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'Ghosts of the Abyss'

James Cameron returns to Titanic in 'Abyss'

Saturday, April 12, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

It's good to be the king. For one thing, he can indulge his deepest obsession. James Cameron, who quoted the line "I'm king of the world" from the movie "Titanic" when he won the Academy Award in 1998 for directing the picture, hasn't escaped the pull of the fabled ship's tragic mystique.

 
 
"Ghosts of the Abyss"

RATING: G.

FEATURING: Bill Paxton, James Cameron.

DIRECTOR: James Cameron.

WEB SITE: disney.go/ghosts.com

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And little wonder. The real majesty rests not in Cameron's ego or even his undeniable filmmaking skills but in Titanic herself.

Cameron, who first visited the site of the wreck in 1995, returned six years later to record Titanic for posterity before its inevitable decomposition. We see the results in "Ghosts of the Abyss," an hourlong documentary that is being shown in IMAX format in some cities. The rest of us will see it in a 3-D format (yes, you get to wear special glasses) in standard theaters.

The ship's splendor remains evident even after 89 years at the bottom of the North Atlantic -- final resting place for the manmade wonder that another large ego once proclaimed unsinkable and for almost 1,500 souls who went down with her.

"Ghosts of the Abyss" utilized state-of-the-art equipment including three-man submersible ships, a new 3-D camera system and two small remote-control vehicles that could crawl into the wreck and explore its corridors and staterooms. Some of these were designed by Cameron or by his brother, Mike, an engineer.

The movie contains a few of the stunning effects we expect from 3-D movies. Pincers at the end of the long arm of a crane look like they're about to clip off your nose. Under the water, bubbles seem to float between you and the screen.

Mostly, however, the 3-D process creates a kind of extreme deep focus that accentuates the separation between the foreground and background of a shot. This produces the haunting effect Cameron no doubt intended when he superimposes photographs of the pristine Titanic over the same areas of the wreck. How much of the ship's glory remains intact!

The movie uses what look like full-size artist renderings of interior areas of the ship, like what Cameron might have used to make his 1997 Oscar winner, and brief clips from that film.

Cameron also superimposes actors playing the passengers (NOT the stars of the earlier film) over shots of the undersea leviathan, thereby supplying the ghosts of his title. Some of them speak, some get away in lifeboats but most remain ephemeral as they briefly tread the decks of the great ship once more to demonstrate the logistics of those final few hours after Titanic hit the iceberg.

While Cameron appears through much of "Ghosts of the Abyss" (he operates one of the remote-control ships), the film is essentially narrated by actor Bill Paxton. He becomes our stand-in as he nervously rides one of the submersibles to the bottom of the sea and turns into a kid in a candy shop once he spots Titanic.

His narration gets effusive to the point where it starts leading the audience. We have no trouble becoming rapt in the moment by the close-up shots of the wreck and by its status as a monument to those who died aboard her. As for Cameron, he seems at times more fascinated by his filmmaking gadgets than by the somber scene in front of him.

But one final irony that occurs during the expedition, a juxtaposition of time and place and death on a large scale, helps put everything in perspective.

Titanic was a queen that didn't survive her maiden voyage. The world will outlast any human king. Only the ghosts and the legends survive, powerful in their deathly silence and in their effect upon our collective imagination.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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