Apparently James Cameron’s first love is water. With The Abyss and Titanic already under his belt already, supposedly Avatar 2 is headed for an underwater environment as well. Fortunately, Cameron’s second love is investing the money he’s made from those (and other) movies right back into his aqueous hobby, as evidenced with Ghosts of the Abyss, which Disney recently released on Blu-ray 3D and Blu-ray. A documentary of the Titanic itself, Ghosts of the Abyss marks the first time Cameron traveled back to the ill-fated ocean liner since he made the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Filmed in August and September 2011, the documentary includes Cameron and actor Bill Paxton but is largely driven by scientists and historians who joined the expedition. The result is a mix of good and so-so 3D effects, but the production values and emotional intensity of the documentary are absolutely incredible.
From the opening menus you immediately sense the odd mixture of spectacular and “merely decent” 3D. The documentary opens strongly enough, with great dimensionality in its opening sequence, but quickly shows signs of crosstalk when the camera moves to extreme close-ups (a problem that plaques Ghosts of the Abyss on multiple occasions). Crosstalk issues have seemed to quiet down on the whole in the Blu-ray 3D scene, but since this was filmed more than a decade ago and originally released several years later, I’d chalk the shortcoming to the fact that it’s just older technology and processes that have just now been released for newer home 3DTVs and a 3D audience with higher expectations.
The film’s 3D sensibilities can generally be divided into three parts. The first part takes place during the hour-long film’s first 20 minutes, when the expedition is preparing to go underwater for the first time. This segment of the film relies largely on above-water footage of the two ships on the expedition, as well as the scientists and historians preparing for their studies. This naturally involves 3D scenes in which the crew tests various equipment, presenting some nice “gotcha” effects. For instance, testing pinchers and extending cameras on a boom definitely give the sense of hardware poking out of the TV screen, but they’re augmented by some really forced-perspective tricks designed to augment the 3D but that ultimately make it seem fake. As a result, it kind of cheapens the experience of the documentary.
Fortunately the second part of the film, between minutes 20 and 40, lets the Titanic shine in all of its 3D grandeur. Once you hit the bottom of the ocean and start seeing debris from the Titanic, then sidle up alongside the wreck, the 3D is not only impressive but helps set the intensity, tone and excitement of the expedition. Most Blu-ray 3D movies tend to use 3D as a visual effect alone; Ghosts of the Abyss actually uses 3D here as a tool to elicit emotion and build suspense, something it achieves without question. It really does build the intensity of what’s arguably an emotional moment, much more so than any 2D presentation could’ve offered.
Gliding past the hull, with all the coral and bacterial growths sprinkled along the Titanic’s length like grandpa’s stubble, is nothing short of incredible in three dimensions. More than anything, it makes you want to actually be there, not limited to a 52-inch viewing window (or whatever our TV size is). The edits between a few vantage points do seem fast, so in several instances you’ll find yourself rewinding it just to take it all in.
This second section of the film doesn’t rely on Titanic footage alone. In fact, although the first five minutes of this portion use 3D at its finest, most of this portion’s effects come from a sort of “layered photo” treatment more than from any sort of 3D footage. The expedition made use of two ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) named Jake and Elwood, whose cameras weren’t nearly as robust as the larger 3D setups on the submersibles. To compensate for this, Cameron’s post-production team uses a 3D backdrop of the Titanic’s hull, with several “windows” showing each ROV’s point of view. These windows are each given a drop shadow to add depth, which is generally a good effect but is somewhat anticlimactic considering the movie’s packaging and intent.
At times the film pans out and shows some full-frame 3D scenes, including dozens of CG-based overlays in which ghost-like actors play out scenes as they would have appeared before the ship sunk. For instance, when you see what’s left of the Titanic’s bridge, a slew of semi-transparent actors suddenly appear to show you how they would’ve been responding to the situation at that point in time, and equally-transparent props help fill-in blanks of the ship’s architecture. Cameron also uses quite a few CG fly-throughs of the ship to illustrate what it would’ve looked like in all its glory. As with the ghost actors, the CG is great at illustrating the concepts but doesn’t present quite as impressive a 3D effect as when viewers first see the shipwreck earlier in this sequence.
The final third of the film, particularly minutes 40-50, make much more use of full-frame 3D footage, and the clips really poke around the wreckage a bit more and let you take it all in. Although the 3D effects aren’t any better than the middle portion of the film, just seeing more actual shipwreck footage in full-screen is an improvement. Things revert somewhat between minutes 50 and 55, which is comprised mostly of CG footage. But it all turns around in the last five minutes.
Remember, Ghosts of the Abyss was filmed in August and September 2011. On Sept. 11, 2011, the expedition was underwater all day attempting to extricate one of the ROVs that had failed. When the team surfaced that evening, they were informed of the horrific terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Seeing the emotion play out in three dimensions, seeing the humanity of that moment play out as if you were there on board the ship, is remarkable. Bill Paxton and James Cameron then discuss the irony of being at the Titanic on Sept. 11, with the ship’s loss of life taking an eerie parallel to the 9/11 attacks. However, they also talk about the heroes who kept people calm on the Titanic, who saved hundreds of lives, and who tried to save the ship from sinking — the subtext, of course, being their parallel to the heroes at the Twin Towers.
Ghosts of the Abyss isn’t consistent in its 3D presentation, but when the film fires on all cylinders it easily overcomes its arguably-old roots. The documentary does a great job incorporating 3D views of the shipwreck with renderings and photo overlays, and it has fantastic production values and great editing. If you explore the standard 2D Blu-ray Disc, you’ll even be treated to 30 additional minutes of footage, albeit in 2D, giving you a bit more time with the grand shipwreck. As for the 3D version, though, the occasional instances of crosstalk, combined with less shipwreck 3D footage than I would’ve liked to see, bring the score down a bit, but it’s still an impressive documentary. Heck, it almost makes me want to watch Leonardo and Kate. Almost.
– Jonas Allen