James and the giant ship
By this time, I suppose a reasonable moviegoer might be forgiven for believing that James Cameron actually owns the Titanic. For all I know, Cameron himself might even believe it. To a whole generation of teenage Leonardo DiCaprio fans whose parents hadn’t even been born when Walter Lord wrote A Night to Remember, Cameron’s name has been linked with the doomed ship more than any other individual, and Cameron has not been shy about describing all the research he went through in preparing to make 1997’s Titanic. Personally, I can’t help wishing Cameron squeezed a couple of screenwriting classes into all that homework, but now all is forgiven. If Titanic hadn’t made a gazillion bucks, Cameron never could have made Ghosts of the Abyss—and the 59 minutes of Ghosts is worth having to sit through all three hours of Titanic.
The premise of Ghosts of the Abyss is simple: Cameron and actor Bill Paxton (co-star of Titanic and the narrator here) sail with a Russian scientific team on the research ship Keldysh to where Titanic lies 12,500 feet deep and then dive to the wreck in submersibles mounted with IMAX 3-D cameras.
The footage of the dive itself is the bread and butter of the film, of course, but Cameron and his expert production crew have added a lot of high-tech touches that bring the Titanic up close and personal in more ways than one. The film opens on an antique peep show, the kind that could be found in any penny arcade in 1912; put a coin in the slot, and you could see a series of stereopticon slides by putting your eyes to the viewer. The IMAX camera moves in on the viewer, and we see old photographs of the Titanic under construction. To the best of my knowledge, there were no stereopticon pictures taken of the Titanic, so it seems that what the filmmakers have done is to take authentic photos and digitally alter them to produce a three-dimensional image on the IMAX screen. It’s a nice touch, and it helps us emotionally connect the shiny new spick-and-span liner of April 1912 to the rotting hulk that’s been sitting on the ocean floor ever since.
The best single shot in Titanic came early, when Cameron dissolved from the bow of the wreck to a view of the ship itself, gleaming in the sun at the Southampton pier. It was a breathtaking moment that, oh so briefly, seemed to bring the past to startling life. The best thing about Ghosts of the Abyss is that it takes that fine moment in Titanic and reproduces it over and over again, in different ways, giving us an emotional handle on the ship that complements and enhances the 3-D pictures on the screen.
I admit I got ready to cringe the first time the “ghosts” appeared. As the submersible cruises over what used to be the Titanic’s bridge, the film superimposes a reconstructed version of the bridge on the wreck, with the helmsman at the (now missing) wheel and other crew walking the deck. This kind of thing easily could become maudlin and tacky, like well-fed actors posing as inmates at Dachau. But, though Cameron makes frequent use of these apparitions (passengers entering the lifeboats, the band playing to calm them, the final panic as the ship goes down), it’s done just right. With Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron does what he failed to do (for me, at least) with Titanic itself: He makes us see the sunken ship as hallowed ground, a tomb. And most amazing of all, he gives it to us in such a way that we literally feel we can reach out and touch it. As Cameron’s video drones cruise the depths of the ship, views of the flooded interior are juxtaposed with authentic photos (actually of the Olympic, Titanic’s nearly identical sister ship) in a genuinely moving before-and-after comparison. This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff.
Shall I nitpick? OK, I guess I could have done without Bill Paxton’s vacuous, gee-whiz narration. But who can begrudge him going along for the ride? And hey, IMAX 3-D film of the Titanic—not just the upper decks, mind you, but the salons, corridors and staterooms hidden from human eyes for 91 years? That’s worth an exploding popcorn box from me any day.