Dive into this week’s Disney In Depth, an exploration into the documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, cementing director James Cameron as a leader in the efforts to appreciate the misfortunate vessel known as Titanic. This is deep in more ways that one (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
This 2003 feature, released in IMAX 3D, finally pulls into port. Well, rather the Blu-ray 3D (and DVD) home release port. Narrated by and featuring actor Bill Paxton, best known for his roles in adventure films Apollo 13and Titanic, serves as the audience’s captain, so to speak, on Cameron’s mission to survey the whereabouts of the illustrious ship that submerged into the depths of the North Atlantic. Paxton, recruited by Cameron to join him on the expedition led by scientists, historians, and ocean explorers, boards the ship that will take him to the site of its sinking.
12,500 feet below the sea’s surface lies the resting site of the Titanic, and thanks to modern technology and this thrilling documentary, Paxton – and we audience members – are taken there. After being provided some exposition on the craft’s sudden demise, Paxton descends into the tight three-man submersible. Over the course of a series of dives taken in August and September 2001, the explorers discover rarely-seen findings marking this eerie liner.
The film nicely accomplishes showing a balance of mesmerizing scenes of the withered Titanic, as well as offering commentary on the subject matter. Though most individuals have a basic knowledge of the story, this documentary capably shares details and stories we can appreciate more through having the visual context of the sunken craft. “You approach it with incredible reverence,” says Paxton, in awe of what he sees first-hand. 3D animated renderings occasionally overlay the actual scene to better illustrate what Titanic resembled as it sailed the ocean. Interspersed with this amazing footage are fabricated scenes of passengers, appearing like ghosts to contextualize what they may have been engaging in on the ship. Some portions encourage an unintended laugh or two because of the initial silliness, but once the more dramatic aspects come to light, these reenactments hold some poignancy. Nothing is heavy-handed here, to the audience’s relief, and for younger viewers, nothing graphic emerges on the screen.
High-tech bots, affectionately named “Elwood” and “Jake,” explore the inner regions of the ship, whereas Paxton, Cameron, and company remain in submersibles outside Titanic. These bots take us toward regions we could only dream of visualizing, from the elevator shafts that carried travelers, to the boiler rooms where the crew toiled away hours on end. The explorers also experience somewhat of a disaster, when one of the bots suffers from low battery, so it’s up to the crew and Jake to save Elwood. Nobody could have predicted that to happen in the making of the documentary, but that real-life drama makes this journey even more compelling. In a case of harsh irony, the September 11 tragedy takes place during the making of this documentary, focused on a disaster that unfolded some 90 years prior. Earlier in the film, Paxton and the crew raise questions of how they would react to a catastrophe along the lines of the Titanic sinking. These moments elevate Ghosts of the Abyss from what could have been a run-of-the-mill exploration tale to a stimulating and moving experience. Certainly, they lift the film from some randomly-odd inclusions, like a scene focusing on Paxton needing to use the bathroom while in the submersible, and even the insertion of the song “Just the Two of Us” when the estranged bots “reunite.”
The stellar picture quality only adds more magnitude to Abyss, crystal clear in most underwater and ship-life scenes. Complementing the overall-strong visual performance is the rumbling roars of the ocean waves found in the stalwart sound. Joel McNeely’s peaceful musical score that evokes nostalgia and maritime life with the implementation of wind instrumentation – and even bagpipes – affix a yearning sea-faring touch to this marvelous film set in the tight regions of both the ship above water and inundated one below. His orchestration perfectly fits the amazement and overwhelming emotion one would associate with embarking on this voyage. Your eyes and ears will thank you for adding this first-rate entry to your Blu-ray collection.
This home release offers multiple versions of the film. Disc 1 holds the 3D experience, which is a welcomed touch if you own both a 3D television and 3D Blu-ray player. Disc 2 (Blu-ray) offers two formats: the theatrical 60-minute version, and the more in-depth extended cut. The lengthier version features three additional scenes, including those focusing on the lifestyle of the Keldysh crew members and the odd-looking creatures that inhabit the Titanic. Though watching these other clips is not essential to becoming fully-immersed in the experience, at least this option exists. Disc 3 contains the DVD version of the film.
The bonus features carry over from the original DVD, including a standard blooper reel called “The Cheese Sandwich Prank,” and a behind-the-scenes look at the doc, “Reflections of the Deep.” This main feature comprises of seven segments, totaling roughly 30 minutes, with each part exploring a different aspect of the production. “Echoes in Time” involves Cameron explaining the neat process of casting individuals who resembled their real-life human counterparts, superimposing those images on the backgrounds of the ship. “Paxton Under Pressure” shows a blow-by-blow of Paxton’s nerves in boarding the submersible and taking this remarkable journey. “Zodiac Cowboys” highlights the daring engineers and pilots-in-training who hook cables to the submersibles, which lift them back up to the ship. “The Saga of Jake and Elwood” centers on the pair of ROVs’ development and the bold rescue mission to save Elwood. “The Unthinkable,” especially relevant just eleven years later, focuses on the team’s reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which transpired during the filming of the documentary. “Keldysh Home Movies” reminds viewers of each of the main crew members, and shows footage of them not wanting to be filmed. Though the “Reflections from the Deep” features are overall engaging, I was somewhat disappointed that they did not expand on or cover certain subjects, like what drew Cameron to creating this voyage and documentary. Maybe that’s for the “20th Anniversary Edition” of the film.
Ghosts of the Abyss helps remind you of the role documentaries serve in our society, to bestow education to viewers on a certain subject – perhaps to even entertain along the way. Though this James Cameron feature loses its steady framework because of the rare, drawn-out scene – more evident in the extended version – I was constantly connected to what was presented on screen. Few could have fathomed one century ago that the Titanic’s voyage would become an ill-fated one, and present day, I think few could have ever believed we would see its remains in all of its underwater beauty. The ship’s resonance holds forever, and in many ways seeing the Titanic in its submerged state makes Abyss linger in our minds, too.
Film: B+ Presentation: A- Bonus Features: C+
Overall Grade: B
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Check back into Disney In Depth next week for another edition of fun inside the world of Disney, and follow me on Twitter for alerts of upcoming editions.