Ghosts of the Abyss

Documentary: Ghosts of the Abyss

Ghosts of the Abyss
Ghosts of the Abyss

I must say I was not filled with optimism when the Disney logo swirled across our screen at the start of the DVD, but having watched all 60-odd minutes of this James Cameron (he of the 1997 film Titanic, inter alia) production, my concerns were dispelled.

In many ways this documentary can be viewed as the companion piece either to the movie Titanic, or to the various books by Robert G. Ballard concerning this great wreck. Having become fascinated by the ship, Cameron mounted an expedition in August and September 2001, on board a research vessel loaded with Mir 1 and Mir 2, two Russian submersibles, as well as two ROVs, each about the size of a cooler box (albeit cooler boxes costing $250,000), that were able to penetrate the wreck while being operated remotely, tethered to the main submersibles by fiber optic cables.

The documentary is narrated by Bill Paxton, star of my favourite series Big Love, who played a role in the movie Titanic and actually goes on a dive or two in the submersibles. The experience of descending the 4,000 or so metres to the ocean floor, and seeing the great ship illuminated by a special lighting rig to facilitate cinematography, must be life-altering. Tony and I had a (brief) debate as to whether we’d accept the offer of a visit to the wreck in one of the tiny (three-man) submersibles… The agreement was that we would, as long as we went together!

The view out of the windows of the Mirs is very limited, so cameras mounted outside the submersible record the state of the wreck and the faces of the submersible passengers as seen through their view ports. Animation is used to show where fittings and decorations existed, and then faded away to show the way the wreck looks now (or did, ten years ago). On one hand it’s a scene of great devastation, but on the other surprising details remain as they were that April night in 1912. A water carafe stands on a dresser, undisturbed; leaded glass windows survive intact; and part of the ship’s steering equipment remains on the bridge.

Until now the most complete pictures I’d seen of this wreck were artist’s renderings – its great depth, size and the darkness surrounding it preclude wide-angle photography. The sophisticated lighting and camera equipment used by Cameron’s crew produced spectacular footage that evokes both the loneliness and the grandeur of the wreck. The film was originally produced for an Imax in 3D.

You can get the DVD here if you are in South Africa, otherwise here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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