Mark Reviews Movies


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Cameron

MPAA Rating: G

Running Time: 0:59

Release Date: 4/11/03 (limited (IMAX theaters))

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The IMAX format is best known for educational films and as a staple of field trips and vacations. Recently, the screens are being used to show mainstream releases for those that believe bigger is better, but otherwise, flying tours of canyons, climbs up towering mountains, and adventures in the sea shown in 3-D are the norm. So it is with Ghosts of the Abyss, a documentary about a 2001 expedition to the Titanic, except there is distinction to this project. It is directed by James Cameron and has the backing of Disney. Cameron is forever associated with the fateful ship, and I think it's time he moved on. This voyage to the bottom of the North Atlantic is important for recovering more information and video documentation on Titanic, but Cameron could probably fare better if he left the ship behind for good—at least in terms of his filmmaking ventures. For the hours upon hours of footage that I understand the crew got while making this movie, it's surprising how sparse the footage of the Titanic is. Don't get me wrong; what is there is fascinating and, most likely, important stuff. There just should be more of it.

Instead, we're given extended scenes of Cameron and his crew preparing for the launch and narrator/travel guide Bill Paxton getting nervous and waxing philosophical on the implications of the expedition. Cameron makes a point early on that this movie will be unscripted (as if that's something new to documentaries), but one can't help think that Paxton wrote his journal entry the day before going to Titanic for the first time in consideration of reciting it along with a shot of the sun setting. Paxton is an unfortunate choice for an audience focal point, and it might not have been so detrimental if Cameron didn't rely on him so much for observation. The preparation goes on for a long time and includes the obligatory moments of playing into the 3-D clichés, such as having a giant claw reach out toward and a rope thrown at the camera. It's moments like these that we realize this IMAX technology is still pretty gimmicky and will most likely always be reserved for those questionable educational movies. Those glasses are a bit of a burden, too; they never seem to really be able to cover the entire scope of the giant screen, leaving some sections blurry from lack of enhancement and making certain effects (like the flipping photographs at the beginning) a strain.

Once Cameron finally gets to his crew's undersea odyssey, we're given the goods. The movie employs technology made specifically for this dive and includes two submersibles with cameras placed on all the important sides and two small robots that are able to precisely navigate through almost every nook and cranny of the wreckage. At first, the sites we see are fairly typical—wide perspectives of the outside of the ship—but then once those robots come into play, we see things that human eyes haven't seen in ninety years. Some of it is unrecognizable. The grand stairway is now simply a hole in the floor. To reconcile the effects of nature, Cameron overlays reality with dramatic recreation, giving us a sense of where we're at and what it may have looked like in its prime. As the journey moves inward, the robot cameras become picture-in-picture boxes, leading to a jumbled cacophony of images that doesn't suit their significance. The movie spends a decent amount of time exploring the ship, but eventually, it returns to life among the researchers. Even the ship footage eventually focuses on the effort to rescue one of the robots.

Ghosts of the Abyss is interesting enough and the spectacle of examining the remnants of one of the twentieth century's greatest tragedies on such a huge scale is worth something. I'm left less than satisfied with the end result, though, and believe that either a longer cut or the elimination of the above-water scenes in favor of more Titanic footage would have made a more enticing trip.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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