Movies: Ghosts of the Abyss (2003)

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by Tom Johnson

I have been a Titanic junkie since I was a teenager, falling deep under the ship’s spell when Dr. Robert Ballard discovered her battered hull lying on the ocean floor. I built model after model, each increasing in complexity, finally culminating in a large scale reproduction of Titanic as it exists today, or at least what we could gather from fuzzy black and white video footage at that point in the late 80s.

That model went to the Arizona State Fair and took Best Of Show honors, an accomplishment of which I am still proud. It now resides in the back of a closet at my parents house, slowly decomposing as glues and paints dry out. I have thought many times of attempting to save my monument to the great ship, but ultimately I feel it is more fitting to allow nature to have its way with my cobbled-together replica. Titanic rests on the ocean floor, slowly returning to nature what man defiantly fused together.

Filmmaker James Cameron and crew descended to the ocean floor dozens of times, equipped with the massive IMAX cameras, this time set up for 3-D imaging. Make no mistake, the 3-D aspect is not just a gimmick. Where countless other films touting their use of 3-D have frequently used it as a crutch, IMAX simply used it to accentuate already stunning footage.

With Cameron’s dramatic eye, Titanic is explored in intimate detail, but the viewer never feels that any moment of the ship’s filming was treated with anything less than reverance. Cameron uses a deft touch throughout, never retreating to pure nostalgia, never cheaply tugging at your emotions, and yet the film spirals toward a beautifully developed and delivered emotional punch. Where his Hollywood-romance story Titanic failed is exactly where Ghosts of the Abyss succeeds immeasurably. Cameron carefully builds a narrative that arrives at the final moment of the ship, of the 1500 passengers and crew who will go down with her. The story of officers Lightoller and Murdoch is utilized to ratchet up the tension.

These two officers, who assigned passengers to the lifeboats, are responsible for nearly every life that was saved — and lost — on the ship. As we follow the events, Bill Paxton, who provides narration for the film, explains that Murdoch follows his rules by the book: Women and children first, but neglects to fill the lifeboats in standing by the rules. Two thirds of the survivors, Paxton says, have Lightoller to thank.

Cameron successfully tips that moment over the emotional edge as a dramatic flurry of photographs disappear into carefully re-used footage of the sinking from his big-budget film. It became impossible to not feel that lump build in my throat, wondering just what I’d have done in that situation.

Ghosts of the Abyss, 3-D or not, is much more successful at relaying the story of Titanic than the many other films on the subject. James Cameron aimed to document this story but managed to bring it to life in such a way that nothing else has before. It may have skipped some significant details along the way, but manages to weave a distant event like Titanic’s sinking with the events of Sept. 11 (the attacks occured while Cameron and crew were filming the ship), bring a very real impact to a story that may have simply been just that — a story — to many younger viewers.

Faced with the very real tragedy of Sept. 11, the crew questions whether to proceed, their task rendered minimal in importance, then wisely forges on. Just as we will never forget September 11 because it happened in our lives, we must also never allow events like the sinking of Titanic to be forgotten. In the end, it is simply important to remember. In looking back, we make it possible to look forward; in ignoring the past, we make it impossible to do anything.

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