This Imax-friendly partially 3-D feature by Jim Cameron’s primary attraction is the first-time ever footage of the inner sanctum of the wreck of the Titanic. No horsey divas warbling over a love story concocted to bring the tragedy home. This is scientists and laypersons with technological wonders seeing where no person has seen for 89 years. After Cameron’s crew innovated methods to incorporate actual wreck footage for his 1997 film, he went back in 2001 with a professional deep sea crew and newly created camera ‘bots for a more in-debth look. If that interests you, you won’t be disappointed. The levels of access are pretty amazing.
Using small, maneuverable remote rovers, the cameras take our eyes deeper into the ship than otherwise possible. It is transfixing to see objects untouched, even undisturbed, by the 12,500 foot plummet to the sea floor. A huge chandelier rig lights the entire scene from above, artificial moonlight on a cold grave. The effect is truly beautiful. Cameron is an experienced filmmaker, not just a facts-only scientist – he wants this to be special. With his narrative film background, he’s smart about his approach to the shoot. They have a miniature model of the wreck to plan their shots and approaches and entries, a 3-D storyboard that we get to see to help us understand what were looking at. Ghostlike apparitions of the passengers strolling along the gangways or shoveling coal into the engines assist with envisoning the scale and function of the dimly lit, corroded debris on the screen. A couple of times, the re-enactments teeter on the cliff of cheese, but nearly always pull back. The accompanying CGI models built from the blueprints also assist us with orientation and comprehension.
Bill Paxton, as the slightly nervous and funny everyman character he developed in Aliens, injects the human response into the experience. He’s not a deep-sea diver or a scientist, nor is he legendary control freak Cameron. He’s just a regular guy with an actor’s training who adds the layman feel and commentary, an effective addition.
Cameron also knows he audience cannot possibly feel the awe the crew was feeling upon being only six feet from the historical artifacts. To compensate, he unwisely gives us shot after shot from the outside of the Mir diving modules of the people inside, peering out with wonder. It’s a Spielbergian thing to do – except Cameron has already shown the real prize. Reaction shots (as Spielberg uses them) build anticipation before you seen the amazing thing eliciting the reaction. Showing a microbiologist goggling at the sunken treasure is just depriving the audience of what they now know they are missing. It fills us with envy, not wonder.
The rovers’ cameras are standard video, so we end up with crisp, gorgeous 3D film shots of Paxton going, “whoa” and grainy superimposed shots of the real show. This is of course an inevitable difficulty with the rovers, but why compound the discordance? At one point, the crew is discussing some of what they saw that day, and one guy talk about seeing a perfect shoe on a ledge. We never get to see this shoe, and that sums up the one real issue with this film: we get a very strong sense of the profundity of the experience for this small group privileged enough to go, and only a taste of the many tantalizing glimpses seen by them.
The film borders on awe-inspiring, borders on wondrous, but unfortunately, Cameron’s attempts to cop Spielberg’s sense of magic made the film fall sadly short. However, the footage you do see really is spectacular, so if it interests you at all, I recommend you see it on the big screen.
MPAA Rating G
Release date 4/11/03
Time in minutes 45
Director james Cameron
Studio Walt Disney Pictures