Reviewed by GREG KING


Directors: Andrew Wight, John Bruno, Ray Quint.

Filmmaker James Cameron embarks on his own personal voyage to the bottom of the sea in this documentary that records his 2012 dive to the Challenger Deep, some 36,000 feet below sea level. But Deepsea Challenge is also something of a vanity project for the director who has given us some of the most commercially successful films of all time with Titanic and Avatar, and as usual suffers from his bloated vision and sense of excess.

Many people erroneously believe that Cameron’s obsession in exploring the ocean depths began when he made the underwater thriller The Abyss in 1989. But as this films reveals it actually dates back to his childhood, when as an inquisitive child he watched with interest the exploits of the legendary Jacques Costeau and in particular the journey of the Trieste, a two man submersible which dove to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean way back in 1960. This was, at the time, considered the “mount Everest of sea exploration.” It fired the imagination of the young Cameron.

Having made millions at the box office with his films, Cameron was able to fund his own private deep sea explorations. A modern day Jacques Costeau, Cameron is also National Geographic’s “explorer-in-residence.” He has funded over 80 deep sea dives, including exploring the wreck of the Titanic and the sunken ruins of the German battleship the Bismark. His exploits have formed the basis of documentaries like Ghosts Of The Abyss and Aliens Of The Deep.

And he was eager to recreate the Trieste’s historic dive. But he wanted to do it as a solo dive. Deepsea Challenge brings together many of Cameron’s passions, including filmmaking, technology, invention and ocean exploration.

Cameron assembled a rag tag team of technical experts, many of whom had worked on his various film projects, to help design and construct a purpose built submersible that could withstand the enormous pressures of the deep. Most of the team had no idea how to do this, but they persevered under Cameron’s direction as he pushed them to “think outside the box.” The submersible was built from scratch under the supervision of Australian engineer Ron Allum and Cameron himself. And Don Walsh, one of the crew members from the Trieste expedition who also worked as a technical consultant to The Abyss, was on hand to offer advice.

From initial inception, the project took some nine years to complete. Having successfully built the craft, Cameron tested it rigorously. He was forced to fit uncomfortably inside a small cabin the size of a normal refrigerator for up to ten hours, alone with his thoughts. This reveals a more introspective side to Cameron as he is aware of the risks he is taking. He could be crushed if the submersible doesn’t function properly. One camera follows Cameron’s wife Suzy, and she puts a human face on the risks and dangers her husband faces every time he descends in the submersible.

Unlike the Trieste expedition, which brought back no footage of the ocean’s depths, Cameron set out to record what he saw on the ocean floor. Using state of the art 3D cameras and digital technology he was able to capture some remarkable images of the plant life he saw. Cameron’s dive has uncovered dozens of new species of marine life, one of which is already being used in clinical trials to treat Alzheimer’s Disease. Some of the vision is remarkable, although the decision to shoot in 3D adds little to the material.

Australian filmmaker and underwater explorer Andrew Wight was the team leader for the project. Wight had collaborated with Cameron on Sanctum, the 2011 thriller about a team of cave divers who find themselves facing a life threatening crisis, and he initially helmed this documentary tracing Cameron’s obsession. But Wight and underwater cameraman Mike deGruy were tragically killed in a helicopter crash while shooting footage of an early test dive for the submersible off Jervis Bay, which temporarily cast a pall over the production. Cameron’s long time visual effects supervisor John Bruno and co-director Ray Quint stepped into the breach to finish the film.

There are a few missteps along the way, including some unnecessary reenactments of Cameron’s childhood where he sits inside a cardboard box pretending that it was a submarine, and a recreation of the Trieste expedition.

Like Jules Verne and H G Wells before him, Cameron is a creative force driven by a unique vision, whose audacious imagination opens up new worlds. Here it is obviously that Cameron puts himself, literally, under enormous pressure as he explores the depths of the ocean. What emerges from this documentary though is a portrait of Cameron as not only an ambitious filmmaker, but also a perfectionist, a risk taker, a man with a huge ego, and a notoriously hard taskmaster – says one of the team: “Jim’s management style is to put people under pressure.”

But Deepsea Challenge is not the sort of stuff that will have broad appeal. It’s more than likely that less people will see this documentary than have viewed his ground breaking sci-fi classics, like Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens, or even True Lies.



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