Ghosts of the Abyss (2003)

2003-04-11 (Limited release)

Much of the planet spent 1997 haunted by Titanic, the highly acclaimed and even higher grossing blockbuster of that year. And James Cameron was in full flush, riding right along side Leo on the bow of that ship, shouting, “I’m the kind of the world!” and calling for hubris-laced silences (“In remembrance of the victims”) at the Oscars.

Now, after five years of mostly silence (aside from his efforts producing and directing TV’s Dark Angel), Cameron is back, with Ghosts of the Abyss, a documentary about the Titanic, still sunk more than 2 miles below the surface of the North Atlantic. It’s also about the expedition to make the documentary, highlighting the crew, scientists, and new technology as well as the big ship.

Armed with 3D technology and IMAX cameras, Cameron shot more than 900 hours of footage of the wreckage, creating the most complete archive available for future generations. This is important work, especially since the Titanic is slowing dissolving under the sea. Thanks to the advanced Remote Operated Vehicles (computer operated mini-cameras nicknamed “Jake” and “Elwood”), Cameron is able to explore Titanic more thoroughly than ever before.

“There’s no way to think of [Titanic] but as a human tragedy,” says Cameron. “It’s a very large canvas, but there’s an amazing human connection.” The project is two-fold: document the ship before it succumbs to rusticles (microorganisms eating it layer by layer) and personalize it by drawing out the human dimensions of its demise. Cameron augments the footage with superimposed photos and recreations to show what the passengers and crew might have been doing in various parts of the ship. The 3D and IMAX technology, as Cameron asserts, “puts the audience right on the bridge,” inviting viewers to “experience” the tragedy in some strangely intimate way.

Narrator Bill Paxton frequently observes how “awesome” it is to be so close to the wreckage, and expresses understandable apprehension about being over two miles below the surface in a mini-submarine. But his voiceover sounds overwritten, despite the film’s claim to be “unscripted,” as he breathlessly says things like, “That is history right there” and “You approach it with incredible reverence.” He tends to use the word “ethereal” to describe everything from the wreckage to sea spray to Titanic’s history. Rather than establishing a connection with the audience, Paxton’s banal banter and overacting alienate us, as we try to ignore him and focus on the live-action images of Titanic.

Despite Cameron’s efforts to place his audience on Titanic’s bridge (both at the bottom of the sea and during the disaster), the film is surprisingly flat. The 3D technology produces a slightly out of focus image, which tends to pull the audience out of the experience rather than submerge them in it. The footage of the ship is breathtaking, but it doesn’t appear very often and is too often obscured by picture-in-pictures of the crew. In addition, the superimposed still photos and recreations, like Paxton’s narration, don’t provide an emotional frame for appreciating Cameron’s grand notion of the ship’s legacy. Instead, they seem rather transparent attempts at sentimentalism, rendering Titanic’s history trivial rather than, as Paxton insists, “The thing that you try to measure yourself against.”

One attempt at context is a reference to 9-11, as Cameron and his crew muse on dubious parallels between the tragedies. Paxton’s suggestion that “This project didn’t seem so important anymore,” throws this film into some relief. Also troubling is Cameron’s tendency to use plot devices more suited to fiction films, such as foreshadowings of events that don’t happen: Paxton’s preoccupation with the sub’s oxygen system might seem ominous (will it fail later?), but just turns out to be inconsequential.

Here and elsewhere, Cameron gestures toward a movie that doesn’t exist, a fantastic saga with Paxton as protagonist. In another awkward moment that prompted audible groans from the audience attending with me, one ROV “rescues” another to the tune of “Just the Two of Us.” The empty foreshadowing and campy “Number 5 is alive” routine don’t keep with the reverent tone that Cameron seems to be trying to create with regard to his subject or his project.

The movie tries to convince us that Titanic is a monumental event and artifact to be treated with due seriousness. However, the experience doesn’t feel serious, as the novelty of the 3D IMAX technology wears off quickly, turning into a kind of cinematic party trick. Cameron’s enthusiasm is not to be denied, but Ghosts of the Abyss isn’t emotionally engaging or even all that interesting.