Program Notes: Ghosts of the Abyss (2003)
Even moviegoers who take little pleasure in the films of James (“I'm king of the world!”) Cameron may find themselves softening up to Ghosts of the Abyss, the Titanic director's documentary about exploring the famous sunken luxury liner.
A couple of years after his huge success with Titanic, Cameron sank a chunk of his personal fortune into underwriting an expedition to the North Atlantic.
He brought with him two three-man submarines and a pair of small exploratory 'bots – dubbed Jake and Elroy – capable of entering small openings in the hull and probing deep into Titanic's rusting wreckage more than two miles below the surface.
It's absolutely eerie to find oneself in a luxury stateroom peering at a shelf on which sit – unbroken and undisturbed – a water carafe and drinking glass last touched by human hands a century ago. Or to be skimming over the ocean bed and come across a half-buried china plate bearing the emblem of the Red Star Line. Or to find a bowler hat sitting on a washstand and learn that it belonged to a man named Henry Harper.
Several Titanic experts came along for the ride, among them maritime artist Ken Marschall, microbiologist Lori Johnston, Titanic Historical Society officer Don Lynch and astro-paleontologist Charles Pellegrino. It is through their eyes and words that we experience the trip.
The main spokesman is actor Bill Paxton, who appeared in the modern-day sequences of Titanic and who provides just the right amount of gee-whiz awe and natural discomfort (including a mild panic attack in the cramped sub and a bout of seasickness) for us to identify with.
Cameron appears numerous times (he actually steers one of the 'bots by remote control), but if memory serves he's never actually identified. Whether this is a case of modesty or hubris is open to discussion.
What isn't debatable is the impressive creative technology with which Cameron has mounted this tale.
At various times during the exploration Cameron superimposes upon real footage of the sunken ship computer-generated re-creations of the way this very same corridor or stateroom originally looked. He further heightens the effect by populating these environments with ghostly images of the ship's doomed passengers and crew, moving about their watery grave.
In the final analysis, Ghosts of the Abyss is a sincere tribute to those who died in the notorious sea disaster that is both educational and entertaining. And it scrupulously avoids the sort of clunky melodrama that frequently turned Cameron’s Titanic into a groaner.
Other films in the series “Women and Children First”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- April 2: Titanic (1953) Not rated
- April 9: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) Not rated
- April 16: Raise the Titanic (1980) Rated PG
- April 23: Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) Rated G
- April 30: A Night to Remember (1958) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.