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" A woman’s heart is an ocean of secrets "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

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James Cameron obviously never saw the bumper sticker that said “The Boat Sank. Get Over It.” Or if he did, he chose to ignore it. As if the unprecedented success of his feature Titanic were not enough, he decided to go back to the site of the disaster to film his documentary Ghosts of the Abyss. Fortunately, he keeps his ego in check in the midst of this bold expedition.

Originally shot in a 3D IMAX format, Ghosts uses the latest in deep sea diving equipment, some of it developed by Cameron’s brother Mike. Along for the ride is Bill Paxton, a longtime Cameron collaborator who also starred in Titanic, to provide a familiar face among the many historians and engineers that comprised most of the expedition.

“There’s Water at The Bottom of The Ocean!”

Cameron returns to Titanic
Cameron returns to Titanic

The movie’s main purpose is to allow us to view the famous wreck as she lies 12,000 feet below the ocean’s surface and to see the toll more than 90 years has taken on the ship. Each mission to Titanic consists of two three-man MIR submersibles along with two small underwater robots nicknamed “Jake” and “Elwood” by the crew, and each trip takes more than 12 hours. Paxton keeps Ghosts from devolving into a Discovery Channel retread with his initial struggles to fight off an impending panic attack and his unending fascination to actually viewing the remains of the Titanic up close.

Undersea footage is shown with superimposed images of actors portraying members of the doomed ship’s passengers and crew, which would have looked better in 3D, but it still provides perspective as to what we are seeing underneath all that undersea growth. Some history is provided, such as the fact that this was going to be the last voyage for Titanic’s captain Edward Smith, who went down with the ship, and that the person responsible for removing many lifeboats from the ship was one of the survivors.

Cameron, also on the missions, keeps it methodical and technical. He lets himself become invisible among the other expedition members, most of whom we barely get to know. A few of them are formally introduced, but it is like going to a party and meeting a bunch of people you will never see again. Still, enough personality is present to keep the subject matter interesting.

Life’s Abyss, Then You Dive

Ghosts comes packaged as a two-disc set, but one wonders if a second disc was really necessary. The first disc has two versions of he movie: the original version shown in theaters, and an extended version with much of the big screen 3D trickery removed. The extra 30 minutes goes a little deeper into the history of the Titanic and includes a computer generated simulation of the fateful moment when the ship struck that infamous iceberg. It also shows some of the lighter moments of the expedition — for example, the crew spending their down time — which would have slowed down the movie while viewed in a theater.

Picture and Sound

Since the source is IMAX film stock, the picture is nothing less than extraordinary, but the extended version is better because the original version was intended to be shown on a screen three stories high. Many smaller pop-up windows are placed over the main action and are hard to follow on a small screen. This was remedied for the extended version by reducing much of that effect. The sound is adequate since there is nothing much more to hear other than the banter between crew members. After all, it is very quiet 12,000 feet under the sea.

DVD Extras

The only extras are a series of featurettes called “Reflections From the Deep” which are six shorts ranging from Paxton’s anxieties to the reaction of he crew to the events of September 11, 2001, which happened during the expedition. Half of the footage was also shown in the extended version, so very little new information can be found here.

Also included is “The Mir Experience” an interactive feature that allows you to choose among six different camera angles while the various craft explore the Titanic’s Grand Ballroom. This would have been much more interesting if this were more than eight minutes long, but it does allow viewers to use a much underrated feature seldom found on DVDs today.

“I’m Still King of the World”

What could have been a huge Cameron vanity project comes across instead as an interesting look at what is left from one of the defining moments of the 20th century.