Blu-Ray Review: Ghosts of the Abyss

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In 1997, James Cameron released Titanic, a breathtaking recreation of the infamous 1912 disaster.  It was a cinematic marvel, transporting audiences back to that terrible night, enabling them to feel as if they were experiencing the grandeur and horror for themselves.  15 years later, James Cameron has released Ghosts of the Abyss, a documentary taking audiences to the bottom of the ocean and into the real Titanic to witness sights unseen for over 100 years.

He came up with a perfect title in Ghosts of the Abyss, encapsulating the ethereal nature of revisiting this historic location.  Unlike his previous film, this isn’t movie magic, but pure reality.  Cameron and his amazing team of engineers and scientists developed the equipment that would allow them to take cameras into the depths of the ship to capture underwater imagery that has never been seen.  As we are touring the ship, live-action recreations occasionally play out over the footage of the ship both in order to help the audience visualize where we are in the ship as well as to keep an emotional connection running throughout.

In doing this, it is impossible to forget that what we are being shown is the result of a true tragedy.  These recreations make it much harder to intellectualize the grandeur of the imagery as we are constantly reminded of the loss of life.  It’s a canny way of keeping the focus on what really mattered that night.

Serving as a sort of narrator through the film is Bill Paxton, star of several of Cameron’s films.  He actually goes down to the Titanic and while some of his sequences above water are a little hokey, he does a great job highlighting the significance of what is happening during the actual dives.  Two remote control cameras (nicknamed Jake and Elwood) were used to tour the Titanic itself, and as the footage is playing in Paxton’s sub, you can tell that his role in this film goes beyond performance into genuine awe.

While this is a fascinating film, it isn’t perfect.  I truly appreciate the recreations and what they accomplish, but they can come across slightly over-the-top.  In addition, there is a lot of fascinating footage of the ship, including some beautifully ornate craftsmanship, but there is also a lot of obsession over various locations such as the bedrooms that don’t really show us anything that exciting.  At 60 minutes, the film tends to drag and the wonder eventually does start to wear off.

The newly released 3-Disc Combo Pack has a 90 minute extended feature on the Blu-Ray and the DVD, but not the 3D version of the film.  The 60 minute version already feels long, and the 90 minute cut really feels dragged out.  There is no need to devote that extra half an hour, when the 60 minute cut shows more than enough.

The best way to view the film, by far, is on the 3D Blu-Ray.  It’s a stunning experience, much like Cameron’s Avatar.  As in that film, he uses the 3D to create the effect of a window, making the viewer feel as if they are in the picture rather than having the picture come out of the screen.  Only once, when showing off a piece of equipment early in the film, does he resort to 3D gimmickry.    While the underwater footage doesn’t convey the same depth of footage as the footage above water, it’s still an impressive presentation and a remarkable way to take this voyage.

There are only two extra features beyond the extended cut and 3D viewing.  The first is a 30 minute documentary entitled “Reflections from the Deep,” which is exactly what you’d expect.  There are several interviews, and a more detailed analysis into the creation of the film.  Overall, while interesting, it’s pretty dry and not necessarily worth the time.  The other feature is a two minute segment about a prank played on Cameron involving cheese sandwiches.

While I still consider the 1997 film a landmark cinematic event, I have to hand it to Cameron for bringing the emotion home in Ghosts of the Abyss.  Seeing this location as a real entity, with furniture, dishes, etc. still in place, truly sells the reality of what happened.  This was a devastating event, a tragedy that should never be forgotten.  And thanks to his efforts here, along with the 1997 film, it never will.

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