Titanic's 'Ghosts' Come to Surface

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2003

This movie is so much better without Leonardo DiCaprio.

The last time, it went too long, that pretty kid kept getting in the way of the story of the Titanic, and the Irish music gave everybody a headache. That was, of course, "Titanic."

This is "Ghosts of the Abyss," a sharp, incisive and resonant documentary based on director James Cameron's own subsequent revisits to the great craft in its underwater mausoleum, and it's not only a better movie, it's a sadder one, a richer one, a deeper one.

Give it to Cameron. Now wealthy beyond his dreams ("Titanic" remains the world box office champ and he had a piece of it), he's not wasting time by the pool. Instead, he's invested time, money, imagination and discipline in this film, which, in the big-screen Imax format at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore and utilizing some new super 3-D technology, is meant to re-create as persuasively as possible the experience of taking a submersible to the North Atlantic sea bottom and there probing the wreckage and pondering its meanings.

Besides the considerable technological magic of the film, it's blessedly done without a spirit of vanity. Cameron -- remember his clownish "I'm the king of the world" declaration on Oscar night? -- is in it as a minor character and no one is encouraged to utter gushy encomiums to his brilliance or the fabulous greatness of the greatly fabulous "Titanic." Instead, he's just a guy sitting at a console in the background, diddling with the gizmos. The dead ship is the central character.

But among the humans, Cameron's focus is on the Texas actor Bill Paxton (he also appeared in "Titanic," as well as several other Cameron projects), whom he invited to go along on the expedition to represent the common man. The strategy pays off: Paxton, who has always been extremely likable on-screen, is extremely likable on this screen. That's his value to the production; he's our point of view, and his dry humor (at being scared, for one thing, and it is scary to be locked into something shaped like a torpedo that's about to sink more than a mile under the surface) keeps things light and accessible.

The narrative is simple expedition formula. They came (on a Russian science ship), they dove (in the two submersibles), they photographed (via some high-tech miracle gear), they went home. A minor crisis occurs when one of the robotic cameras, nicknamed Elwood, gets hung up in the ship. It's as if she's about to claim one more victim; but Cameron and his staff jury-rig a recovery technique, and so Elwood becomes the world's youngest Titanic survivor. Too bad it's only a machine.

Cameron can't stay away from the technically sensational, of course. He uses the 3-D (you're given giant glasses) in the old '50s tradition, to jab at you and set you to squirming. A giant set of pincers seemed to aimed at my own personal jugular vein. Hmmm, he must have read my review of "Titanic." But more vividly, he's interested in re-creating the magnificence and the tragedy of the ship.

He does this not merely by using the astonishing penetrative robots that wander down corridors not seen in 90 years, but also by occasionally superimposing on these corridors the ghastly images of actors in period garb, exactly as they would have been on that night. You feel the ghostly presence of humanity on those algae-smothered decks and hallways.

He finds an extremely provocative image to sum up the sinking itself: hundreds of photographs of the lost displayed on-screen, then sucked down, pulled backward into the depth of the 3-D image where far away, on a flat sea in the dead of night, the great canoe is sliding downward.

And here's a great thing: Not only is this movie free of vanity and free of self-indulgence, it's short. Sixty-two minutes for a voyage to the bottom of the sea that you feel both in the bottom of your stomach and in the bottom of your heart.

Ghosts of the Abyss (at the Maryland Science Center, 610 Light St., Baltimore) is rated G for audience-friendliness. Call 410-685-5225 or visit www.mdsci.org for ticket information.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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