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Ghosts of the Abyss: Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD Review

Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) movie poster Ghosts of the Abyss

Theatrical Release Date: April 11, 2003 / Running Time: 61 Minutes (Theatrical), 92 Minutes (Extended) / Rating: G (Theatrical), PG (Extended)

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Bill Paxton, James Cameron, Dr. John Broadwater, Lori Johnston, Dr. Charles Pellegrino, Don Lynch, Ken Marschall, Mike Cameron, Genya Chernaiev, Victor Nischeta, Dr. Anatoly Sagalevitch, Lewis Abernathy

Tagline: The Legend No One Can Forget Has Become The Greatest 3D Adventure Ever Filmed.

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

Making both the top-grossing film of all time and an Academy Award winner for Best Picture in a single try is undoubtedly a hard act to follow.
Victor Fleming achieved that with Gone with the Wind (1939) and returned to action with 1941's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After pulling off the same unlikely feat with Titanic (1997), James Cameron took his time. Unlike professional sports, where defending your championship begins the moment you receive the trophy, Cameron could wait on the sidelines and still reign as self-proclaimed king of the world. That is kind of what he did, letting twelve years pass without releasing a narrative feature film. When Cameron resurfaced, he did so in style: handily crushing his own box office record with current champ Avatar (2009), also a rare sci-fi movie to earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Avatar was a long time coming. Cameron wrote his first treatment for the film back in 1994. Work on the Na'vi language began in 2005 and the screenplay started taking shape in 2006. But though it makes for a compelling story, the writer/director/producer did not go from one record-smashing epic to another. In between Titanic and Avatar, Cameron created the Fox series "Dark Angel" and then he developed a career as an oceanic documentarian.

Cameron's first post-Titanic directing credit came on the 2002 Discovery Channel documentary Expedition: Bismarck about the sunken German battleship Bismarck. If there was any doubt as to what was still on Cameron's mind, his next nonfiction project removed it. Ghosts of the Abyss marked a number of firsts for Cameron: his first theatrically-released documentary, his first time filming in IMAX and 3D, and his first collaboration with the Walt Disney Company, which placed its signature Walt Disney Pictures brand on the film. Ghosts would not be Cameron's last experience with any of those; there would be another Disney underwater documentary in 2005's Aliens of the Deep and, with Avatar, Cameron almost single-handedly caused the industry to embrace 3D while also reinforcing the allure of exhibiting standard feature films in IMAX.

Although Ghosts paved the way for Cameron to make his mark on 21st century filmmaking, it also extended and expanded his fascination with the Titanic. This documentary would send Cameron and others, via submersible and remotely-operated vehicles, to the site of the world's most famous shipwreck to present images of this underwater graveyard some ninety years after the Titanic first captured the public's attention.

"Ghosts of the Abyss" takes us to the final resting place of the Titanic. "Observer" Bill Paxton voices a number of questions and concerns as he rides a submersible down to the ocean floor.

Much like Avatar and, lest we forget, even Titanic, Ghosts of the Abyss was a gamble for its maker. While there were not hundreds of millions of dollars at stake here as on those productions, plenty of time, resources, and technology had to be invested in a project whose results couldn't have been known for certain in advance.

Cameron reteams with Akademik Mstislav Keldysh, the Russian scientific research vessel with whom he had worked on Titanic, making twelve dives and incorporating the ensuing footage in the present-day scenes of his hit iconic romance. Also joining in on this mission is Cameron regular Bill Paxton, evidently never letting go of his role in Titanic but really serving as a familiar public figure for viewers to relate to on this journey. (Lewis Abernathy, who played a version of himself in the present-day parts of Titanic, also participates here.)

With lighting supplied by an additional submersible, Cameron and Paxton split up and journey to the ocean floor to survey Titanic's ruins. Then, those small, well-equipped ROVs, named Jake and Elwood after The Blues Brothers, go inside the ship's remains for a closer look. They encounter some spellbinding artifacts intact: beds, plates, wrought iron gates, elevators, a stained glass window, mirrors, even a bowler hat that they are able to link to a specific passenger.

Recognizing that such finds require some context and perspective, Cameron and company supply those with re-enactments of the maiden voyage superimposed over the pertinent parts of the ship. That design underscores the film's title (which Aliens of the Deep would confirm as something of a less than obvious homage to Cameron's earlier work) and it may be a bit much for those who prefer their documentaries stuffy and all-factual. But it infuses Ghosts with general audience appeal that wasn't guaranteed even with the commercially proven director onboard. Discussion of specific passengers and the use of historical photographs add further interest.

Director James Cameron pilots a rescue mission by one ROV to save another, illustrated in this computer animation. Reenactments are superimposed over the Titanic wreckage today, yielding some literal ghosts of the abyss.

In its original theatrical cut, Ghosts runs 61 minutes, which is short for a feature film but slightly long for an IMAX production. It uses that time wisely, however, giving us enough to marvel at what we're seeing and to understand how we're seeing it. The film concludes with back-to-back doses of human interest, as the production arranges a rescue mission for Elwood, the broken-down one of the Blues Brothers bots, and succeeds on the morning of September 11, 2001,
just in time for news of the devastating terrorist attacks on America to reach the crew, initially trivializing their work and then in a way justifying tribute to a mass tragedy.

Originally scheduled to arrive in spring alongside the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's iceberg-prompted sinking (and the 3D theatrical reissue of Cameron's Titanic), Ghosts of the Abyss's Blu-ray debut instead was delayed until next Tuesday, which finds it releasing in a three-disc Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD combo pack a day after Cameron's Titanic makes its first appearance on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D.

While only Ghosts' G-rated theatrical cut is treated to a Blu-ray 3D presentation on Disc 1, the standard Blu-ray and DVD discs present the film in both that original form and a 92-minute extended version -- "rated PG for thematic elements", a classification this package fails to mention -- that was included as an option on its original 2-disc DVD release in 2004.

Perhaps Paxton discovering how one urinates in a submersible at the bottom of the ocean is what the MPAA considers "thematic elements." The elongated cut gives us a little more of everything: more of Paxton, more of the Keldysh crew, more exploration of the ship's wreckage (a car is discovered!), and more on Titanic's passengers. The extensions flow smoothly and a standard feature length is not excessive in the way that 2 hours is for the Special Edition edit of Cameron's Aliens. Having the choice between the two cuts (on two of the three formats, at least) is all we could ask of Disney. And there is an obvious explanation for the Blu-ray 3D not offering the longer edit, as it has never been presented in 3D (though it probably could have been, since it was shot the same way).

Ghosts of the Abyss Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-rays: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); Theatrical Cut only: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English); Theatrical Cut only: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French (DVD: Extended Cut only)
DVD Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Blu-ray 3D Release Date: September 11, 2012 (DVD originally released April 27, 2004)
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (2 BD-50s & 1 DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $44.99
Blue Keepcase in Lenticular, Embossed, Holographic Cardboard Slipcover
Still available on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as 2-Disc DVD (April 27, 2004)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Ghosts of the Abyss looks great on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 visuals are a little less than breathtaking, considering that you're watching a James Cameron IMAX movie in 1080p. Keeping in mind the extreme filming conditions and the limitations of certain sources, though, the clean, sharp presentation surely impresses. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is slightly underwhelming. It's not flawed in any way, it's just that it doesn't have the dynamic punch you expect from such pedigree. Crisp semi-narration speech drives the track. Comparing the Blu-ray's presentation to the DVD I described as "simply flawless" in 2004 reveals huge gains.

"Echoes in Time" shows us glimpses of filming the green screen re-enactments integrated in the film. Who Are The Zodiac Cowboys? You sure you want to know?

BONUS FEATURES

There are two main bonus features included on the Blu-ray 2D disc alone.

Reflections from the Deep (29:28) is a series of six making-of featurettes. "Echoes in Time" dissects the techniques used to faithfully recreate life on the Titanic. "Paxton Under Pressure" tags along with the actor on his anxious deep sea dives.
"Who Are the Zodiac Cowboys?" celebrates the efforts of daring MIR riders. "The Saga of Jake & Elwood" looks at the bots and an attempt to rescue the troubled one of them. "The Unthinkable" elaborates on the portion of the film with Bill Paxton breaking the news of the September 11th World Trade Center terrorist attacks to Cameron and the production then trying to process that shocking news at a great distance from civilization. "Keldysh Home Movies" captures the fun times aboard the ship. It's good footage that adds up to a solid behind-the-scenes look at this unusual production.

Then, there is "The Cheese Sandwich Incident" (2:26), something of a gag reel documenting, among other things, Cameron's frustration with only getting cheese sandwiches for lunch.

Rounding out the disc are the standard DisneyFile tutorial and legal disclaimers.

"Paxton Under Pressure" also finds the actor relaxing on the surface of the North Atlantic. James Cameron would really like some meat on his cheese sandwich.

The Blu-ray disc open with trailers for Finding Nemo 3D and Chimpanzee. The menu's Sneak Peeks listing repeats those, then plays ads for Disney Movie Rewards and Planes.

The DVD included here is identical to the first disc in the movie's original 2-disc set, a fact that becomes clear by the dated previews with which it loads, promoting Aladdin: Platinum Edition, The Incredibles, and Miracle. The Sneak Peeks menu adds more nostalgia-fueling promos for Mulan: Special Edition,
DisneyDVD.com, The Haunted Mansion video game, and Radio Disney.

A product of a different time, the DVD's Set Up menu even includes the THX Optimizer screens for calibrating your home theater's video and audio settings.

WHAT'S MISSING?

Sadly/strangely, not everything from the DVD's modest slate of extras makes the cut here. Dropped is "The MIR Experience", which presented 8 minutes and 35 seconds worth of footage from one of the crew's dives from six different angles: cameras from the two MIRs, two cameras outside the MIRs, and the two ROV's cameras. Real-time thumbnails showed the views which could easily be toggled with your remote's Angle button while the audio of James Cameron (MIR 1), Bill Paxton (MIR 2) and company played fluidly. While this isn't a tremendous casualty, it shouldn't have been difficult to transfer to Blu-ray, especially with all the space Disc 2 has to spare here. Furthermore, Ghosts' standalone DVD has been discontinued in anticipation of this release, making that feature out of print.

The Blu-rays' menus place listings in the black part of this animated screen. The DVD's main menu settles on this CGI recreation of Titanic wreckage.

MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's atmospheric menu plays clips on what looks like a radar display. The DVD's main menu takes us around a CGI recreation of the ship before dissolving into and settling on an animated reproduction of its then-current state.

Frustratingly, the Blu-ray discs are unable to resume playback. They also don't allow you to place bookmarks on the film, making a broken-up viewing much more of a chore than it should be (and more than it is on DVD).

The three discs share a standard-sized Blu-ray case with the two BDs taking opposite sides of a swinging tray. The lone insert is a Disney Movie Rewards booklet. The case is topped by a swell cardboard slipcover that includes a three-dimensional lenticular face with a "worn" silver border.

A submersible gets us up close to a bow from the Titanic, ninety years after the ship sunk on its maiden voyage.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Ghosts of the Abyss sounds like a vanity project, one relying on James Cameron's wealth, power, and unwavering interest in the Titanic. And it is. But it is also a compelling documentary that in many ways gets us closer to the ship's historic sinking than anything else (even meticulous dramatization) ever has.

While I don't know if this is the sort of thing you'll itch to revisit on a regular basis, it is something you ought to see and this combo pack is now the best way to do that. Not every fan of the film will be thrilled to spend around $30 to own it on Blu-ray; those without 3D capabilities and those who already have the movie on DVD may feel a bit gouged. But this is probably the film's last physical media release for the foreseeable future and there is an argument to be made for releasing one comprehensive edition like this (although that argument is weakened by the loss of one DVD extra).

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Related Reviews:
Directed by James Cameron: Titanic Aliens of the Deep Avatar The Terminator | Titanic: A Night to Remember
Disney Documentaries: Roving Mars Morning Light America's Heart & Soul Oceans Chimpanzee Waking Sleeping Beauty
Walden Media: Journey to the Center of the Earth Holes The Water Horse The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
IMAX: Sacred Planet Born to Be Wild (2011) Van Gogh: Brush With Genius Tron: Legacy Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

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Reviewed September 5, 2012.



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