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James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D – film review

September 3, 2014


Once more into the abyss.

Reviewed on Tuesday 26th August 2014

deepsea challenge

A National Geographic Entertainment Presentation. Directed by John Bruno, Ray Quint and Andrew Wight. Presented and Executive Produced by James Cameron. Running time: 90 mins.

A feature documentary which details an attempt by filmmaker James Cameron in 2012 to mount an expedition to the bottom of the ocean in an experimental one-man submersible of his own design with Cameron himself at the helm. Known as ‘Deepsea Challenge’, not only was this incredibly risky history-making expedition Cameron’s deepest dive so far (being more than twice the depth of his dive to the Bismarck in 2002), but it was also the first manned solo descent to the deepest place on Earth – the Challenger Deep – a forty mile long abyss at the very bottom of the Mariana Trench (over 35,000 feet below sea level). As I was watching this latest Cameron-produced undersea documentary, I was reminded of something Bill Paxton, actor and long-time friend of Cameron’s, revealed in a 1998 AFI doco profiling the career of the legendary filmmaker, “Jim just has to be challenged on such a level I think that he thrives on the pressure in a way. He almost loves the idea that when somebody says ‘That’s impossible’ he loves to take that baton and say ‘I’ll show you how impossible that really is’ and go and do it. He almost strikes me as a guy in another century who would’ve been an explorer.”

Growing up in the 60s in a land-locked Canadian town not far from Niagara Falls,     the oceans always held a fascination for the young James Cameron – thanks in part to a steady diet of undersea television documentaries presented by French oceanic adventurer Jacques Cousteau. As Cameron tells us in the opening moments of Deepsea Challenge 3D; sure we’ve landed human beings on the Moon and robotic rovers on Mars and yet there still exists here on Earth an area the size of North America which has yet to be explored – an ecosystem teaming with life as alien       as anything we can imagine – the deep ocean floor. After attending an audio-visual presentation by diver Frank Falejczyk while still in high school, Cameron was inspired enough by ‘the first person to breathe oxygenated liquid’ to write a short story composition which would later provide the basis for his undersea sci-fi epic The Abyss in 1988. Thanks to lessons paid for by his father, young James’ passion for scuba diving began a year before his family moved to Southern California – where     he finally got to see the ocean for real as a seventeen-year-old. But it was the idea     of deepsea exploration which really fired his young imagination – his passion for storytelling eventually leading him to the deepest depths of the Atlantic Ocean for     the making of Titanic in 1995.

Addressing the fact that he seemed to literally vanish from the public consciousness between the success of Titanic in 1997 and the release of Avatar in 2009, Cameron semi-seriously questions whether he is actually a bigtime Hollywood director who also dabbles in deepsea exploration – or a deepsea explorer who dabbles in feature filmmaking. According to his wife Suzy Amis Cameron, Jim is most happy these days being at the bottom of the ocean seeking out ‘critters’ – than he is being on a film set (not that he doesn’t still enjoy filmmaking – he is quick to add; with not one, but three mammoth Avatar sequels currently in the works). If anything, his success as a filmmaker has allowed him the financial freedom to pursue his other great love – that of scientific enquiry (he was, after all, president of the science club back in high school). As a title card proudly proclaims at the end of this particular doco: 68 new species of deepsea animals previously unknown to science were discovered as a result of the various test dives leading up to the Challenger Deep dive in 2012. Amusingly, during a preliminary dive in the New Britain Trench, a whole chicken is used as bait to attract ‘critters’ – resulting in the chicken being literally stripped bare by a veritable swarm of shrimp-like creatures called Amphipods – comically leaving a still intact gleaming skeleton; like something from a Warner Brothers cartoon.


The Trieste

As depicted in dramatized re-enactments, the last time a manned expedition to the bottom of the Challenger Deep had been attempted was 52 years previous in 1960, when US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard descended in a bathyscaphe (a deepsea submersible designed by Piccard’s father) to a depth of 35, 797 ft. The clouds of silt kicked up by the Trieste on touchdown, however, essentially obscured any potential for the occupants to observe anything of note while on the ocean floor for the twenty minutes they were there, before dropping their ballast and beginning their three hour ascent to the surface. As a result, this expedition was less about science and more about bragging rights. Don Walsh, incidently, was personally invited by Cameron to be in attendance as a guest aboard the support vessel during the various dives leading up to and including Cameron’s own Challenger Deep descent. There’s a nice moment where, during Cameron’s final preparations, Walsh advises him that if he is still alive the split second after hearing any disturbing loud bangs – he should pay it no heed and just continue on with the dive; taking comfort in the fact that he is indeed still alive (this relates to a tense moment experienced by Walsh himself during his own historic descent aboard the Trieste where, after passing 30,000 ft, the outer Plexiglas window pane cracked, shaking the entire vessel). This advice soon comes in real handy when Cameron himself is spooked during a similar scare while in the cramped confines of the command sphere during his own descent. For anyone familiar with the fate of Michael Biehn’s character in The Abyss (his submersible suffers catastrophic structural failure and implosion due to the crushing pressure) – the risk of instant death is a very real possibility at these extreme depths. As Cameron poetically makes a point of earlier; during the fiery forging of the spherical steel command capsule (with its 2.5 inch thick walls) – in the unthinkable event of the capsule being breached and imploding at such crushing depths; the pressure would be such as to cause the water to rush in at hypersonic velocity and Cameron would be instantly chummed into a bloody meat cloud.


Houston, we have a problem.

Devised and built under a veil of secrecy in a nondescript suburban workshop in Sydney Australia (under the supervision of Australian engineer Ron Allum), the submersible’s highly unique vertical design is meant to accommodate a rapid descent; so more time can be spent exploring the ocean floor (hence, in Cameron’s words, the ‘racing green’ color of the vehicle). Cameron and his hand-picked team     of predominantly Aussie experts are pushing the envelope here as far as what is technologically possible – creating no shortage of high-stakes drama. During a preliminary descent near New Britain Island (just north of the coast of Papua New Guinea), the sub experiences potentially catastrophic life support system failures which create more than a few tense moments for Cameron and his team. As does     the last ditch attempt to launch the sub in a dangerously choppy sea at night, directly above the Mariana Trench itself – a truly harrowing sequence which almost brings the expedition unstuck.

On the 26th of March 2012, Cameron’s descent lasted just over two and a half hours. His recorded depth on touch down was 35, 756 ft. He had planned to spend around six hours exploring the ocean floor, but due to a hydraulic fluid leak which affected the sub’s manipulator arm and starboard thrusters – was only able to spend two and   a half hours on the bottom, before making his ninety minute ascent to the surface (as to what it was he found down there – I won’t be revealing here).

Although Cameron’s detractors have painted him in the past as being somewhat demanding on his film sets; one who doesn’t suffer fools gladly (as he could, if need be, do everyone’s job as well as – if not better than – anyone else), it is interesting to see how Cameron has mellowed over the years and appears far more easy-going than we have been lead to imagine. He is clearly a person who expects the same degree of enthusiasm and commitment from his collaborators as he puts in himself; an expectation which I must say is valid to a degree; as I know from my own experience on some of my own film projects; it can be quite disheartening having people working on something who don’t necessarily share your own level of enthusiasm; as they tend to contribute less than their full potential, which can be an irritation in the pursuit of fulfilling a particular vision the filmmaker is attempting to achieve. As actor Michael Biehn pointed out in the aforementioned AFI documentary on Cameron, “Jim is a perfectionist, there’s no doubt about that and he is very demanding – but no more demanding on anybody else than he is on himself. And for me it was always exciting having somebody demand more from me – than less; somebody who wanted the best from me; the most I had to offer.”



There is no denying Cameron is a true visionary and modern-day renaissance man;     a person who has acquired profound knowledge and proficiency in numerous and varying fields. Cameron’s old employer Roger Corman best summed up Cameron’s versatility and wide-ranging abilities in his introduction to Christopher Heard’s 1997 biography on Cameron, Dreaming Aloud, when he identified Cameron as having “a unique combination of analytical, creative and technical skills” – skills which he applies effortlessly to all aspects of filmmaking. It’s an observation which Cameron regular Arnold Schwarzenegger elaborated upon in the same biography, “Working with Jim Cameron is unique because he is basically everything! He writes the screenplay, he comes up with the concept, he directs the scenes. He wants to do his own lighting and he wants to work the camera himself. He wants to do everything. You see him using the smoke machine and you see him putting on the blood and trying to do the makeup even though the makeup and special effects people have done it already. But he has to try and improve on it somehow. So he really has his fingers in every aspect of the movie. That is why a Jim Cameron movie has that look, that special, unique look.”

Despite the fact that out of all the feature-length documentaries he has been involved with; he receives sole director credit only on the 2004 Titanic doco Ghosts Of       The Abyss, (having co-directed the others – this new one excepted) there is     definitely a unifying ‘Jim Cameron look’ to all of his documentary features. And Schwarzenegger’s observation that Cameron has his fingers in virtually every aspect of every production is clearly evident in this latest one; even though he is only credited here as Executive Producer. Interestingly, one of those credited as co-director on Deepsea Challenge 3D is John Bruno, a longtime pal and close colleague of Cameron’s who first worked with him as a special effects supervisor on The Abyss in 1988 and was present aboard the Russian support vessel the Akademik Keldysh during Cameron’s initial deepsea dives on the Titanic wreck in 1995 (he also earlier directed the Taarna sequence from The Heavy Metal Movie and later helmed the underrated Dark Horse comic book adaptation Virus in 1998). Also credited as co-director on Deepsea Challenge is Andrew Wight, the highly respected Australian adventurer and documentary filmmaker whose terrifying ordeal being trapped in an underwater cave system in 1988 was retold in his documentary Nullarbor Dreaming and was later the inspiration behind the Cameron-produced, Australian-lensed dramatic feature Sanctum in 2011. A close friend of Cameron’s, he had also collaborated as producer with Cameron on the filmmaker’s previous deepsea documentaries Ghosts Of The Abyss, Expedition: Bismarck and Aliens Of The Deep. Tragically Wight was killed in a helicopter crash shortly before the Challenger Deep expedition was due to depart Sydney for the open sea in early February 2012. A terrible loss which deeply affected Cameron and everyone involved in the project.

Deepsea Challenge is a fascinating and revealing insight into the James Cameron     few outsiders get to see (but whose frequent collaborators clearly admire and respect): the intrepid enthusiast, the inspiring leader, the doting spouse and father. And technically-speaking, high-end expeditionary documentary filmmaking doesn’t     get much more thrilling than this. Events are evocatively captured in remarkably cinematic and involving 3D by Aussie lensers Jules O’Loughlin (Sanctum) and John Stokes. And the Hans Zimmeresque score by Aussie composers Brett Aplin, Amy Bastow and Ricky Edwards does much to sustain the tension. This is a must-see film for any Cameron fan and anyone with an interest in oceanography and slick, high-end documentary filmmaking.

5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed in 3D at the Event Cinemas Megaplex Marion, Adelaide, August 26th 2014.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


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