James Cameron returns to his obsession with the Titanic in “Ghosts of the Abyss,” the producer-director’s first try at both non-fiction and 3-D cinema. Though quite routine on the logistics of deep-sea exploring, pic develops a visual style as it replays the events of the sinking that some viewers may find more visually exciting and satisfying than what Cameron staged in his original mega-blockbuster. This effect, however, is somewhat blunted by the new 3-D camera process, designed by Cameron and lenser Vince Pace, which doesn’t measure up — at least for now — to the seamless opticals of Imax’s own 3-D camera rig. Pic is a snug fit with the Imax theatrical circuit’s usual programming, but lack of the T word in the title (which instead recalls an earlier Cameron underwater epic) may cause it to miss the boat with a good deal of the massive “Titanic” fan base.
“Titanic” cast member Bill Paxton supplies much of the voice-over narration as well as a likeable screen presence as one of the few non-experts involved in the exploratory dives. He describes how, in early September, 2001, he joined Cameron & Co. aboard the specially outfitted Russian science vessel Akademik Mistislav Keldysh . (Unhelpful directions he receives in non-translated Russian from a crewmember is one of the few attempts at staged humor during docu’s hour length.)
Early activity on board the Keldysh presents — sans what would have been helpful identifying graphic titles — crew specialists, including historians Don Lynch, Dr. Charles Pellegrino and Ken Marschall, microbiologist Lori Johnston and marine archaeologist Dr. John Broadwater. Cameron maps out the routes for two tiny robotized video camera units (invented by helmer’s brother, Mike) dubbed Jake and Elwood, to explore the ship ruin’s inner sanctums where no human could explore.
Cameron’s and Pace’s novel camera set-up, identified in the credits as the “Reality Camera System” — consists of a pair of custom-designed Sony high-definition 950 series units armed with the company’s CineAlta imaging capability, with lenses separated to match the distance between a human’s left and right eyes, thus mimicking physical human sight.
Design also manages to make the camera units relatively small and lightweight by traditional Imax camera standards, which is especially advantageous in the extremely tight quarters of the two submersible vessels.
The 3-D effect is amusingly exploited early on when filming various tools and devices on the Keldysh, as when metal pincers seem to be coming right up to one’s nose. But conceivably because this particular process is so new — this is it’s trial run — the full optical pleasure of three-dimensional viewing, especially as enjoyed in pics lensed in the Imax 3-D process, is never fully achieved.
It’s worth noting that when Cameron selects from a wonderful array of old, lovingly preserved black-and-white stereopticon photos of the Titanic, its mechanics and luxuries, the 3-D impact is extraordinary in terms of crispness, expressiveness and a profound sense of time’s passage.
This grown-up boy’s science project contains a touch of the theatrical, as a separate submersible lighting unit called Medusa allows for some stunning backlighting of the massive undersea ruin.
Coverage of Titanic from the p.o.v. of the submersibles, as well as from Jake’s and Elwood’s more mobile perspectives, offers by far the most extensive and haunting views yet recorded of the decaying hulk. The robot cameras manage to discover, among many details, intact stained-glass windows in the central dining room, decorative grillwork on the ship’s entrance hatch doors and a used drinking glass still standing upright. One dive, occurring on 9/11, ends in a brief contemplative mood that places the Titanic disaster in a fresh context.
In a lapse of judgment, pic is nearly overwhelmed by incessant chatter and expressions of wonder by crew members (Cameron, on the other hand, never shows excitement), and the soundtrack’s babble seriously saps the full drama of quietly observing the Titanic’s eerie presence.
Titular “ghostly” element is introduced just before mid-point, in the form of superimposed imagery of Titanic crew and passengers re-enacting their final hours. This allows Cameron to dabble in theatrical styles of staging, turning the aud’s collective perception of the human disaster in a far more reflective direction than was permitted in the half-adventure/half-romance of the feature film.
As with all Cameron productions, tech package is first-class, and a lavish demonstration of the faith in the latest technology — something this crew is conscious of as their direct link to the once-unswerving faith in the Titanic’s own invincibility.