In Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron is joined by a team of scientists and historians, and by his sometime cast member Bill Paxton, who narrates the film and gives it a human dimension to balance the enormity of the subject. When the explorers descend in claustrophobic
In his first film since the Academy Award-winner Titanic, director James Cameron (left) - along with actor Bill Paxton - returns to the legendary wreck with Ghosts of the Abyss, a groundbreaking 3-D motion picture.
mini-subs for the first time, Paxton in one and Cameron in the other, the actor itchily interrogates his pilot: "Um, so that's the oxygen monitor, right? Yeah, that's a good one. So what number are you watching for it to dip below?"

Once they are on the ocean floor, though, Paxton's panic transforms to awe; his golly-gee commentary is endearing, even if you quickly get the idea and don't need to be told to "just think of the history" you're looking at.

For those having a hard time envisioning the history, Cameron brings it to life in ingenious ways. He shows us a deteriorated steel husk for a moment, then superimposes a recreation of what this part of the ship looked like in its full splendor. Sometimes the recreations are computer-generated, sometimes they are live-action scenes with actors in period garb. That's what they mean by "ghosts."

While different audiences will want less of this or more of that - adults not suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder will wish for more raw, unadorned footage of the site - Cameron's movie magic does convey a lot of information in an efficient, visually captivating way. In one scene, we see a pipe-like rig jutting out of a deck, and as Paxton tells us that this was where the ship's pilot stood, an enormous spoked wheel materializes, along with men re-enacting the crucial moment at which that fatal iceberg was spotted.

Cameron has decided to take 3-D photography seriously (recently he announced that his next Hollywood feature will be shot in this format), and modifying existing equipment to his specifications

Dir. and writ. James Cameron; feat. Cameron, Bill Paxton (G)
wasn't cheap. Director-imposed quality control has inspired Disney to make demands on theaters showing the film - which means audiences can expect to cough up more than the average IMAX admission for the film.

But the result is impressive. The filmmakers don't often bend over backward to wow you with gimmickry - there are some requisite "gotcha" moments, like one in which a sub's robot arm stretches toward the viewer, but not many - but the 3-D technology does help convey the scale of the wreckage onscreen. Interestingly, some of the most sensational images were created long ago: Cameron uses vintage stereoscopic photographs of the spanking-new ship to contrast with what remains below, and sometimes plants his own actors within them so that what begins as a static image comes to life.

Ghosts is a rare hybrid that matches educational content with artistic ambition, serving the dual masters of science and entertainment as equitably as possible within an hour's running time. Some day - on a DVD release, maybe - it would be nice to see much more of the raw material gathered on this expedition; but it's hard to argue with the way Cameron has assembled it here, and it's difficult not to feel a nerdy giddiness about what his first step into the third dimension portends for his future projects. •

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