Ghosts of the Abyss
starring Bill Paxton and the Titanic
3 stars

James Cameron has a lot of money. A lottttttttt of money. So much, in fact, that he can afford to spend millions of dollars pursuing his interests, which happen to include exploring underwater shipwrecks with robots. And, being a filmmaker, he can defray the costs by making a film about the stuff he's checking out. 

He did it not long ago for TV, an underwater robot-probe expose on the Bismark. Now, or rather in 2001, he's going back to the Titanic to poke around. We, if we choose, can accompany him in 3D Imax form and gawk in awed silence at the serene majesty of the Titanic's rotting corpse.

"There's no script. We don't know what we're gonna find down there," Cameron tells Bill Paxton, whom he invited along to watch and narrate. True enough, but we know what we're *not* gonna find out down there -- anything we saw in Titanic. So, we're not going to see dramatic re-creation of what it would have been like to be there on that fateful night, and we're not going to see any special-effects rendition of what it looked like when the Titanic finally broke up and went down. If you want to see that stuff, rent Titanic.

So what's left? Well, a lot of floating underwater footage of the wreck, with a few CGI recontructions and a fair number of ghostly semi-transparent boatsmen walking around on long-encrusted decks. Paxton talks for a while about how nervous he is about going down, badgering his Russian pod-mate with questions about emergencies, and then he spends most of the time gasping at how big things are and ruminating on what it all means. "Imagine what it would be like to be standing there at the tiller as they approached the iceberg," Paxton says, and I do, and it looks a lot like the scene in Titanic where the guy is standing there at the tiller as they approached the iceberg. But that's not this movie. 

There's something of a had-to-be-there quality to the wonder and awe that Paxton expresses, a quality you don't really get even granting the Imaxness and 3Dness of the experience. In truth, in some ways Imax and 3D cancel each other out; when you go to stereoscopic vision, the huge screen doesn't look so huge anymore. And maybe my eyes are crooked, but sometimes it got kind of uncomfortable to look at things.

The real problem though is a slight misallocation of passion. Cameron picked Bill Paxton to be his narrator, deciding (probably correctly) that people might not want to listen to James Cameron babble on about the Titanic. But it's Cameron's passion and enthusiasm that is the real story, and he should have just dumped the false modesty and admited that he was the star of the show. We see it already as the film comes to life whenever Cameron's at the controls, hotdogging the robots through tiny broken crevasses to explore deeper depths.

Indeed, the coolest part of the film is when one of the robots gets stuck, and Cameron has to mount a jerry-rigged rescue operation with the other one. There's some real tension and painstaking untanglement going on there, with the bizarre twist that when they return to the surface, they're informed that terrorists have just flown airplanes into the World Trade Center. Luckily, Cameron doesn't get too ambitious in linking what they're doing with 9-11, but it's a curious counterpoint all the same.

Ultimately, though, Ghosts of the Abyss comes off as something you might get on the second disk of a deluxe Titanic DVD reissue. Without the narrative of Titanic or the exciting combat recreations of Expedition: Bismark, Ghosts of the Abyss is mostly one man satisfying his curiosity. If you're curious about the Titanic, you might want to tag along.