There’s something oddly beautiful about the vessel’s remains. The outside of the ship is ruined. Green moss covers the entire surface of the Titanic. Paxton compares the huge, rotten sterns of the ship to the Sphinx, sentries buried with age, watching over the remains of the ship. The film spends its entire first act exploring the outside of the Titanic. The submarine lights shine down on the surface, casting an eeriness but also a crystal clear quality. The wreck site is rift with memories, of lives lost and worlds ended. Yet there’s something beautiful about it as well. The movie provides worth by giving us real footage that few eyes have seen.

“Expedition: Bismarck” was badly hampered by TV quality reenactments. With “Ghosts of the Abyss,” we already know the history behind the event. If you’re watching this movie, you probably saw that other movie Cameron made about the same events. Yet for some reason, “Ghosts of the Abyss” does throw in some reenactments. This movie was produced by Disney, while “Titanic” was produced by Paramount. So Cameron probably couldn’t use footage from his own movie. Sometimes, the new footage is so similar to stuff from the other film, that you believe “Ghosts of the Abyss” is using scenes from “Titanic.” We have some not-as-impressive recreations of the Titanic in its glory days. Frequently, the film will fuse the two different types of footage together, which is intermittently effective.

“Ghosts of the Abyss” also spends more time with the science team behind the dive then Cameron’s other documentary. There’s a Titanic expert on the team. My favorite is the woman who is an expert on rusticles, the pillars of rust dangling from inside the ship. Hearing someone really invested in something that isn’t especially interesting somehow makes that topic interesting. In general, we see Cameron and Paxton interacting with the Russian crew of the research ship. One crew member chatters with the cook, discussing borsch. Later, one of the Russian scientist sings a song about surfacing from a deep dive. There’s an intense discussion among the entire team about the implications of the crash. It adds more personality to a film that easily could have been very dry.

When the cameras go inside the Titanic, “Ghosts of the Abyss” gains another benefit. The inside of the ship is surreal. The world is brown and rusted, pillars of debris hanging from the ceiling. An amazing amount of detail survives inside the wreck. There are windows that are still visible. The grand staircase is partially intact. Wooden dressers and chair remain. Cameron and his crew search for a car inside the bowels of the ship. The same car inspired the scene where Jack and Rose consummate their relationship in “Titanic.” The crew wonders whether or not if they're actually seeing a car among the piles of rubble. My favorite moment comes near the end, when a bottle of brandy remains intact in its spot. These are the true ghosts of the abyss, the strange, long gone memories of lives and things that happened decades before.

While watching “Ghosts of the Abyss,” I wondered how creative the editing got. There are crystal clear shots of people looking out windows, contrasted with the gritty footage of the actual wreck. It’s fairly clear that some of the things Paxton and Cameron say on set were probably scripted. Real things did happen that the film cleverly constructs into a climatic scene. The robotic probes go inside the ship when the one’s battery goes dead. Cameron attempts to pilot the second probe into the ship wreck to rescue the first one. There’s some complications, involving tangled cords. Two trips are involved. At one point, it looks like both probes might be lost. Considering the excellent footage of the Titanic we got, it’s obvious both the robots made it back to the surface. In the context of the movie, it’s very effective though and a clever way to create a climax for a non-fiction film.

In the final minutes of “Ghosts of the Abyss,” the movie throws a real curve ball at the audience that was unavoidable. The final days of filming the documentary coincides with September 11th, 2001. Suddenly, what the team is doing down there doesn’t seem as important anymore. Slowly, a parallel of some sort forms between the two tragedies. The movie doesn’t belabor the point, understanding that going any further would be tasteless. Cameron allows the audience to consider how sudden tragedy affects people and events reverberate through history to personally touch us.

“Ghost of the Abyss” is a pretty good documentary. The footage is incredible. The film allows the average viewer into its unique world with smart filmic devices. It’s easy to watch, interesting, and educational. The film wrings some unexpected pathos out of the situation. Going in, I wondered if “Ghosts of the Abyss” was going to be little more then a supplementary feature to Cameron’s “Titanic.” It definitely stands as its own movie, a strangely touching and visually gorgeous experience. [Grade: B]

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