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Ghosts of the Abyss DVD Review


In September 2012, Ghosts of the Abyss was reissued as a Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD combo pack.
Click here for our review of that newer edition.

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Movie & DVD Details

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Bill Paxton, James Cameron, Dr. John Broadwater, Dr. Lori Johnston, Dr. Charles Pellegrino

Theatrical Release Date: April 11, 2003

Theatrical Running Time: 61 Minutes / Extended Cut Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: PG

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French - Theatrical Cut only)
Subtitles: English, French (Extended Cut only); Closed Captioned

DVD Release Date: April 27, 2004
Two discs (DVD-9 & DVD-5); Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black Dual Amaray Keepcase
Also available in Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD ($44.99 SRP; September 11, 2012) and Amazon Instant Video

Buy Ghosts of the Abyss from Amazon.com: 2-Disc DVD Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD Instant Video

Though its title may call to mind James Cameron's 1989 film The Abyss, it is his record-breaking 1997 drama Titanic that is the closest relative thematically to Ghosts of the Abyss. This Disney-distributed IMAX documentary returns to the remains of the legendary ship which crashed in 1912 and claimed the lives of 1500 passengers. It marks Cameron's first film direction since he struck gold dramatizing the event.

Perhaps the critic's quote on the DVD cover ("Ghosts of the Abyss picks up where TITANIC left off") is misleading and intentionally so. There is no love story, no Celine Dion songs, no Leonardo or Kate. What there is, however, is a documentary on a unique voyage 12,500 feet under the sea to the remains of the Titanic.

There is also Bill Paxton, a friend of Cameron who has appeared in a number of the filmmaker's works, from The Terminator to Titanic, naturally.

Paxton is the viewer's guide to this unique exploration, as he accompanies a crew of leading scientists and historians on the largest ship of its kind to make this unique mission. Paxton's everyman quality is effective as lending perspective and personal drama to the film's journey. The first third of the film focuses primarily on Paxton as he travels way down the deep blue sea in a small vessel.

Bill Paxton is your guide to a journey like no other Footage from the Titanic wreck

While down there, they come into close contact with the wreck of the Titanic. Here, you first realize the remarkable concept of this massive landmark passenger ship which now resides isolated this great distance down the sea. Suddenly, the subject of the documentary takes on its meaning.

After this, two tiny roving bots, dubbed Jake and Elwood (like The Blues Brothers) go inside the wreckage and explore what is remaining. We see beds, windows, mirrors, and the video that the bots record is aptly supplemented by three-dimensional computer animation of the ship's design and rooms. There's also a bit of semiopaque live action dramatization, which isn't as effective. Nonetheless, the ship comes to life, and the film discusses some of the individuals who were on the boat.

Near the end of the documentary, one of the bots (Elwood) suffers some malfunction, and its brother Jake comes to the rescue, with Jake's photography and some computer animation recreating the trouble for us. This expedition concluded with a feeling of accomplishment on September 11, 2001, and the last few minutes covers the crew dealing with the news of the terrorist attacks on America and trying to put their mission in perspective.

Ghosts of the Abyss is a unique project which would not have been done if not for the interest and financing of James Cameron. Cameron notes early on that they really don't know what to expect; there is not a real script beyond the intention to get close and view the nearly century-old Titanic wreckage.

Ghosts of the Abyss is not a motion picture that fits comfortably alongside other "Disney films", so if you go in expecting that, you may be disappointed. Those with an interest in Titanic will undoubtedly be intrigued by this film, and judging by the unparalleled gross of Cameron's 1997 film, that should be more than a few people. They will also most likely be satisfied by owning this documentary on DVD, even if it doesn't resonate quite the same as it surely would have in IMAX theaters.

Those with little or passing interest in the subject matter may too find this journey a fascinating one. It is a slick and immersive experience, one that never falls into the dry, boring domain of many disengaging documentaries.

Computer animation of the ROV twins, affectionately called Jake and Elwood Bill Paxton asks what you're thinking

DISC 1 - NOTES & BONUS MATERIALS

Though Ghosts was presented in 3-D for its IMAX exhibitions, the DVD does not attempt to duplicate the effects, so don't worry that the case is missing 3-D glasses; they're not needed. There are two versions of the film included on Disc 1, though. The original theatrical cut runs 61 minutes, while and Extended Cut includes an additional 31 minutes.

This additional footage focuses more on "The Millionaire's Captain", Captain Edward Smith and some social activities of the passengers. Cameron and company dig and discover a car (and you thought that'd only happen on "Pete and Pete"!). Two additional new chapters extend footage on the crew of The Keldysh. Perhaps the most interesting new footage covers the unusual creatures that inhabit the deep sea along with the Titanic wreckage. Finally, there's a bit more of Bill Paxton waxing philosophic and some further exploration and background on the ship.

This half-hour of added content flows perfectly, both visually and dramatically, with the exisisting theatrical hour. What's best of all, is you have the choice to watch the more succinct theatrical cut, or the extended edition which puts Ghosts at a more feature-length running time.

Disc 1's menus are nicely-animated 16 x 9 screens which present three-dimensional models of the ship ruins, accompanied by soft ambient sounds and a subtle score which set the mood of the movie. The Disc 1 menu includes the THX Optimizer tests to make sure your video and audio settings are ship-shape.

Preview trailers are for Aladdin, The Incredibles, and Miracle. The Sneak Peeks menu also includes a most exciting and unexpected preview: a 2-disc Special Edition of Mulan due this October.

Also from the menu are three ads for non-movies. The first one for "DisneyDVD.com" erroneously encourages you to visit to "Be the first to know when your favorite Disney movie will be available on DVD." We're first, man! There's also a trailer for the Haunted Mansion video game. Last is a spot for Radio Disney in which a hip family forgoes eating to rock to Radio Disney in their minivan.

This is what the bot called Jake records Dramatic re-enactment of the Titanic sinking

VIDEO and AUDIO

Ghost of the Abyss is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and the picture is simply flawless. The large-format photography used for the film results in a bit of odd distortion, but also incredible levels of detail, which is wonderfully conveyed in the pristine transfer. The film's primarily deep blue color palette is accurately and vividly replicated on DVD, and there is never any trouble identifying the focus of the exploration.

As with any IMAX film, the sheer impact of the imagery is lessened when seen on the small screen, but the DVD's oustanding video quality is bound to make for an enjoyable viewing experience on the smallest and the largest of 'small screens.' It is worth noting, though, that the film sometimes splits its 16:9 frame into several smaller areas of video footage, an effect that is always visually stunning and easy to digest on the ten-story IMAX screen, but not so much on home video.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was equally deserving of praise. The narration dialogue that makes up a good portion of the film is crisply and faithfully rendered in the front speakers. Music and sound effects do a great job to complement the narration, making effective use of the surround speakers. Your subwoofer may get quite a workout, as the aural ambience of the deep-sea exploration is often heavy on bass. While nothing can compare with the grand scale audio technology and acoustics of IMAX theaters, this 5.1 channel soundtrack does a commendable job at creating a lively and appropriate mix.

Disc 1 Main Menu Computer animation recreates the interior of the ship in portions of the film

DISC 2 - BONUS MATERIALS

Though there are just two bonus features on Disc 2, they are both of substance. By Disney's count, they total 87 minutes, which by itself wouldn't even mean a packed bonus disc. A more reasonable count of the two bonus features is about 41 minutes, for reasons you'll see later. Still, there's no reason to complain about Disney's wise decision to not try and squeeze a lot onto just a single disc, even if it probably would have been okay.

First up is "Reflections from the Deep", which can be played as six short featurettes, or as one 32-minute collection. It is a mix of footage not used in the theatrical or extended cuts of the film with post-production interviews with some of the principals. This collection does provide a nice making-of for the film and I enjoyed the light-hearted tone to these pieces.

The first section, "Echoes in Time" covers the translucent live action dramatization that is superimposed over the wreckage footage and used to some degree in the film. "Paxton Under Pressure" discusses how he was persuaded to go 12 thousand feet deep for the film, and what the actor's trip entailed. "Who Are the Zodiac Cowboys?" answers that question which is sure to have been bugging you, and along with some cool text effects, discusses the wetsuit-donning MIR riders.

Bill Paxton and James Cameron reflect on making the film The Saga of Jake & Elwood is recalled in one vignette The MIR Experience provides six camera angles of a deep-sea dive in real time

"The Saga of Jake & Elwood" chronicles the snag that the crew hit when one of the two bots became stuck and the other was used to rescue its brother bot. "The Unthinkable" answers the question "Where was Bill Paxton when September 11th happened?" and provides some candid reaction of the crew to the news from America, which coincided with the end of the expedition. It's kind of touching, actually. The last section, "Keldysh Home Movies", contains footage of the crew setting off in August 2001, plus the living and social conditions of the ship, with some more comments from crew members.

The second and final bonus feature is "The MIR Experience", which as introduced with a Russian accent, presents the crew's Dive #5 in two tiny MIR vessels. You can choose from six different angles from which to view the footage: cameras from the two MIRs, two cameras outside the MIRs, and the two ROV's cameras. There are real-time thumbnails of the six different camera angles above and you can change at any time, the audio of James Cameron (MIR 1), Bill Paxton (MIR 2) and company plays fluidly.

Footage runs for 8 minutes and 35 seconds, so the "DVD Guide" insert's listing of 52:50 is a bit misleading. They seem to have multiplied the length times the six different camera angles and added a minute, and the ROV cameras aren't even always displaying video. While the cinema verite nature of this bonus feature is certainly compelling and the design and angles make use of DVD technology, watching all six angles all the way through would probably only interest the most technically-inclined of viewers.

Disc Two's menus also use computer animation that alternates between the boat as it was and the boat as it is. With the images, bubble animation, plus score and sound effects in 5.1, it's a nice presentation.

James Cameron and Bill Paxton discuss things A real life Zodiac Cowboy in action!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Just how much you enjoy Ghosts of the Abyss is likely to depend on your interest in the Titanic. Both the hour-long theatrical cut and 90-minute extended version of the film offered engaging exploration of fascinating real-life remnants from the fateful ship. Disney's two-disc DVD release presents the film with impeccable video, dynamic audio, and a couple of enjoyable bonus features. With the understanding that Ghosts is neither your typical Disney film nor your typical documentary, it is worth checking out.

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Related Reviews:
Ghosts of the Abyss (Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD)
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Good Documentaries: Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (2001)
With Bill Pullman, not Bill Paxton: Newsies (1992)
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Water: Finding Nemo (2003), The Little Mermaid (1989), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

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Reviewed April 24, 2004.



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