This review was updated on Tuesday, Feb. 1.
In James Cameron’s latest Imax 3-D undersea adventure, a crew of eager young scientists joyrides around in submersibles like 21st-century Verne voyagers, exclaiming about the otherworldly array of ghostly white creatures scuttling over the ocean floor. “This is much more exciting than Hollywood special effects,” Cameron asserts shortly before transporting pic to a CGI-imagined moon of Jupiter. Though not fully willing to let images speak for themselves (as many “wows” and “gees” whiz abound as do albino shrimp), docu’s visual wonders and well-pitched enthusiasm happily outstrip its clunky ain’t-science-fun narrative.
Perversely, the titles of Cameron’s 3-D docus seem to be referencing the wrong Cameron fictional works. “Ghosts of the Abyss” is really a continuation of “Titanic,” while “Aliens of the Deep” reprises themes central to “The Abyss.” Indeed, the kinship between the underwater world and extraterrestrial worlds, a relationship stressed by “Abyss,” returns with a vengeance here as docu’s central conceit. Cameron links actual exploration of the ocean floor to hypothetical exploration of extraterrestrial lifeforms, acknowledging that water is an essential ingredient of life.
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Assembling a team of marine biologists and NASA researchers, Cameron theorizes that the study of ecosystems that survive in extreme conditions, like those prevalent on the ocean’s floor, could be the key to understanding the possibility of life, say, below the frozen surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. In the meantime, the frozen depths of the ocean turn up some fairly out-of-this-world creatures right here on Earth.
Docu visits underwater sites like the fantastic geologic architecture of the Lost City, or the Snake Pit, where thermal chimneys venting intense heat from the Earth’s core spew plumes of black smoke through which millions of blind white shrimp mill and roil.
Pic both profits and suffers from Cameron’s shameless old-fashioned showmanship, encouraged by Imax’s kid-friendly infotainment format. A casual mention of the food chain, for instance, serves as the thin pretext for a montage of 3-D animals, culminating in an elephant which unfurls its trunk to inches from the viewer’s own proboscis.
Underwater surprises are introduced by such not-so-subtle voiceovers as “you never know what will show up next,” just before a giant squid whooshes up from nowhere to dart right past the camera lens, and every discovery is prefaced, accompanied and followed by choruses of genuine but highly repetitive “oohs” and “aahs.”
As for pic’s final sappy close encounter with big-eyed ETs, whether one finds it inspirational or intellectually unforgivable, it is mercifully short.
Tech credits are excellent, Cameron having significantly improved his 3-D camera system since “Ghosts.” Exotic sea creatures glide by in subtly stereoptic splendor, the given specimen and its three-dimensional habitat convincingly integrated.
Unfortunately, the typically obtrusive in-your-face nature of the 3-D image is more dramatically evident in interiors where astrobiologists, ropes and equipment fill every inch of deep space. This unnatural physical closeness to the young scientists nestled under Cameron’s paternal wing, combined with the fact that three of them take turns gushingly narrating the film, at times sets “Aliens of the Deep” sailing perilously close to Wes Anderson’s docu parody, “The Life Aquatic.”