3D reference material and it’s educational to boot
James Cameron has the eyes of a child as he touches down on the ocean floor, some 35,000 feet below the surface. Pondering, wondering, and examining; his expression is all elation and curiosity.
After so many years of toying with designs, coming up with gadgetry, and bonding a team of geniuses from various fields, Cameron has reasons to be thrilled. Deepsea Challenge is a chronicling documentary of Cameron’s ocean dwelling opus, dropping to previously unseen depths after years of construction and planning in early 2012.
Of course, he filmed it in 3D. That’s what Cameron does.
Early acts of the feature dwell on the dangers and history of this exploratory conquest. Deepsea Challenge is selling the momentous ending from its outset, installing a litany of possible complications – up to and including instantaneous death – into the minds of its audience. It’s as educational as it is daunting, even from a passive third-person perspective.
In the midst of build-up, footage is pulled from trips to the Titanic’s resting place and the Bismark. Recreation sequences follow previous adventurers, 50+ years prior. Deepsea Challenge is busy, and a bit all over. Cameron’s vertical submersible is at times thrown behind all of the informational content packets, leaving it more of an enigma.
Under water, images begin to fall into place. Unknown species and rarely seen forms of known ones are paraded in front of the lens in brilliant detail. Surrounding solace adds an unusual peace to a planetary surface uninhabitable by humans – unless you have an uber submarine.
By luck, Deepsea Challenge was granted the benefit of drama, more so than the mere dive itself. Weather conditions churned up the surface on an uncertain evening which forced schedules ahead into desperation mode, whipping through protocols in order to make this all happen. Its works on camera with intense editing and rising music.
By design, Cameron was allowed a few hours on the bottom to shoot and capture data. In Deepsea Challenge, it turns punctual, a few minutes of total screen time, arguably because the trench offered little to see to the naked eye other than sand. That does not make for powerful cinema. However, it’s not the images. It’s what it took to get them. In that sense, with Cameron’s wide-eyed fervor, Deepsea Challenge is interesting, even enthralling despite reality’s lack of visual pay-off. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Movie]
Deepsea Challenge is a “little from column A, a little from column B” presentation. It goes everywhere. Footage of The Abyss’ production, some Titanic material from taped sources, early digital, edge enhanced footage, and super clean modern work make up chunks of the film. Trying to quantify that with a number is impossible.
From Millennium, the disc is given an AVC encode which works but cannot overcome excessive banding in the depths. Light sources on the submersible create instant gradients without exception. Bitrates are tolerable and manage to leave the rest of the footage as is.
What matters are those undersea moments, where the previously unseen sediment is captured. That’s beautiful. Markings of past creatures and their remains are spotted. Shots of animals are stunning while anemone’s peek from settled rocks. Before, images of the Titanic and Bismark are staggering in their (literal and figurative) depth.
As with resolution and detail, obvious items like color are all over too, ranging from splashy green neons of the sub to colorful safety equipment and down to the pale watery floors. Critical are those black levels which need to sell total darkness. They do. The environment is pure black anywhere light hasn’t reflected to.
Despite the same visual inequality, 3D production is wholly James Cameron. Every shot carries careful composition, angles, and supreme depth. Deepsea Challenge fights the limits of what 3D can do, breaking the front plane with regularity to absolute extremes. Some shots may even go too far.
However, this is pure 3D lushness. Short of space exploration, few adventures are so tightly melded to the necessity of this format. While diving, the sense of ambient life swirling around the sub recreates a sense of being a diver; the screen becomes a pair of goggles. Even on shore, depth in warehouses and of safety lines is astonishingly well done. Only a handful of shots create strain, and amongst limited light, cross talk never appeared as an issue. Reference stamp earned. [xrr rating=4/5 label=2D-Video] [xrr rating=5/5 label=3D-Video]
By crossing through historical context, Deepsea Challenge will produce a few key specialty points for this TrueHD mix to play with. Volcanic eruptions and underwater plate shifting request LFE service. It’s provided. Rumbles are controlled and satisfying while offering needed depth to the dialog heavy documentary.
Ship side, ocean waves pick up, hammering the sides and washing aboard, giving a bit of surround presence to a disc which often has so little. Light scoring will spread into the stereos with a touch of rear speaker assistance. By necessity, Cameron’s trench run is mostly silent outside of radio communication – a rare example where no sound is appreciated. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Audio]
Despite the momentous accomplishment, bonus features are not particularly celebratory. Deepest Point on Earth is an extended trailer. Another World is an early interview with Cameron from the beginning of the project mixed together with finished clips and awful audio. They’re five minutes combined, and not even worth the time. [xrr rating=1/5 label=Extras]
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.