Cameron's inescapable `Titanic'

The director launches `Ghosts,' a new 3-D IMAX documentary

April 11, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Writer-producer-director James Cameron was last seen on the public stage five years ago accepting an Oscar for Titanic and, in an exuberant (some deemed arrogant) quote from his movie, proclaiming himself "King of the World!"

Rather than trying to top the biggest box-office hit, Cameron has provided a modest, stirring real-life postscript to it with Ghosts of the Abyss, a 60-minute, 3-D IMAX account of his return journey, in 2001, to the epochal wreck at the bottom of the North Atlantic. (The movie's regional engagement begins today at the Maryland Science Center.)

The experience rejuvenated him and renewed his excitement in filmmaking. "I was coming to a fork in the road," he said in a telephone interview. "Do I do fictional features or films of exploration? And after I sat back and thought for a minute, I realized I wanted to do both!"

In Cameron's best science-fiction films, The Terminator and Aliens, he embodied the director as engineer and general, constructing action-packed, imaginative vehicles and manning them with committed troops. For Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron was director, engineer and admiral. He devised new techniques to explore the wreck of the Titanic and to commit that exploration to film - and made repeated dives in one of his expedition's two minisubmarines.

"I was a little schizophrenic going into it," Cameron confessed, "having to wear multiple hats. But I realized I had to say to the crew: `All right guys, if I don't plan the dives, they're not going to happen - you're just going to keep up and shoot whatever moves.' "

Cameron's drive to push the 3-D IMAX format to ever-greater depths and clarity should overcome audience resistance to such clumsy ploys as using one of his Titanic stars, Bill Paxton, as an awestruck Everyman. It may even win over non-fans of Cameron's 1997 epic-romance treatment of the launch and sinking of the fabled luxury liner. This factual film is emotionally strong enough - and well-crafted enough - to make people who wear glasses (like myself) forget the 3-D glasses on top of them.

To Cameron, "Titanic is an amazing wreck. Most wrecks are frustrating: You want to see things buried inside. But Titanic displays itself beautifully on the sea floor. All the dramatic spaces are open to the eye." He brings his audience up-close to sights like the ship's huge engines - they really are, as he suggests, "sphinxes" of the Machine Age. When it captures images like that, this film's wow factor goes off the charts.

Thanks to stereo cameras that Cameron's team created, along with a pair of compact Remote Operated Vehicles (or " 'bots") enabling them to view otherwise unreachable spaces, Ghosts of the Abyss conveys the enormity and intricacy the ship retains even in its destroyed and submerged state.

"We knew we were going to have to make lighter, more flexible cameras, using digital high-definition camera technology," said Cameron. He also refined the twin cameras in his 3-D system to closely echo the muscle movements and focus of a pair of human eyes. "3-D does have a pejorative connotation because of all the gimmicky 3-D films. But I see it as more pure than the kind of stylized, painterly, one-eyed cinema that we've been doing for the last hundred years, because 3-D is essentially the way we view the world and process information. It's the end result of millions of years of Darwinian evolution."

The new ROVs have far more flexibility and reach than the one glimpsed at the beginning of Titanic, partly because they're relatively minuscule. And it's fun to watch Cameron and his collaborators operate these 'bots - nicknamed Jake and Elwood, for the Blues Brothers - like a cross between NASA technicians and giddy schoolkids steering remote-controlled cars and planes on Christmas Day.

What's crucial, though, is that Cameron uses Jake and Elwood to satisfy his appetite for history. "Titanic is fascinating on a sociological level: the juxtaposition of the haves and the have-nots, the elite in their gilded cages and the really Spartan spaces of the crew. We spent a lot of time getting into the crew's spaces and imaging their crude bunks and so on. Unfortunately, the 3-D IMAX platter will only hold an hour's worth of film. But on the DVD, at 90 minutes, we'll have more on the cargo spaces and the crew areas and the third-class general room where the party was held on the night before the sinking." (Audiences who can't wait for the DVD can find many of these details in the deluxe Da Capo companion book by historian Don Lynch and artist Ken Marschall.)

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