*½/**** (60-minute version) **/**** (90-minute version)
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directed by James Cameron
by Bill Chambers Not often given enough credit for his speedy learning curve (how many filmmakers, metaphorically speaking, have gone straight from Piranha 2 to The Terminator?), it stands to reason that James Cameron's next documentary will be a gem. But for the time being there is only Ghosts of the Abyss to deal with, and it's a washout. A few minutes into the film, Bill Paxton finds out that the battery powering the MIR submersible in which he's exploring the wreckage of "R.M.S. Titanic" is worth $250,000; it was then that I realized I'm vastly more interested in expensive batteries than in the famously-drowned luxury liner, exhumed on film almost as many times now as Dracula. Maybe it's an issue of the arcane vs. the mundane: Ghosts of the Abyss dutifully oohs and aahs over every inch of the ship's rusticled décor, but it stops short of edifying the secondary observer, who suspects a show is being put on for the grumpy Russians piloting the hi-tech underwater explorers. I was that way every time my parents took me to the zoo.
Or perhaps the mistake is in holding Cameron to the standards of his work in features when one should be weighing the film against other IMAX productions--I guess I just assumed he would transcend another genre, his proven métier. (Aliens practically invented the action-horror hybrid while Terminator 2: Judgment Day redefined the summer blockbuster.) Instead, Cameron does nothing to innovate the IMAX aesthetic--such concessions to cliché as his frequent obscuring of the central tableaux with floating picture-in-picture windows and campy flashbacks cast with background actors suddenly thrust into the spotlight and doing their best to recede into the furniture again actually suggest, God forbid, that he's trying to master it. As a half-hearted defender of the obscenely popular Titanic during its inevitable backlash, I must concede that those accused of pulling a Chicken Little in saying it heralded the end of Cameron as we knew him were definitely onto something.
Everything wrong with Ghosts of the Abyss and post-Titanic Cameron (an Academy Award-winning director accountable for the highest-grossing motion picture in history) is encapsulated by the sequence in which "Jake" of the robotic surveyors Jake and Elwood is rescued from a theoretically permanent home beneath an overhang inside the Titanic. Cameron scores the slow-motion reunion of the 'bots to "Just the Two of Us," a moment that might've been wittily cornpone if Cameron himself didn't then announce what a proud day this is for man and machine, the eleventh of September, 2001. "Just the Two of Us" becomes, then, the overture for a tragic interlude as Cameron is made aware of the events unfolding topside, robbing the song's placement of its sarcasm and designating the completion of Cameron's cheeseball transformation. Beyond having regressed as a dramatist since his emotionally acute The Abyss, Cameron has become so fetishistically attached to the Titanic that I fear his career might chart the equally decadent ship's course. His is the heart that hasn't gone on: Is there such a thing as post-success stress disorder?
Consider a world where James Cameron's Titanic was a smash movie about, oh, the Bata Shoe Museum. Now imagine he followed that up with an IMAX documentary about the Bata Shoe Museum. In this scenario, the critics would surely have shown this follow-up effort less generosity, but the twin calamities of Titanic and 9/11, not to mention the criminally low standards for large-format documentaries, rendered Ghosts of the Abyss as we know it impervious to criticism, or rather Cameron's arrested development impervious to observation. Presented on DVD in 61- and 92-minute versions, the latter is marginally preferable for a fascinating section devoted to the organisms that have sprouted up in and around Titanic, some of which have yet to be spotted in other parts of the ocean. The highlight of either cut is a dialogue between members of Cameron's de facto cast concerning their hypothetical actions aboard a sinking ship. Trouble is, it doesn't take an expedition to the bottom of the Atlantic to spark that conversation, nor is your typical cafeteria debate any more thought-provoking in 70MM.
Disney's THX-certified 2-disc set of Ghosts in the Abyss packs both the theatrical and extended editions onto the first platter via seamless branching. Though the film was projected at IMAX venues in 3-D, it's offered in 2-D only for the home viewing audience, and the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is consistently good in the face of a mélange of source media--note that the longer version relies more heavily on video-based footage originated by the MIR's electronic eyes. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix is, by James Cameron standards, surprisingly bland, although a storm set-piece unquestionably delivers. With trailers for Aladdin, The Incredibles, Miracle, Mulan, DisneyDVD.com, The Haunted Mansion video game, and RADIODisney capping Disc 1, most of the extras reside on the second platter. These include instructions for registering the DVD, an interface--"The MIR Experience"--that enables one to toggle between six virtual underwater 'windows,' and six featurettes sorted as follows beneath the heading "Reflections from the Deep."
In "Echoes in Time" (5 mins.), a eulogy for the Titanic rapidly deteriorates into a visual-effects featurette. Paxton's Cowardly Lion routine grows a little disingenuous in "Paxton Under Pressure" (5 mins.), while the question of how MIR passengers go to the bathroom is here answered in a cheeky double-take. "Zodiac Cowboys" (5 mins.) pays entertaining tribute to the crew of the Keldysh in the style of an action-movie trailer; "The Saga of Jake and Elwood" (6 mins.) recaps the reconnaissance mission and reveals that Ghosts of the Abyss editor Ed Marsh christened the 'bots (after the Blues Brothers, natch); "The Unthinkable" (4 mins.) revisits 9/11 from the microcosm of the Titanic site; and "Keldysh Home Movies" (5 mins.) shows Cameron with wife Suzy Amis, a talented actress gone to Stepford seed like Linda Hamilton before her. Rounding out the package: an Easter egg'd gag reel, easy to locate, that subtitles a bit of Russian all too accurately as, "From 9am to 6pm, the Americans will film each other and drone on about Titanic." Originally published: April 22, 2004.