Let no one suggest that James Cameron doesn’t put his mouth — and the rest of his body — where his money is. When he isn’t busy tugging at the boundaries of the modern Hollywood blockbuster, the director and National Geographic “explorer-in-residence” lives a lifestyle worthy of one of his own protagonists, whether scouring the real-life wreckage of the Titanic or plummeting into the depths of the Mariana Trench. That last expedition (conducted in 2012) is scrupulously documented by Cameron’s longtime visual effects supervisor John Bruno and co-directors Andrew Wight and Ray Quint in the 3D “Deepsea Challenge,” which follows Cameron as he attempts to re-create the historic 1960 trench dive by Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh. While watching Cameron get in touch with his inner Jacques Cousteau won’t be to everyone’s taste, fans of the director and oceanography gearheads should swoon to the immersive, visually spectacular images of the ocean floor, plus the nuts-and-bolts details of getting there and back again.
Cameron, who also narrates the docu, tells us early on that his love of sea exploration was seeded early in childhood by Cousteau and others of the era who brought their seafaring exploits to the world via television specials. (A few dramatized shots here depict a young Cameron building an imaginary deep-sea submersible out of a cardboard box.) Though Cameron eventually abandoned such dreams to embark on a filmmaking career, his twin passions would eventually dovetail during the making of ‘The Abyss” (1989), the first movie to feature sync-sound dialogue scenes filmed underwater, and later with “Titanic” (1997), which fully rekindled Cameron’s explorer yen. In the subsequent dozen years, he temporarily “parked” his day job, directing no dramatic features and instead devoting himself to a series of nonfiction films (“Ghosts of the Abyss,” “Aliens of the Deep,” “Expedition: Bismarck”) on the subject of the ocean deep.
“Deepsea Challenge” continues in that general vein, though this time Cameron himself is more subject than author, repeatedly cramming his lanky, 6-foot-plus frame into the small, state-of-the-art steel sphere that will eventually carry him some 35,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The project grew out of Cameron’s admiration for Piccard and Walsh (the latter of whom served as a consultant on “The Abyss” and appears again here as a kind of resident genius), and his desire to retrace their steps with modern technology capable of recording the journey in 3D while also collecting potentially valuable scientific data. But whatever his other rationale, it’s clear that Cameron is motivated by the same desire that has driven adventurers to the highest, lowest and farthest points on the planet for centuries: “Because it’s there.”
He’s joined in the mission by a like-minded group of scientists and technicians (who sometimes suggest a wet-suited version of the Web geeks from “The Social Network”) whom he supervises with the practiced authority of a benevolent dictator. An autodidact who taught himself filmmaking and has invented or spearheaded the development of much new technology in the making of his movies, Cameron brings the same hands-on, can-do spirit to his dive, pushing the team to think outside the box and surpass their own best work without ever resorting to diva behavior. That doesn’t mean the project is without its pitfalls: The submersible itself, developed by Cameron and engineer Ron Allum over a three-year period, fails spectacularly during a test dive in Sydney Harbor. Then, a far more crushing blow is struck when Wight and underwater cameraman Mike deGruy are killed in a freak helicopter crash en route to the film’s location in February 2012. When Cameron and company decide to carry on in the spirit of their fallen colleagues, it gives everything that follows an added emotional weight that goes well beyond mere record setting. In a few contemplative asides, Cameron himself weighs the risk of his endeavors against his responsibilities as a husband (to his “Titanic” star Suzy Amis, seen briefly here) and father.
Celebrity adventurers may seem a dime a dozen these days, but there’s no mistaking Cameron for another of Bear Grylls’ adrenaline-junkie guest stars. Whatever one may think of his films, the man’s passions are undeniable, and when he finally begins his historic descent, it isn’t hard to see the little boy all grown up, setting off for points unknown in a very high-tech cardboard box. But it’s the trench imagery itself that’s the primary attraction here, and it proves more than worth the wait: not the irradiant, “Avatar”-like flora and fauna of higher ocean depths, but rather a vast, cosmic nothingness that suggests a world where time has yet to begin.