The epic story of James Cameron looking at a boat.
Intro: What does a filmmaker do once he’s beaten the movies? After his pet epic Titanic trampled box office records on its path to 11 Oscars, James Cameron stared that question in the face. There’s no easy solution. It’s impossible (POST-AVATAR EDIT: improbable) to recreate lightning success, yet invariably that’s exactly what the studio and fans expect. Even the great Italian filmmaker, Frederico Fellini, followed his masterpiece La Dolce Vita with 8 1/2, a semi-autobiographical tale of a director wondering what to do next.
Cameron’s answer was Ghosts of the Abyss, a non-fiction film returning to the Titanic wreck to explore further than anyone had before. The film helped bring IMAX into the mainstream and defined the new phase in Cameron’s career – his documentary period. In the decade since his biggest success, Cameron has directed docs such as Aliens of the Deep, Expedition: Bismark, and even produced a special claiming to have found the tomb of Jesus.
Of these projects, only Ghosts is eligible for this countdown. For my purposes, I’ll be looking at the extended cut available on the DVD, since that’s now the default version. The theatrical version was much shorter, due to the IMAX limitations of the time.
The Movie: If Ghosts of the Abyss, deep down, is all about James Cameron, the surface of the film is all about actor Bill Paxton. Paxton serves as the audience’s eyes for the journey, and the film opens with obviously staged footage of Pax boarding a ship and bantering with the Russian crew, stressing about the safety of the Mirs (miniature submarines), and even writing his will. Egghead scientists and Titanic enthusiasts brief the crew (and us) on what we’re going to see, and soon the Mirs are on the first of many descents, bringing along remote diving robots “Jake” and “Elwood” to push into the ship’s narrow hallways.
It takes no time for the ship to give the robots its haunting images — a bowler hat resting on a bed; intact, leaded windows enclosing the dining hall; a rotting chandelier.
In the cargo hold, the explorers find a collapsed hunk of metal that may be the single car the ship carried (the one Rose and Jack famously defile in Titanic), but there’s no way to tell for sure. This is a recurring problem. The wreck is deteriorating, being literally eaten away by bacteria, and much of the ship looks like exactly what it is — a rusting pile of garbage. Still, when Cameron pilots a robot into “Unsinkable” Molly Brown’s bedroom and actually finds the brass bed she slept on, he puts a human face on the wreck. People slept here, ate here, danced here, loved here. One scientist describes a lady’s boot laying on a cabin floor, still laced up, its wearer long since washed away.
Oh yeah, the “ghosts.” In an odd touch, Cameron inserts translucent actors over certain locations, recreating events as they happened. While I was momentarily thrilled by the possibility of undead sea ghosts, the acting values are only a notch above those historical dramas you see on the History Channel, or only a notch below the actual Titanic movie, depending on your point of view. Ultimately, I think the wreck should speak for itself without the noisy twats who sunk it constantly getting their close-up. On the other hand, those guys must have been creepy in IMAX 3-D, yo.
A few curious episodes appear near the end of the film. In an extended action sequence, the little robot Elwood malfunctions and sticks itself on the ship’s ceiling. This prompts a complex and desperate rescue attempt that nearly destroys the Jake-bot as well. In a minor miracle, both bots are saved. In the deleted scene in my dreams, the people that paid millions for those bots are seen buying new pants.
The film ends on an oddly somber note, as the expedition wraps up on a Tuesday – September 11, 2001. As the Mirs return to the surface, Bill Paxton and the entire crew meet Cameron and explain to him that terrorists have just hit New York and Washington. This event puts everything into perspective for the filmmakers – bad events, good people, and the urge to survive.
The Scene: I lean towards the robot rescue as the film’s best scene, but as a staunch Bill Paxton supporter I can’t ignore his first descent to the ship. There is sheer entertainment value in watching Wacky Paxy slowly drop miles beneath the ocean surface in a cramped metal box. He eyes the roof hatch nervously. He grills the Mir operator about the appropriate oxygen levels. He learns the hard way that there’s no toilet on the vessel. He skittishly jokes about walking off the set. Then, finally, he passes out into fitful sleep. And to think, this same trip had to be made dozens of times, both ways, to get all the footage for the film. His panic was likely staged, but still, I’d love to see that gag reel.
The Line: “Do you see Elwood? Do you see Elwood!?” – A surreal bit repeated constantly by Cameron as they await the fate of their lost little bot.
Alternately, “Aw, dude, that is so cool!” – uttered by Cameron as he gets a look at yet another unrecognizable piece of submerged junk.
The Production: When analyzing James Cameron’s work, there is one moment a person can point to and know that everything changed. During his first visit to the wreck of the Titanic, when the ship’s bow crept into the narrow light of his submersible, he fell in love with that wreck and nothing was ever the same. Even after completing his mega-film about the ship and its tragedy, the wreck would not let him be. He looked for a way to keep it alive.
“Ultimately,” Cameron said of Ghosts, “I wanted to give audiences the same experience that was such a life-changing one for me – to plunge down 2 1/2 miles of water, to experience something as strange and exotic as the wreck of Titanic, to really feel it and see it.” Accomplishing that task required new leaps forward in technology. The technological advances are numerous and a bit complex, but include a system called Reality Camera that allows footage to be compiled from multiple cameras and then played back in almost any format. In addition, new lighting rigs, new cameras, and even the bots Jake and Elwood were designed specifically for the project. This is a film that literally could not have been possible until the Cameron brothers willed it to be. Did I mention how freaked out the crew was about possibly losing one of the bots inside the wreck?
…A James Cameron Film: This film couldn’t be more James Cameron if it grew a little beard. It features an ocean setting, an undersea wreck (the mother of all undersea wrecks), new technologies, and Bill Paxton. It even partially stars Cameron.
Lasting Impact: Very little as a documentary. Many people consider it an interesting companion piece to his Oscar-winning epic, but beyond the appeal of its subject matter there isn’t much there. On the other hand, this film is a landmark in Cameron’s career. The technology he developed and used to film Ghosts of the Abyss has convinced Cameron that the film industry’s best weapon against piracy, and thus the industry’s future, lies in digital 3D. Since Ghosts, Cameron has committed all of his future projects to 3D.
Reason for Ranking: While the film is competent and entertaining, Ghosts of the Abyss doesn’t hold up against Cameron’s narrative work. There are directors who have jumped from fiction to non-fiction films and have excelled in both, but Cameron’s effort here is tentative and muddled. It’s as if he lacked confidence that the project would engage his audience and thus fell back on weak and obvious ploys for attention. The staged Paxton scenes, the cheesy 3D ghosts, the late film “rescue” sequence, and even the 9/11 non-sequitur near the end suggest a chef throwing desperate spices into the soup. The tragedy is that the soup wasn’t that bad to begin with. The Titanic has compelled the public for almost a century, and a lot of Cameron’s additions simply detract from the awe of the ship itself, which I fear is the exact opposite of his intended effect.
On the plus side, no flying piranha.
The James Cameron Project:
8. Ghosts of the Abyss