THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


James Cameron just can’t seem to get out of the water. The filmmaker made the underwater adventure The Abyss in 1989 and found Oscar glory with Titanic in 1997. Now he brings us a documentary about the Titanic wreckage called, somewhat confusingly, Ghosts of the Abyss. I confess that when I first heard the title, I assumed Cameron was making a sequel to his Ed Harris/Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio hit of 14 years ago. Others have told me they thought it was a horror movie. What it is is an hour-long journey to the bottom of the ocean, where the actual wreckage of the Titanic is filmed in 3-D. Ghosts of the Abyss is playing on 3-D IMAX screens across America, but it is also showing in regular theaters in both 3-D and 2-D formats. I saw the movie in 3-D at a regular multiplex.

We all know the story of the Titanic, so the film doesn’t waste a lot of time getting to the nitty gritty. Actor Bill Paxton (a Cameron regular) is invited by the filmmaker to accompany him down to the ocean floor to get a first-hand look at the doomed ship. We briefly meet some of the other underwater explorers who will also make the trip in one of two small submarines. Paxton confesses some nervousness, but those feelings fade away when he sees the remnants of the famous ship.

The cast and crew make several trips down. On one of them, two robots named Jake and Elwood (designed by Cameron’s brother) enter parts of the wreckage that normal sized submersibles could never reach. Armed with cameras, the robots pick up some astounding footage, including shots of two glass doors that are still intact after all these years. Jake and Elwood traverse through holes in walls to enter Molly Brown’s cabin (her brass bed is still there) and the engine room. One of the cabin compartments reveals a carafe and water glass still sitting where an occupant left them decades ago. Another man’s hat is found amidst the debris. As the cameras travel over the deck and through other areas of the ship, ghostly images of people are superimposed over footage of the wreck to help illustrate what would have been occurring at these locations.

During the filming, two unexpected things happen. First, one of the robots gets its wire snagged on something and has to be rescued. We see a fretting Cameron struggling to get one remote controlled robot to free the other. The second unexpected moment comes when one of the mini-subs begins its return to the surface. A crew member marks the date for posterity: Sept. 11, 2001. Back above water, Cameron emerges from the sub asking, “What’s all this I’ve been hearing about?” Paxton – visibly shaken – runs over and tells him that America has just been the victim of the worst terrorist attack in history. For a time, the expedition is nearly called off, but everyone eventually agrees to continue.

Ghosts of the Abyss does nothing to add to our knowledge of the Titanic. It exists simply to show the wreckage in 3-D, allowing audiences to get a unique look at a piece of history and to remember its significance. For me, that’s enough. The Titanic has always held an allure, so getting the chance to see parts of it that have never been filmed before is fascinating. Although it’s been underwater for so long, you can still see the majesty of the ship, from the carefully carved wood to the exquisite glasswork. Titanic remains a thing of beauty in its own weird way. There are still signs of life visible throughout. That’s the most amazing part. Some 1,500 people died on the Titanic, yet traces of their lives linger on, thousands of feet below the surface. Cameron obviously intends Ghosts of the Abyss to be a memorial to the ship and its passengers. I believe that is an admirable desire, as the event has brought Cameron so much fame and professional glory.

I had not seen a 3-D movie since the early 90’s, when the final Freddy Kruger picture had a 15-minute 3-D finale. I have to say that the technology has improved greatly. For starters, those flimsy cardboard glasses (with a blue lens over one eye and a red lens over the other) are gone. Disney has provided comfortable, sturdy plastic viewers that fit over my eyeglasses with no problem. Occasionally the 3-D effects are disorienting, and sometimes I had to focus my eyes on one on-screen object in order to get the rest of the image to focus. However, it mostly works really well. The 3-D process is used not so much as a gimmick here, although various nautical gizmos are occasionally made to pop out at you; instead, the purpose is to give us a better perspective on the beauty of the ship, as well as the way that conditions have eroded it. The Titanic has a haunting beauty that is served well by the extra visual dimension. We feel like we are seeing it more clearly than we would otherwise.

There has always been a certain public fascination with the Titanic, but I felt that a strange thing happened after Cameron’s movie became the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. Suddenly there was Titanic-mania; many people were obsessed with all things Titanic. A lot of it appeared to have more to do with the film than with the actual historical event, though. More than a few viewers even responded to the fictional aspects of the story as though they were fact. Their fervor was misguided at best, incomprehensible at worst. (How else can you explain people travelling to distant cemeteries just so they could be photographed standing next to a tombstone that coincidentally read “Jack Dawson”?) Titanic was no doubt a great movie. However, my hope is that Ghosts of the Abyss serves as a reminder of all the real people whose lives were lost on that fateful night. Their memory – and that of the ship itself – deserves never to be forgotten.

( 1/2 out of four)

Ghosts of the Abyss is rated G. The running time is 1 hour.

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