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Aliens of the Deep DVD Review

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Movie & DVD Details

Directors: James Cameron, Steven Quale

Cast: Dijanna Figueroa, Dr. Jim Childress, Dr. Anatoly Sagalevitch, Loretta Hidalgo, James Cameron

Theatrical Release Date: January 28, 2005

Theatrical Running Time: 47 Minutes / Extended Cut Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: G

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: November 1, 2005
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99 (Reduced from $29.99)
Black Keepcase

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Less than two years after last probing the depths of the ocean,
director James Cameron is back for Aliens of the Deep, another undersea expedition turned larger-than-life IMAX documentary. In Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron and company's previous big, big screen outing for Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media, teams of scientists and historians accompanied the man who helmed 1997's record-setting drama Titanic twelve and a half thousand feet beneath the Earth's surface to explore the wreckage of the real sunken ship. This time, Cameron has rounded up marine biologists and astrobiologists to observe life as it exists at the bottom of the ocean, far away from that central dynamo that dictates life on land (the sun) and at conditions that mankind is anything but suited for.

The questionable premise that explains the "Aliens" in the title (aside from a reference to Cameron's widely-adored 1986 sequel Aliens, which appears to be something of a theme to the naming of his IMAX documentaries) is that the deep-sea environment where creatures prosper far from sunlight might tell us of how life could exist on a foreign planet. This is the film's flimsy-sounding assumption and one which is repeatedly summoned to turn this from an authentic nature study to a speculative piece that teeters on the edge of science fiction. Some captivating time-lapse photography early on provides just a few glimpses of grounded human reality before the groups plunge down below in carefully-constructed and regulated vehicles to focus their efforts on creatures that few will encounter first-hand in their lifetimes.

Part of what made Ghosts of the Abyss so compelling was that it was a study which learned more about the Titanic -- not merely the structure of the impressive ship, but the passengers' lives and activities. There is very little of such a human angle here, and there is also no Bill Paxton. The actor who has regularly appeared in Cameron's films assumed the role of an everyman host to the prior production's discoveries and, as silly as that may sound, his absence and the lack of anyone else to fill such a role hinders Aliens of the Deep. Instead, we are left with PhD students and individuals that one gathers are respected in their various fields but not the most identifiable folks or ones who can ease non-experts into understanding just exactly what they're doing and why.

James Cameron explains to the rest of the crew just exactly what he's going to have them do this time. Bless my lucky stars, a real live sea ribbon!

The cast seem to be having a good enough time. Many, we're told, are finally getting to observe things they've spent years studying and theorizing about. The thrill of being submerged under water in fancy equipment effectively one-ups them over the viewer, who can only remain sitting, watching, and growing disinterested by the increasing distance (literally, mentally, physically, and so on) which separates them from the ocean explorers.

Almost all of Aliens' power comes from its images, which are naturally not nearly as potent on a television set as they were on an eight-story IMAX screen. Still, there's a magnetic quality to the well-captured footage of the weird and wacky beings which are observed as flourishing in spite of the extreme elements of their home environment. These things that you don't see everyday and probably wouldn't want to invite rubbernecking: a translucent living ribbon, shrimp which thrive in the face of volcanic smoke, and a crab which stands up to the crustaceans drawn to the bacteria on his shell. Though they likely won't spur in you the gushing exclamations they do for the mission participants (Cameron fawns over "the most insane amount of biomass" he has ever seen), imagery of such life forms are bound to awaken at least a dash of curiosity inside you.

Unfortunately, that's about all Aliens has to offer, which makes it fine for a fun afternoon excursion to the IMAX theater with 3-D glasses, but not a great deal more. Everything encountered leads to an unconvincing parallel that surely extraterrestrial life must be out there and most likely, it's under the icy core of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. By its end, the movie gives off the unfortunate vibe of it being an expensive plea for approval to explore Europa to find and study the aliens that would just have to be deep under the surface along with liquid water. The case is not aided by speculative special effects, whereby one of the more charismatic crew members (Dijanna Figueroa) puts her hand against the glass of her pod window and greets a friendly, vibrant unidentified swimming object. Nor is it a good sign when something proclaimed as "exciting" has to resort to an unexpected octopus appearance punctuated by a loud chord to serve a cheap scare.

Anybody order the really big shrimp platter? Well, would you look at that!

Though the film feels plenty long at the fairly standard IMAX running time of 47 minutes, the DVD offers (as it did for Ghosts) an extended cut. Thankfully, unlike a majority of present-day films offered in alternate versions, both cuts are offered on the same disc. Neither the theatrical nor the extended cut completely resembles the IMAX exhibitions, for neither offers the 3-D experience that (needed or not) is provided by the film in its ongoing large-format screenings.

Remarkably, drawn out to 99 minutes long, Aliens does not suffer. It's still a bit sluggish, for lengthy spans of boring technobabble remain sprinkled about, but it's not as noticeably slow as you'd expect from having double the running time. This expanded edit of the film adds profiles of the Russian Academy of Science, who basically go unmentioned in the theatrical cut. It also provides footage of obstacles the mission faced which are much more concerning to those on screen than those of us watching. I don't know if I can go ahead and laud the longer cut as an improvement per se, but there are definitely some valid additions among the inevitably bloated tedium.

I'm conflicted in how greatly I want to condemn Aliens of the Deep. I appreciate that such a project could be pulled off and exists, but as a movie, it's undoubtedly lacking. Personally, I don't find the film's insights or focus interesting enough to forgive its cinematic faults, but I'm sure many will find its theories and subjects worth contemplating. To me, Ghosts of the Abyss was an enjoyable alternative to fictional narrative cinema and it was a technically sound exploration of a subject which would interest you by its conclusion if not by its start. Aliens, on the other hand, feels like a needless continuation, with Cameron, his blue bot named Jake, and a new set of experts turning their attentions to a potentially worthy subject and then using their findings to argue for the need of outer space travel. It is the second part which many may find irksome, but at the same time, it is as if the initial subject wasn't quite interesting enough itself to sustain even an IMAX-length movie all its own.

It's not just a bunch of balls in the desert. It's speculative science via CGI, you see. The multi-talented bot Jake (his blue brother Elwood is nowhere to be seen this time) gets a close shot of some icky white thing.

Just because gifted director James Cameron has the money, interest, and technology to oversee such a project doesn't mean that moviegoers will necessarily care, even if the titles reference past works of his that people really do enjoy.
In its more dubious moments, such as its make-believe conclusion, Aliens plays like a science fiction film, something that Cameron makes passing dismissal of as being less interesting than his underwater pursuits. But there's only some fiction and none of the compelling characters that come with the territory. The extended cut expands upon the humans driving this mission, which almost fulfills that latter need, but one can only relate so much with individuals who are deluding themselves into thinking they are exploring Mars.

Ultimately, with very few keen observations to its dialogue or narration, the film's greatest asset is its handful of shots of weird creatures that reside at the bottom of the ocean. That takes it somewhere, but does not qualify the entire outing as something worth your time without an established interest in such subjects.

VIDEO and AUDIO

As is to be expected, Aliens of the Deep looks pretty stellar on DVD. Like Ghosts of the Abyss, it is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, which we can assume to be the film's intended home video aspect ratio even though IMAX theaters utilize a ratio of about 1.44:1. Everything looks framed properly and the large format photography holds up very well. Still, the transfer does not achieve the perfection you might hope for, given the dual-layered disc that's barren of bonus material and the Lowry Digital-approved status of the theatrical print. A few shots appear victims of compression and offer some banding or artifacting. The extended cut also features some blurry imagery that clearly was not shot with IMAX technology but some kind of handheld digital camera. On the whole, though, picture quality is fairly exemplary and as this is not a movie apt to be revisited anytime on this format, it is fortunate that any visual shortcomings are minor.

In the audio department, though it certainly can't rival an IMAX theater's sound system, the DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is commendable and more potent than you may expect for a quasi-documentary. The score by Jeehun Hwang tries to spruce up the film; the divers' trip to the base is set to club-like music, while a riveting (literally) sequence from the extended cut is accompanied by a more rock-tageous sound. The instrumentation goes a long way to engulf you in ways that the images alone and the film artistically cannot. Even in the most everyday of settings, you'll notice some dimensionality to the recordings. The intermittent narration is perfectly crisp and even in the demanding environment of the ocean bottom, dialogue is picked up sufficiently.

What say you, Russians? The animated main menu stretches to keep you entertained as you contemplate, "Do I want to watch 47 minutes of this or 99?"

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, and DESIGN

Outside of the extended cut of the film (which is no minor inclusion, to be sure), there are no bonus features at all. This stands in contrast to Ghosts of the Abyss, which received a two-disc set, albeit hardly the loaded package dual platters usually entail. I'm sure fans of Aliens would have appreciated some behind-the-scenes featurettes like what was present for Ghosts and perhaps even a directors' commentary. Personally, I'd have settled for the film's theatrical trailer, a basic extra that has all but vanished from Disney's DVD arsenal. But to quote Judge Elihu Smails from Caddyshack, "You'll get nothing and like it!"

The menus are fairly low-key, with the Main Menu offering
a looped minute of underwater imagery set to awestruck score excerpts. It provides the choice to access menus for either the theatrical cut or the extended cut - each is a static screen offering only "Play" and "Scene Selections" listings in a font identical to the location typeface of Cameron's choice. The extended version only has two additional scene selections, but the headings and breaks are almost entirely different.

As usual, previews for other movies play at the start of the disc: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Touchstone's Flightplan, and Toy Story 2: Special Edition. The Sneak Peeks menu hold an additional two promos for Buena Vista's TV on DVD (highlighting their six most popular series available on the format) and the upcoming Kermit's 50th Anniversary re-releases of four Muppet movies.

Are you there, God? It's me, Jim Cameron. It's kind of disappointing when the best shot of your documentary is a fake.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Utilizing esteemed scientists and state-of-the-art technology, director James Cameron has again carried out a personal goal of exploring the oceans' depths and making an IMAX movie out of it. Whereas the previous mission to probe the ruins of the Titanic felt unique and purposeful, Aliens of the Deep does not, leaving most viewers bored.
Those who have often wondered about life at the bottom of the sea must comprise the small demographic that can find this outing full of appeal. If "carbonate structure", "stalactites", and "obsidian" are among your regular vocabulary, then this film might be right up your alley. The rest of us apathetic folk will no doubt find some intrigue to the odd inhabitants of the ocean floor on display, but Aliens' interesting images are wrapped up in bland observations and scientific speculation that require more patience than they deserve. As far as documentaries go, this is unfocused and fairly uninvolving.

With most of its power residing in its large-format photography, the jump to home video deflates Aliens considerably. Unlike some IMAX productions, which can hold up when viewed at only a fraction of their theatrical dimensions, Aliens fails to provide enough to support its visuals on TV playback, even with the solid quality of the DVD's picture and sound. The lone feature this disc boasts is an extended version of the film, which more than doubles the length of the theatrical cut, with little effect on it as a whole. As such, Aliens only holds replay value for those with a pre-existing interest in the subject and even they may be wise to rent it first.

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Reviewed October 29, 2005.