As Bill Paxton — actor turned narrator and deep-sea explorer in James Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss — prepares to make the 2.5-mile trip below the surface of the North Atlantic to explore the Titanic, he notes in a tone of foreboding that, like the maiden voyage of Titanic, the crew traveling to film the sunken ship is pushing the “limits of technology.”
The combination of the technology on the screen — the cutting-edge submersibles and camera-ready remote operated vehicles, dubbed Jake and Elwood — with the technology of the screen — 3-D IMAX — confirms in some measure Paxton’s statement.
Of course, Cameron’s voyage never approximates the shock, tension, or drama of Titanic’s fatal trip (rough going for the crew on the surface of the turbulent sea and a recovery effort to reunite Jake and Elwood don’t quite do the trick). Yet the film, which lasts just over an hour, is so effectively shot and edited that it brings viewers into contact with the past, not just with a relic, but with living history. Paxton attempts to give a sort of Reality-TV-feel to the documentary by remarking that there’s “no script.” And the raw footage is visually stunning, especially on big-screen 3-D. This is a film that needs to be seen in an IMAX theater; the DVD version is likely to be something of a disappointment.
The corpses of the passengers have long since been consumed by the ocean, but “things resonate,” as Paxton observes. As we roam through the ship, we discover a remarkable number of things that have survived the ravages of time: glass windows, intricately designed woodwork, carvings in fireplaces, and, in one room, glasses and a water pitcher, still intact and still upright.
Because of Cameron’s artistry, it is not just things that resonate, but human lives as well. Cameron frequently superimposes, over the images of portions of the sunken ship, footage of actors in period dress. The superimposition is performed so deftly that it seems as if the lives are reemerging out of the shadows of the ship itself. Cameron also makes excellent use of period photographs. Unlike his 1997 movie version of Titanic, which wallowed in the romance of its central characters, the tone here is always somber, as befits a visit to a gravesite.
We come into contact with the lives and fates of some of the rich and famous, alongside the working-class members of the crew, the captain, the man responsible for the decisions to limit the number of lifeboats placed on board, and the men who made varying judgments about procedures for loading the lifeboats.
Paxton’s commentary is at times witty and perceptive, although he tends to grate when he dominates the screen for too long. And there is a rather sophomoric debate over lifeboat ethics as Cameron’s crew banters about whether those in lifeboats not filled to capacity should have returned to try to save others once they saw Titanic sink. But these are momentary distractions from the abiding focus of the film on the ship and its former occupants.
In fact, one of the moments that could have marred the final product comes off rather well. When the last group emerges from its trip in the deep-sea submersible, it is mid-afternoon of September 11, 2001. One cringes in anticipation of what sort of pronouncements Hollywood types might make at this moment. But, the members of the crew, still reeling from the initial news of the terrorist attacks, are subdued, awestruck, and quietly reflective. The only parallel they draw is the reasonable one that, like the sinking of the Titanic, the events of September 11 were “unthinkable” the day before they occurred.
Ghosts is aptly named. Whatever might be the historical lessons of the sinking of the Titanic, something Cameron wisely leaves to others to debate, events of this magnitude, especially it seems tragic events, haunt us through the corridors of time. In an early scene, Paxton invites viewers to use the occasion of the recording of the voyage to “try to remember” the past. With its visually stunning footage and Cameron’s artistic editing, Ghosts enables us to do just that. Ghosts of the Abyss is technology and art in service of historical memory.