Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (2005)

10. Aliens of the Deep

“Ghosts of the Abyss” was theatrically released as an exclusive to 3-D IMAX theaters. Considering such a limited release, I have no idea if the movie was successful. Apparently, it worked out of James Cameron and Disney. The studio would fund Cameron’s next undersea documentary, which would also be released as an hour long short into IMAX 3-D auditoriums. “Aliens of the Deep” concludes the director’s trilogy of deep sea exploration documentaries. As opposed to the first two entries into the genre, this one isn’t about ship wrecks. Instead, Cameron expands his interest in the deep sea into a different, more far-out territory.

For the third time, James Cameron teams up with the Russian scientists behind the MIR submersibles. Instead of sticking their video cameras into some decaying ships, Cameron teams up with a group of young scientists to examine exotic deep sea life and the harsh environments that they live in. The scientists undergo the journey to prepare for hypothetical journeys to alien worlds and theorize about the strange life they may encounter there.

About five minutes into “Aliens of the Deep,” James Cameron steps in front of his own camera and provides his own voice-over narration. He mentions how, on his previous two documentaries, the accompanying scientists encouraged him to steer away from shipwrecks and just make a doc about deep sea life. This is, naturally, a brilliant idea, as the deep dark heart of the ocean is full of fascinating, terrifying things. “Aliens of the Deep” does talk about this for a while. However, its priorities switches soon. “Aliens of the Deep” is actually about using deep sea exploration to prepare scientists for exploring outer space. The movie makes the not-ridiculous assumption that the extreme depths of the sea are as intense a location as the surface of an alien world. Okay, this is interesting too, I guess. Yet I sort of wonder if the film would have been more focused on just the unbelievable environments and crazy creatures that live in the deepest, darkest parts of the seas.

“Aliens of the Deep” also concerns itself with some far-out sci-fi ideas. A scientist throws around the fact that water once existed on Mars. This extends to the theory that life might have existed on Mars. The film goes a little further, suggesting that an asteroid from Mars might have ended up on Earth. And with it, some extremophiles – the most enduring microscopic organisms – might have survived the fall. Perhaps leading to life on Earth? That’s a crazy idea. The movie acknowledges the difficulty and unlikelihood of alien life ever contacting us. However, it considers the theory that life might exist in the seas beneath the frozen surface of Europa. “Aliens of the Deep” even contains some CGI imagery of what such alien life might possibly look like. So the film extrapolates some odd, unexpected ideas from its primary place. It’s interesting but sometimes makes me wonder if the film strays too far from actually plausible science.

“Aliens of the Deep” is not only James Cameron’s third underwater documentary, it’s his third teaming with the same group of scientists and technicians. James’ brother Mike is in all three movies. Many of the same Russian scientists appear across all three docs. The robotic probes, nicknamed Jake and Elwood, are a constant presence. By now, I’m sort of glad to see them again. Like the previous two flicks, the film explores the difficulty and dangers of deep sea exploration. At one point, the lights go out inside Cameron’s submarine, bathing the crew in darkness deep within the ocean. At another time, a sub has to make an emergency escape to the surface, their battery running low. By now, it’s standard but it’s still fairly compelling stuff.

As always, the underwater footage is the most exciting thing about the film. The film spends a lot of time studying hydrothermal vents, better known as black smokers. These are hot plumes of smoke at the ocean’s surface, geothermal heat contrasting against the bone-cold chill of the deep seas. Cameron and his crew are fascinated by a cloud of white bacteria. At one point, a robotic hand sticks itself into the mossy depths of the sea bed, bringing some rocks and dirt to the surface with them.

The best parts are devoted to the weird animals that live at those depths, in those extreme environments. Early on, we see a funny grey fish with odd feelers on his bottom. A transparent cuttlefish with fluttering tentacles, that James Cameron calls a “Dumbo,” flaps by. A tiny, albino octopus seemingly shakes hands with the camera. Hordes of black-and-white shrimp horde around the smoke vents and a few attached themselves to the camera lens. There are crabs and mussels below, all thriving in the harshest environment imaginable. These are rare sights and its fascinating to see them, on-screen or anywhere else.

“Aliens of the Deep” is less dry then “Expedition: Bismarck” but not as exciting as “Ghosts of the Abyss.” Mostly because it lacks a centralizing protagonists, in the form of a friendly Bill Paxton. Instead, “Aliens of the Deep” follows a number of young scientists, going on an expedition like this for the first time. One such young lady is followed throughout, providing narration for many portions of the film. The writing is unusually cutesy, emphasizing how “cool” these event are and how fun it is for someone to take this journey. The film is a Disney production. Focusing on young people and using light-hearted dialogue or overly obvious character arcs makes “Aliens of the Deep” seem less sophisticated, and more kid-friendly and soft, then Cameron’s previous docs.

What’s the entertainment value of “Ghosts of the Abyss?” Being a science documentary instead of a historical one, the movie does not feature any hokey re-inactments or CGI recreations, which is nice. You will learn something, for sure, as the film goes deep into information about the ocean’s depths and how scientists are using this knowledge towards other goals. I suspect “Aliens of the Deep” has play in many high school science class. The movie even seems to target that audience, with its youth-oriented tone. However, the movie is not as touching as “Ghosts of the Abyss.” The film is also a few minutes longer then that one and noticeably drags at times.

“Aliens of the Deep” was co-directed by Steven Quale, a frequent production assistant and second unit director on Cameron’s other films. Weirdly, Quale has not made another documentary. Instead, he’s made low-brow 3D flicks like (the awesome) “Final Destination 5” or (last year’s already forgotten) “Into the Storm.” James Cameron has continued to be associated with documentaries since “Aliens of the Deep.” He executive produced the controversial archeology doc “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” and contributed voice-over work to the similarly themed “Exodus Decoded.” Cameron hasn’t sworn off his creepy obsession with the ocean. He piloted a tiny submarine to the bottom of the Marianna Trench in 2012. Someone else made a movie for that one, which suggest to me that Jim’s vacation in documentary-land is over for now. It was an interesting trip but I’m okay with it concluding. [Grade: B-]

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