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Ghosts of the Abyss

Titanic "Ghosts" a nice companion to Cameron's epic Oscar-winner

By Jim Bray
September 13, 2012

The Blu-ray buzz right now is about James Cameron's "Titanic" hitting the high def format, but Cameron also has another disc newly streeted that makes an excellent companion piece to his earlier blockbuster.

It's "Ghosts of the Abyss," a 2001 documentary in which he goes back to the legendary ship for a new series of dives, sending little robots named after the Blues Brothers deep into the ship, scoping out what's there. And what isn't.

The film also uses specially-shot special effects to put the original people back on board as if the ship were still on its maiden voyage, dissolving to the then-current footage in a fascinating "then and now" manner.

Cameron, accompanied by an entourage that included actor Bill Paxton (a Cameron mainstay who visited the virtual ship in the movie "Titanic"), enlists the help of a group of historic and marine experts as they dive about two and a half miles deep to where the legendary ship sits, rotting and being consumed by the life down there. It's an interesting hour and a half (if you watch the longer, extended edition; otherwise it's about an hour) that helps put the ship and the tragedy that befell it into modern perspective.

They use technology apparently developed specifically for this expedition to not only witness firsthand the liquid tomb of Titanic, but which also allowed Cameron to film the expedition as it happened, with one ship shooting the other and one remote roving robot shooting the other, etc.

Otherwise, I imagine it would have been hard to find cinematographers willing to hand-hold a camera at those depths to get the exterior shots…

Cameron, being the 3D aficionado that he is, shot the production in 3D, though I watched it in 2D and was still impressed mightily.

The production was filmed original for 3D IMAX theaters, which makes it ideal for bringing to the modern home theater. And if, like me, you must watch in 2D, you may not get the complete immersion (okay, the pun's intended) Cameron intended, but that's okay; there's plenty to like here anyway.

In fact, the film isn't just about Titanic and her story, but about the expedition as well. Cameron introduces us to the multi-national crew on board, and we kind of live with them as they mount the adventure.

It's fascinating to see the footage of the ship as she remained in 2001 intercut with reconstructed and/or original images of how she looked in 1912, whether it be leaded glass windows, the now-gone main staircase, engines, boilers – even artifacts such as cutlery and dishes. We even get to visit Bruce Ismail's cabin, the guy from White Star who, according to Cameron at least (I'm hardly an expert on Titanic's history), had the captain try bringing Titanic home a day early to make the newspapers, and who ran away with the lifeboats when push came to shove.

The people along for the ride know their stuff, and let us in on the wonderful craftsmanship that went into the "ship of dreams," whether it be the ornate woodwork or just thoughtful touches such as putting a drinking fountain where the stokers could get at it. We see first class and "last class" accommodations, the cargo area (they search for the real version of the car in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet consummate their relationship in the movie) – it's surprising just how deeply they get into the dead ship.

And all isn't exactly sweetness and light with the expedition, either. Near the end, they lose one of their little rovers and have to go back later to mount a rescue mission lest they lose the very expensive piece of equipment.

We're also given insight into some of the real people who were involved originally, from designer Thomas Andrews, who is treated with utmost respect, to "the unsinkable Molly Brown," John Jacob Astor and his pregnant wife, Captain Edward James Smith (a respected officer whose trip guiding Titanic through her first voyage was apparently meant to cap a stellar career, after which he planned to retire), and several others.

Discussions include the nature of heroism, of ordinary people rising to do extraordinary things, whether they be musicians, wireless operators or those manning the generators as long as humanly possible to help give others the best chance for rescue – or at least survival. These glimpses help put human faces onto the tragedy, bringing it home much like Cameron's other film did, but in a non-fictionalized way.

There's an ironic twist near the end, too, as the expedition learns of the September 11, 2001 atrocity in the United States, where thousands more innocents went to their deaths – this time at human hands rather than fate's (or Murphy's Law). 

The disc itself is of excellent quality, which shouldn't be surprising considering its IMAX origins. The copy Disney sent me included both 2D and 3D Blu-rays, as well as a DVD.

The video quality is top notch, nearly flawless even though some of the underwater scenes can be a tad dark and hard to, er, fathom.  The 2D presentation obviously won't jump off the screen quite like the 3D one should (I haven't seen the 3D version), but it's still a darn good print, with good blacks, rich color and fine detail.

The audio is also up to snuff, with very nice use of the low frequency channels and pretty good surround sometimes. The DTS-HD track is mostly front-centric, which is a tad disappointing, but it sounds very good anyway, with a nice and dynamic track.  

Extras include "Reflections From the Deep", which is in standard definition, unfortunately, but which is a series of shorts that, taken together, offer you a pretty good "making of" feature. It not only covers the production on location, but the creation of the effects that help illustrate the scenes and put things into perspective.

You also get "The Cheese Sandwich Prank," which is a short that explains why they always feed Cameron cheese sandwiches during his dives.

I received Disney's disc about the same time Paramount sent me the Blu-ray of Cameron's epic Titanic film, which was perfect timing. Unfortunately,  I haven't had a chance to do more than just take a quick look at the feature, but it looks as if Paramount has done it justice as well. I'll let you know later, once I have a chance to immerse myself in it and sample its many delights.

Paramount's other big release for September is Indiana Jones – the Complete Adventures, which puts all four of the Indy films and a bunch of extras together. This is a set that belongs in every fan and collector's library and I'll let you know my thoughts about how well it has been brought to high def in an upcoming column as well.

In the meantime, even if you thought Titanic was nothing more than a bloated chick flick, Ghosts of the Abyss is a fantastic look at the real story, through the eyes of a guy who just can't seem to get the ghost ship and its story out of his mind. Recommended highly.

Copyright 2012 Jim Bray
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