Early on in 'Ghosts of the Abyss,' Lewis Abernathy, who played a small role alongside Bill Paxton in James Cameron's 'Titanic,' asks the honest question about our fascination with the historical RMS Titanic. Why, out of so many other maritime stories of disasters involving sunken ships and lives lost out at sea, are we captivated by this one ill-fated voyage of a British passenger liner? Even before Cameron's romantic fairytale of two star-crossed lovers shattered box-office records, it seems popular culture has had an invested interest on this particular event, from books and music to memorabilia and cautionary tales. The film industry has been producing dramatizations since the silent era, and even the Nazi's fictionalized the tragedy for their own national self-interest. Now, in its 100th anniversary, what is it that still attracts us to the once-unsinkable "Ship of Dreams"?
Growing up as a young impressionable kid, I also knew of that night on 15 April 1912 in which 1500 people died from stories I've read in books and heard on television or from my teachers. I remember the country's thirst for more Titanic-related knowledge suddenly ballooning in the late 1980s with the discovery of the ship's final resting place in the North Atlantic. Not seen in over 70 years since that fateful night, our first glimpses of the vessel's remains weren't exactly the best, since the technology for capturing high-quality images wasn't quite ready. Nevertheless, it was enough to captivate our imaginations and fuel a renewed curiosity for what was understood as the height of early 20th-Century human ingenuity — the pride of modern technology, symbolizing our superiority as a species. Of course, the tragedy suddenly brings such foolish pride into perspective, reminding us of the price we pay when our arrogance displaces our better judgment.
It's not far-fetched to believe that Cameron was also engrossed like everyone else seeing scientists operating deep-sea vehicles at the bottom of the ocean and inspired to make 'The Abyss' very soon after the ship's discovery. A decade later, his own attraction to "The Millionaire's Special" would eventually motivate him to make his own film adaptation, again igniting a mass-scale interest on the ship's history and that disastrous night. A few years later with 'Ghosts of the Abyss,' Cameron shares his fascination with the public and fans of his mega blockbuster. He takes viewers on a mesmerizing tour with scientists and other devoted enthusiasts like Bill Paxton, who also serves as narrator for the documentary. Nearly 90 years later since it sank, audiences get a better look of the legendary ocean liner, spellbound by haunting images of the ship's still majestic beauty and nicely grounded by Paxton's unscripted thoughts of his experience.
With the latest in high-quality camera systems, specially designed by Cameron, Vince Pace, and the help of Cameron's younger brother Mike, we explore the exterior and the interior of the Titanic while also learning a great deal of its history. We are allowed for the first time to fully appreciate and marvel at the craftsmanship that went into its engineering and the artistry of its design which made it a grand sight to behold. When thinking of Abernathy's question, I believe a good part of the ship's appeal comes from our venerating the immense work that went into its creation. The documentary shows several vintage photographs at a shipyard and of all the upper decks as they originally looked while also exploring many of those same areas. Its designer Thomas Andrews is talked about with great respect, and we're in awe of the massive size of the engines and the boilers. It's easy to see why people at the turn of the century thought so highly of this spectacularly regal ship.
At the end of the day, however, I believe the reason we're enchanted and seduced by the RMS Titanic is due to the several, unexpected tragic stories inherent to its regrettable history. We seem to naturally gravitate towards these moments of catastrophe not only because of the great loss of life in a single point of time and place, but also because of the drama and heartache that transpired during the event. We have an innate desire to memorialize and eventually romanticize these incidents in such a way that we may all sympathetically experience it with others as one unified group, be it through books, music or film. The real thing we ultimately admire and marvel at, eliminating for even a short while our foolishly prideful sense of superiority, are the tales of self-sacrificing bravery and the selfless courage to help our fellow human being survive. Even those who fail to such virtuous behavior still have their place in our romanticized vision as a standard by which to measure one's bravery and generosity. We also possess an intrinsic wish to believe ourselves capable of genuine greatness in light of incomprehensible adversity.
Ironically, towards the end of Cameron's expedition, the world experienced another devastating disaster with the September 11 attacks in New York. It's interesting to hear everyone reflecting and comparing just as they're hearing the news. Honestly, seeing as how one is more recent than the other, still fresh in our minds and recovering from the effects of that Tuesday morning, the comparisons are somewhat difficult to imagine. Yet, as we see with the tragedy of the RMS Titanic, our need to construct stories of bravery and compassion in honor of those who perished still continues, memorializing our fascination with that particular event and cementing it into our collective memories.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment coincidentally brings James Cameron's 'Ghosts of the Abyss – 3D' to Blu-ray on Tuesday, September the 11th. The three-disc combo pack is Region Free, except for the DVD-9 copy of the documentary, housed inside a normal blue keepcase with a flipper that holds both BD50 discs on either side and comes with a lenticular slipcover.
The first disc is a 3D Blu-ray containing only the original 60-minute theatrical cut of the film and goes straight to a 3D main menu once placed inside the player. The second Blu-ray comes with the same theatrical doc as well as the 91-minute extended version which features. Much of the narration and storyline remains the same between the two, but the longer cut is of great interest with 31-minutes of added underwater footage from the Titanic. The 2D disc commences with a couple skippable trailers, one of which is for 'Finding Nemo – 3D,' before moving on to the identical main menu seen on the first disc.
'Ghosts of the Abyss' arrives on 3D Blu-ray with a spectacular and pretty close to flawless MVC-encoded transfer. Granted, several of the underwater sequences make it a tad difficult to see and appear slightly softer than the rest, but that's entirely due to any limitations in the camera systems and lots of debris and dirt floating in the way. Even those moments with high-beam lights trying to penetrate into the darkness where we'd expect some banding are essentially clean and simply beautiful look at. And in spite of the darken glasses, we can make every nook and cranny of the legendary RMS Titanic and appreciate its elegant splendor, even while covered in rust-eating bacteria slowly devouring the mighty "Ship of Dreams."
Presented in 3D, as it was originally filmed and intended for viewing, the documentary is another experience all unto itself. It often feels like an IMAX quality production, with imagery that's razor-sharp and crisp. Background information digs deep into the screen, creating an incredibly immersive feeling of being there. Hallways are elongated, people walk about independently of their surroundings, and objects, like the pair of remotely-operated submersibles, seem to realistically float in the middle of the living room. Even while underwater, exploring and appreciating the artistry of the ship's interior, depth and distance is absolutely remarkable. A few pop-out gimmicks, such as the metallic arm-clamp of the three-man submersible, penetrates from the screen and almost seems to reach out to grab your face. Vintage photographs stylized in the tradition of stereographic cards as if looking through a stereoscope are also exceptional and somewhat the highlight of the show. This is definitely a new favorite of the 3D format.
The 2D presentation found on the second Blu-ray disc is not quite as impressive with contrast appearing dimmer and maybe even a tad flatter. This doesn't necessarily ruin the show in a significant way, except make the image seem slightly duller. (Somehow, its 3D counterpart has a brighter punch to it.) Black levels are only affected in scenes above water, when cast and crew are chatting aboard the Russian vessel. Once we're exploring the wreckage, blacks are rich and true with deep, penetrating shadows. Colors are accurate, but also not very vibrant. However, definition and clarity of the ship's current condition, along with the few visible details of the surviving architecture, are actually quite sharp and marvelous. We get a few hints of extremely mild banding, but it's not too terrible or distracting. The footage from the two mini-submersibles is noticeably the weakest but also easily forgivable, given their source and photographic conditions. All in all, the high-def transfer of the documentary in either format looks fantastic, with the 3D version coming out the clear winner.
James Cameron and Walt Disney Studios have also put together a splendid DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for this documentary. It's a rather unique presentation because the entire sound system is not fully utilized, yet it's excitingly immersive and highly-engaging.
When above water while walking the deck of the Russian vessel, we hear the typical sounds of life on a ship and the ocean waves very faintly filling the surrounds, keeping the listening area energized and adding another layer to the enjoyment of the 3D movie. One scene in particular, as turbulent waves crash all around while the submersible is about to be lifted out of the water, is quite enveloping and rather thrilling. When exploring the Titanic, the rears are not quite as active, but the silence is still a haunting presence. Every now and then the odd discrete effect reminds us that there's still movement in these lower depths. The music, most of all, makes the best use of the back speakers, keeping viewers engaged and interested.
The original design keeps much of the action in the front soundstage, showing excellent channel balance with seamless panning and movement from one side of the screen to the other. Imaging is expansive and lively with plenty of consistent activity throughout, especially when the doc shows reenactments of life on the ship. Vocals are lucid and precise, coming in often slightly louder and much clearer than the rest of the track. Although there isn't a whole lot of action to clearly demonstrate the lossless mix's potential, the mid-range remains consistently stable and detailed, maintaining terrific separation of the few highs there are. Most impressive of the entire high-rez track, however, is the surprisingly powerful low-end, reaching some serious ultra-deep frequencies with appreciable authority, especially when waves are crashing everywhere.
The same set of special features is ported over for this release.
A few years after 'Titanic' shattered box-office records, filmmaker James Cameron decide to return to the real-life RMS Titanic for another diving expedition. Joining him is actor Bill Paxton, who also serves as narrator, and a team of scientists seeking to further explore the legendary British passenger liner and marvel at its still-majestic beauty while pondering on the many stories intimately linked to that tragic night during the ship's maiden voyage across the Atlantic. The three-disc combo package arrives with a great high-def picture and an even better 3D presentation as it was originally filmed and intended. The lossless audio is a very subtle but still terrific mix that further pulls viewers into the vessel's ghostly grave. Special features are unfortunately not very extensive, but enjoyable nonetheless, making the package the perfect complement to Cameron's 'Titanic.'