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Ghosts Of The Abyss

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rating: PG (For Thematic Elements)

Running Time: 61 minutes (Theatrical Edition)/91 Minutes (Extended Edition)

Starring: Bill Paxton, James Cameron

Directed by: James Cameron

 

Studio: Disney

Retail Price: $29.95

Features: Reflections From The Deep, The MIR Experience, Sneak Peeks, THX Optimizer

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (12 Scenes - Theatrical/15 Scenes - Extended), THX-Certified, Two-Disc Set

Released: April 27th, 2004

 

 

How does James Cameron, the man behind the global film phenonemon "Titanic" follow-up his Oscar-winning smash? Well... he makes another movie about the doomed ocean liner. But it's probably not what you think, as the "Ghosts Of The Abyss" is a slightly weird hybrid of a documentary (if you even want to call it that). Cameron, a long time Titanic buff who seems quite obsessed with the ocean (plenty of you have seen "The Abyss"), takes yet another trip down to the bottom of the ocean to view the wondered wreck that is Titanic. Only this time, Cameron films the voyage (with the latest in filmmaking technology) and invites actor and close friend Bill Paxton to go with him (who narrates the tale and is essentially the viewer's tour guide).

The film is supposed to focus on visiting the actual remains of the Titanic and give insight about the ship as well as what it was probably like that fateful night when the iceberg struck. The film occasionally alludes to "ghosts" of the ship, and to help bring us this perspective (because who needs imaginations!) there are actors playing crucial Titanic passengers. As someone describes an event that happened, often it is acted out for us. Also presented is some footage from Cameron's ficitional blockbuster and computer-generated layouts of certain rooms on the Titanic.

But there is also a focus on the actual process of filming the ship underwater and how Cameron and the crew decide to approach things. This may not sound terribly interesting, and in some ways may defeat the purpose of what the film is trying to teach. Though in an odd way, some of these portions do work. It's not just a showcase for new technology, but helps bring in perspective of the technical challenges and what the crew is doing, as well as how tricky things get and the importance of the journey.

Yet Cameron's filmed expedition becomes marred down in its dual personalities. Parts of the film work better than others, if in part because the narrative becomes irrelevant at times. The problem lies in that each focus the film takes end up floating, and that each of them can't be held down on its own. At points they do come together quite well, but it's not as much as I really hoped for and didn't do as much as I would have liked. The film's overall flow is pretty off.

Personally speaking, I found that the film works best when it strictly focuses on the Titanic. There is no denying how powerful and amazing the images are of the sunken ship. There is something to really take away from the footage, as it's pretty spellbinding and jawdropping. There's also the simple fact that billions of people will never make the voyage miles under the sea, so that this is as close as most, if not all of us, are going to get. As far as having actors acting out scenes that occured on the ship, I really didn't mind that at all since it's meant for context purposes. While you can probably hear these stories told about the ship elsewhere and in much greater detail, I still found them quite interesting. I'm sure there are some of you who've heard them all before, but I had no idea that there was some effort made to actually have more lifeboats on the ship but that idea was vetoed.

I do find some of the content presented in the movie questionable. How long are these expeditions supposed to take anyway and just how many trips were taken? Was it really that hard to get footage of the ship, or did they only decide to use a certain amount? Time really isn't covered so much, other than Paxton makes note of the date August 20th, 2001 and then... yep, a mention of 9/11 toward the end of the film and parallels are made between that tragedy and Titanic.

James Cameron doesn't appear too much in the movie, which is either something that's positive or makes no difference to you. Still, he knows his stuff and he's passionate (especially over two robots), and you'd think he may actually be some kind of ocean scientist. We don't get to know the crew too much other than job descriptions and some shots of them in action, which I thought was a shame. And then there's Paxton - I really enjoyed his presence here. Paxton comes across as a sweet everyman. You definitely see his excitement at certain times, as well as his uneasiness (I like peeing in private! I need to vomit! I miss my family!). Some of his narrations do sound contrived (read: scripted) but the man's a good actor, so not all of his words sound forced or akward.

A problem that I see with "Ghosts Of The Abyss" when viewed on home video is that nobody will be watching it on a really giant screen, and that this DVD is not in 3-D (the film was originally shown in a 3-D IMAX presentation). It's easy to call 3-D a distracting gimmick, but there was a point in showing it that way. It was to make the whole thing seem a little more real, as if you were right there and was able to touch the ship. Shrinking things down probably don't help either. Like the ship itself, the actual legend of the Titanic has grown to be larger than life and IMAX screens were meant to accompany that.

It's easy to call "Ghosts Of The Abyss" a vanity project because of Cameron's unruly obsession with the Titanic as well as his very involved access to visiting the ship. The film touches on a lot of interesting ideas, but it never goes entirely in-depth. You'll hear about the fascination with the Titanic nearly 90 years after it sunk and certain tales, but it may not be as educational as you think. The film is often vague, which the more you think about it, does become frustrating. If anything, the film is worth seeing for the intriguing footage of the sunken ship... even if it sans 3-D in this region 1 DVD edition.

 

Shot with state-of-the-art (well, at least at the time) high-definition cameras, "Ghosts Of The Abyss" is presented in a THX-certified 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks pretty terrific. At times there is some grainy and murky footage under water, but that has to deal more with the conditions. Much of the transfer looks solid and sharp, with nice fleshtones, fine detail and well done color saturation (check out those ocean blues). The only things that plague the transfer are a blemish here and there, as well as some edge halos and noise. It's not too bad though, since this still comes out to be a very high quality transfer.

 

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is rather good. Dialogue is very clear and sounds natural, even during the more tense moments. The slight musical score sounds decent, but Cameron's unintentionally hilarious music choices that pop up during the film sound pretty fun and actually powerful through the channels. Still, the surrounds really immerse you in the experience and help make you feel like you're part of Cameron and Paxton's voyage. There is the Titanic splitting into two in a faux sequence, but all the machinery at work, the submarines going under and the water passing through is very boisterous. Dynamic range is excellent overall, and the fidelity is quite high. It's nothing groundbreak, but it's a well done and complementary track.

Also take note that the extended version of the movie only has an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track as well as English and French subtitles, the theatrical cut English and French 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks and English subtitles and finally, English closed captions.

 

Besides the sixty minute theatrical cut and the new, ninety-minute extended version there are only two extras in this two-disc set (both are on the second disc). The first, lasting about thirty-two minutes, is Reflections From The Deep. Divided into six parts (they can be played together or separate), it's actually kind of hard to describe this pseudo-featurette. It combines footage of James Cameron and Bill Paxton talking at the press junket about certain experiences, has footage from the actual movie and footage that didn't quite make the cut. It's certainly a bit weird how it utilizes so much, but it more or less works as it tells distinct stories about the the film's production and sub travels in even more detail. A worthwhile companion.

The other extra is The MIR Experience. This is yet another multi-angle feature, but it's still fun. Basically, you watch a nine minute dive from two of the submarines, but you can choose between six angles: one from each sub, one from each of the sub exteriors and finally the two robots (Jake and Elwood, yep, named after The Blues Brothers) that physically go into the ship. The dive is unedited and pretty fascinating, but what makes it work so well is that it isn't clunky. The interface has a main screen to watch one angle of your choosing, but at the top you can switch between the six. Nicely done, and a lot of cool footage for you Titanic geeks to enjoy.

Oh yeah, the first disc has your usual Disney Sneak Peeks (that "The Incredibles" trailer is still a little amusing even though I've been subjected to it about twenty times already) and the standard THX Optimizer.

On a different note, for those craving the 3-D experience, the region 2 edition of "Ghosts Of The Abyss" will actually have it for the theatrical cut only. The extended cut will be there as well, as the features on the region 1 edition, but also a bonus is that there will be an English DTS track. It's due out in July 2004 and limited to 10,000 sets, so get those pre-orders in now!

 

"Ghosts Of The Abyss" has some interesting elements but it really can't stand up so well as a documentary or educational experience. The lack of 3-D is disappointing, but the transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital track are nice. The two extras are good as well, but it seems like there should have been even more. If you missed the IMAX run of the film but are interested in the content you'll probably want to rent it, but I'm sure you Titanic and James Cameron buffs will purchase the set.