After giving us the astounding details of a maritime disaster in Titanic, director James Cameron now presents an equally astounding 3-D return to the real wreckage of the ship, under 12,000 feet of ocean and at a pressure of 6,000 pounds per square inch. Part scientific exploration, part history lesson, Cameron has pulled together a multinational dive team and crew with specialized expertise, along with actor Bill Paxton as a participant-narrator for a documentary that is at times awesome and at times meditative on how one faces the question of life or death in the face of disaster.
Making the revisit possible is the most advanced underwater submersible and IMAX 3-D camera technology. The capabilities of both are well demonstrated in an introductory section of the film, taking full advantage of the medium to make you dodge a claw as it thrusts out at you, or allow you to carefully study faces as though you're sitting next to them.
When the cameras take you to the depths, the only thing missing from a scuba diving experience is that you're not wet. Divers will experience deja vu as bubbles and detritus percolate in front of your face (or so you think in front of the IMAX screen) as you hit the water and descend. And then the ship itself appears out of the gloom, eerily still, its own morgue and coffin, a statement of human industry, engineering, and vulnerability. Methodically, Cameron and crew guide the cameras around the hull and inside it for a meticulous inspection of the artifacts and structure that survived the sinking and the destructive processes that gnaw away at it. In post-production, Cameron stages scenes and sets and superimposes them over the wreck to demonstrate what it was in 1912.
Besides the main submersible camera, two small robotic cameras with enough personality to be named Jake and Elwood are employed to weightlessly glide us through the ruins of ornate corridors and rooms unseen by human eyes for a century, the three-dimensional effect adding visceral reality to the journey. We see stained glass windows still perfectly intact; a water glass on a shelf exactly as it had been left, a bowler hat whose owner is known -- all suggesting ghosts of the lives that were caught in a devastating tragedy. The entangling of one of the robots' fiber optic tethers indicates the dangerously restricted nature of the access through the ship and provides a moment of real time drama.
Dive footage is intercut with commentary from the scientists in the sub and aboard the mother vessel, providing us with the human touch. All that's for the best, and Cameron's fascination with this ship transfers to the audience for a good part of the film. But even the personality of as amusing (and easily overawed) a fellow as Bill Paxton doesn't keep it compelling forever.
How long you remain enthralled will depend on your interest in the subject and the dazzle of the 3-D effects. It's a novelty and a history lesson that should be seen, but the 59 minute limit of IMAX projection technology is not an unwelcome restriction. It's just short enough to avoid getting waterlogged. Now, Mr. Cameron, if you've purged yourself of this fixation, perhaps you'll recognize that the broader public may not share your level of enthusiasm. You may now return your perfectionist moviemaking skills to narrative fiction.
No 3-D effects on the DVD, I'm afraid, but Cameron adds another half hour of footage (and abandons the split screen format), to the original one-hour film, so Titanic aficionados will find more goodies here to sink their teeth into. A second DVD includes more outtakes from the dives and a multi-angle feature that lets you see the footage from the various underwater cameras simultaneously.
Under the sea.