Ghosts of the Abyss review by Mike Long

For someone who is typically very apathetic, I have a lot of pet-peeves. One of my biggest involves DVDs which are based on real-life events. These discs rarely carry a satisfactory extra feature which gives the viewer any concrete information on the true circumstances of the story. James Cameron has gone above-and-beyond in this sense, by making a documentary on the Titanic as a follow-up to his 1997 film of the same name. The documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss was originally shown in IMAX theaters and has now found its way to DVD.

In September, 2001, Cameron took a research team to dive to the wreckage of Titanic. Along for the ride was Titanic actor and long-time Cameron regular, Bill Paxton. Aboard a Russian research-vessel, Cameron and his team traveled to the site of the disaster and took two submersible vehicles (called MIRs) to the resting place of Titanic and explored the site using two robots (named Jake and Elwood) which could be used to view the interior of the ship. Ghosts of the Abyss captures the story of this exciting and risky journey, as Cameron and his team get a glimpse of parts of the ship which haven't been seen since 1912.

Although Ghosts of the Abyss comes from a master filmmaker (I mean, come on, the man made Aliens!), the film shows the shortcomings which are inherent in any film which records a particular event. While watching Ghosts of the Abyss, one can't help but be in awe of these courageous voyagers and the sites which they will/do behold. Cameron gives the film a bit of a narrative flow, and we get a sense of the anticipation as the crew prepares for the dive, and we vicariously experience the thrill/fear that the dive entails. And when the MIRs reach Titanic, Cameron does a good job of giving us many, many views of the ship. For added effect, ghostly images of actors portraying the passengers and crew of the ship are superimposed onto the wreckage. The film imparts a good deal of knowledge about Titanic and the disaster which took it to the bottom of the sea.

However, even James Cameron can't sustain the excitement in the film. After a while, all of the wreckage begins to look the same. Ghosts of the Abyss reaches its low-point in Chapter 10. I won't give anything away, but there is a technical malfunction during one of the dives. Cameron and his team have to race to solve the problem, or else they will be out thousands of dollars and the rest of the trip could be in jeopardy. The problem here is that the audience feels little of the tension that Cameron and his team did during this time. It's very difficult to relate to the emotions seen in the film during this chapter and the movie grinds to a halt. Something else to keep in mind is that Ghosts of the Abyss was made for an IMAX theater and was originally shown in 3-D. While the footage of the wreckage is very impressive here, when viewed in 2-D, even on a large TV, the film doesn't look all that different from the other Titanic documentaries which are out there. The DVD includes both the 60-minute theatrical version of Ghosts of the Abyss and a newly created 90-minute cut. I recommend the 60-minute version, as the 90-minute cut only contains a few more shots of the ship, while it is padded out with interviews and footage of the crew. The best part of Ghosts of the Abyss is Bill Paxton. While on his first dive, this veteran actor is clearly terrified and most audience members will identify with his anxious questions. There's no denying the fact that Cameron and his team had a great adventure while making Ghosts of the Abyss, and the movie contains some wondrous sights. But, don't expect to be riveted to the screen for the duration of the movie, as it has difficulty staying afloat at times.

Ghosts of the Abyss sinks onto DVD courtesy of Disney DVD. The film (both versions) has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks very good for the most part and never shows the grain which used to always arise in films which had been converted from 3-D to 2-D. (Have you even seen the grain in Jaws 3 when it's shown on TV? Yikes!) However, there are some moments of very noticeable artifacting here, where the flesh-tones will take on a very waxy look. The shots of the open ocean look very good and provide a very deep depth of field. Likewise, the underwater footage is fine and is never too dark. The colors are good and the edge-enhancement is kept to a minimum. This THX-certified DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and music reproduction. The stereo, surround, and subwoofer effects are all discreet, but very good, and truly help to enhance the "you are there" feeling of the film.

The DVD contains 2 extras, both of which are found on the second disc of this 2 DVD set. "Refelctions From the Deep" (31 minutes) is a collection of brief vignettes which provide further footage and background information from the dive. The best part of this featurette is the explanation of why and how Cameron used the ghostly images over the wreckage footage. While watching these scenes, which clearly used new elements, I couldn't help but wonder, "Why didn't they simply use footage from Titanic?" This segment explains why. The other extra is a 6-minute simulation which places the viewer inside the MIR as it's diving. The viewer can choose from 6 different cameras to view the exterior of the MIR as it heads for the bottom of the ocean.

6 out of 10 Jackasses

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