James Cameron may be busy planning a trilogy of sequels to the highest-grossing film of all time, but to judge by Deepsea Challenge 3D, those Avatar movies are basically a day job supporting his true calling: undersea exploration. The ability to raise millions surely came in handy while building the designed-from-scratch Deepsea Challenger, the remarkable vessel whose delayed and bedeviled mission is recounted here; this internationally coordinated project was undertaken with no government funding. Serving now as an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, the filmmaker narrates and stars in the account but leaves direction to John Bruno, Ray Quint and the late Andrew Wight, who was killed in a mid-production helicopter accident along with underwater cinematographer Mike deGruy. The result is in keeping with classic exploration docs, trading the crowd-pleasing effects of Cameron’s first expedition film, Ghosts of the Abyss, for a focus on teamwork and technical achievement. Theatrical potential is limited as a result, but the film will play well in educational settings and on TV.
Cameron recounts a bit of his childhood obsession with science before describing how inspired he was by a 1960 two-man dive to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the oceans. Only unmanned vehicles have reached that depth in the five decades since, and Cameron decided he should be the first human to do it solo.
The doc is rather quick in detailing the innovative design he and co-designer Ron Allum developed with a team of engineers, only really digging in as the 11.5-ton, torpedo-shaped Deepsea Challenger is almost ready to be tested. We watch fire drills, see controls malfunction because they’re wired backward, hear communications systems fail — and have plenty of opportunity to ask if we ourselves would strap into this tiny, iffy vessel that could kill us instantly if it failed seven miles underwater.
Shallow test dives proceed, even after the team is rocked by the deaths of Wight and deGruy, and editor Jane Moran does a good job capturing the trepidation of immensely competent people who have good reason to doubt they will succeed. Though we hear from a few of them about the demands Cameron puts on his crew, the film doesn’t show much of this edge: To the contrary, he responds to multiple system failures with equanimity, and if frustration ever led to an outburst, we don’t see it.
The grand event occupies less than a half-hour of screen time, likely because the site where the vessel landed — “the bleakest place that I had ever seen in the ocean,” the explorer reports — was not very photogenic. Though the samples Cameron collected have so far uncovered more than 100 new species of microorganisms, there’s not a lot here for the naked eye to see. (One might say the same about the moon or Mars, of course, which doesn’t mean we don’t want to watch humans go there.) And while 3D photography likely gave the trip further value for researchers, it adds little to the average viewer’s experience — in contrast to Ghosts, one of the finer examples of 3D educational films. But if the three hours of filming Cameron did in the Trench yield little obvious drama, the story of how the Deepsea Challenger reached those depths makes up for it.
Production companies: Wight Expedition, Beyond Productions, Earthship Productions Inc.
Directors: John Bruno, Andrew Wight, Ray Quint
Screenwriters: Andrew Wight, John Garvin
Producers: Andrew Wight, Brett Popplewell
Executive producers: James Cameron, Lisa Truitt, Maria Wilhelm, Mikael Borglund
Directors of photography: Jules O’Loughlin, John Stokes
Editor: Jane Moran
Music: Ricky Edwards, Brett Aplin, Amy Bastow
Rated PG, 90 minutes