After garnering a handful of Oscars and amassing more than a billion dollars in ticket sales with 1997’s Titanic, James Cameron elected to take a break from dominating the box office to document a historic trip. Clearly, the filmmaker was not content with the time he’d already spent on the Titanic story, so for 2003’s Ghosts of the Abyss he travelled back to Titanic’s resting place armed with IMAX cameras and the latest in underwater submersible technology. Documentaries prior to Ghosts of the Abyss had offered glimpses at the Titanic wreck which lies at the bottom of the North Atlantic, but this is the most penetrating, spellbinding view of the wreckage so far – it offers audiences and historians the definitive glimpse of the aftermath of one of the most notorious disasters in human history. It’s a nice companion piece to Cameron’s Titanic too, with the footage here serving as a grim addendum to the blockbuster.
Ghosts of the Abyss chronicles James Cameron’s 2001 expedition to explore the wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic; the famous ocean liner (thought unsinkable) which struck an iceberg and sunk in 1912 on its maiden voyage. Accompanying Cameron for the expedition was actor Bill Paxton (also of Titanic fame) and artist Ken Marschall, among others. Using two specifically designed and equipped underwater bots nicknamed Jake and Elwood, the crew probed the insides of the sunken luxury liner in astonishing detail. Following the film’s efficient opening segment that introduces us to the crew and the technology, we’re taken down some 12,500 feet to the bottom of the North Atlantic. There is a lot of jaw-dropping footage to behold here of the eroded and broken Titanic; rooms were even explored that had not been seen by human eyes since the ship sunk. In order to help viewers discern where the team is within the wreckage at certain times, Cameron devised ghostly recreations in post-production which place historic scenes over the contemporary material. It’s a masterful touch.
The breathtaking images of the Titanic wreck constitute the film’s most interesting moments, so it’s a tad disappointing to report that the transitional scenes are awkward from time to time, and sometimes focus is taken away from the sunken ship. For instance, after one dive, a full five minutes is spent watching the crew as they struggle to bring the submarines up out of the water. Furthermore, the film loses steam towards the end when too much time is devoted to a rescue operation of the little bots. This was probably injected to add some action and suspense due to how expensive these machines are, yet this inclusion is extraneous – why should this rescue take precedence over the exploration of the graveyard for 1,500 souls? Interesting stuff, sure, but this material is best saved for a “making of” documentary. It’s fortunate, then, that these inclusions are only minor, and the dead spots are rare. However the soundtrack choices are a tad skewiff, and threaten to turn the film into an unintended parody (for instance the use of Just the Two of Us when Jake and Elwood are rescued).
Still, Ghosts of the Abyss is a haunting and fascinating experience. Paxton is an effective spectator whose asides of sheer wonderment will be shared by Titanic enthusiasts, while screen-time is also given to experts and professionals to supplement the on-screen information (most interesting are the discussions regarding facets of the disaster). At some point during the film, too, the adventure is hindered when the crew receive news of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Rather than avoiding the subject or smoothing it over, Cameron integrated it into the narrative in order to highlight the connection between 9/11 and the Titanic disaster, both of which will be remembered due to mankind’s obsession with the lurid. Without question, Ghosts of the Abyss is a must-see for those who cannot get enough of Titanic lore.