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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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It’s hard to go wrong with Ghosts of the Abyss, the latest film from James Cameron. It’s a documentary about his return expedition to the Titanic, including several descents in submersibles to the wreck itself. Cameron filmed the wreck once before (for Titanic). At about the same time an IMAX crew filmed it for Titanica. Now, Cameron tops them all by shooting in 3-D IMAX.

Marvelous Footage

Cameron returns to Titanic
Cameron returns to Titanic

Long-time Cameron collaborator Bill Paxton gets to go down to the sunken wreck in a cramped submersible equipped with the latest photographic equipment. The other members of the team are scientists and historians, but Paxton stands in for the audience. In Contact, Jodie Foster said “They should’ve sent a poet.” In Ghosts of the Abyss we have a storyteller instead.

3-D or not, the footage is very interesting. Little bots fly into the Titanic and get pictures from the inside. They find china strewn away from the wreck, thrown out by its spinning descent. Carved wood has lasted nearly a century underwater. Pitchers, windows, equipment, and engines, all survived the 12,000-meter drop to the Atlantic’s bottom and are slowly being covered and eaten by rusticles and ghostly white crabs.

Ghosts of the Abyss also tells a human story, not just from Paxton’s perspective, but from the scientists and historians for whom this is work. They all have something to say about the impact of seeing such a haunted place on their souls. They marvel at the scope of the disaster, colored by accounts of the real-life tragedy, and wonder what they would have done in the same situation. The expedition took place during September 2001, so the events of the11th add a blue note to the already-minor chord of the movie. There is some comic relief in Ghosts of the Abyss, in the form of two little robotic cameras named Jake and Elwood, who explore where the submersibles can’t go.

They Should Have Sent a Poet

But Ghosts of the Abyss is not an unconditional success. I wondered how many times we would be asked to ponder “who was the last person to touch x?”, or which brass bed Molly Brown may have actually slept in. There are only so many artifacts we can see and ponder before they all begin to look the same, even in a concise 55 minutes. Also, Paxton is not a poet. He does offer a layman’s perspective, but he’s also aware of the camera, and he hams it up a bit too much.

It’s also fair to ask why so much money has been spent to visit the Titanic? They say it’s for scientific or historical reasons, but that doesn’t ring true, especially in light of everyone’s excitement at the technology and fascination with the last moments of the Titanic’s life. People go because they’re obsessed with disaster and they want to try out their new toys. Consider the”climactic” scene where Jake has been crippled (the battery died on one of the cameras) and a rescue mission is launched using Elwood and a miniature harpoon. Paxton explains that the camera is expensive to replace but also that Jake had become part of the crew. Science and history seem like afterthoughts in this mission.

Magic Eye

The 3-D effect works great, particularly in IMAX, which fills your field of view. The film uses a polarization system and special hard-plastic glasses. There were twitters of laughter as people began to get used to the novelty of seeing a 3-D movie. (Cameron even includes some historical stereograms taken of Titanic before she sailed.) I occasionally lost the image, had tears well up as my eyes adjusted to the trick. But eventually, I learned not to think about it and became immersed in the story.

3-D adds more than just a gimmick. It lets you feel the weight of the submersibles buffeted by waves, the battle scars on the Sony camera, the horrible texture of the borscht in the expedition ship’s galley; even the b.o. inside the cramped submersible with Paxton and one of the expedition pilots.

Ghosts of the Abyss is definitely worth a look. The expedition is truly exciting in and of itself. The fact that it’s the first 3-D IMAX in Colorado is just icing on the cake.