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"Aliens of the Deep" goes from the bottom of the ocean to the depths of space

"Aliens of the Deep" goes from the bottom of the ocean to the depths of space

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Copyright 2005 Walt Disney Pictures / Walden Media

James Cameron has embarked on a new filmmaking journey, with this month's IMAX 3D release "Aliens of the Deep," the latest large format film from Walt Disney Pictures. This is his third 3D production, following the theme park attraction "Terminator 2: 3D" and the IMAX/35mm 3D film "Ghosts of the Abyss." When I interviewed James Cameron two years ago, he mentioned that he would never go back to filming with regular cameras. From here-on-out, everything would be digitally filmed in 3D. By doing this, he will be able over the years to provide his films in both 2D and 3D for IMAX, 35mm, and digital cinemas, as well as 3D high definition at home.

This film, unlike his last effort, "Ghosts of the Abyss," appears to be a bit of a hodgepodge as far as the story goes. The plot is simple - take marine and astroscientists to the bottom of the ocean, where organisms live off of chemosynthesis, enjoying the nutrients and heats of volcanic vents so hot they would kill humans. Cameron hypothesizes that if it's possible for life like this to exist on our planet, it certainly must be possible for it to exist on extraterrestrial worlds, like Jupiter's moon Europa.

Copyright 2005 Walt Disney Pictures / Walden Media

There are two ways of looking at this film. One is that after making the extraordinary "Ghosts of the Abyss, " Cameron went back to IMAX film school to study for this film. The start of the film is a collage of images, much like many IMAX documentaries, in which the point is made how all living animals can be traced back to the sun. This was quite a departure from the kinetoscope image of the Titanic that opened "Ghosts of the Abyss" and felt quite mundane by comparison. The ending of the film takes advantage of computer animation to show space exploration of Europa. It suffers from two problems. First, if you've seen the IMAX 3D film "L5: First City in Space," you've seen this before. It felt unoriginal and a bit out of place. Second, it takes away from the heart of the film - the pure wonder - which is the undersea exploration.

The other way of viewing this film is that it is the best science-factual film that the Walt Disney Studios has released since the old Ward Kimball Tomorrowland documentaries of the 1950's. In fact, the film almost follows the framework laid out for episodes of the Disneyland TV show, such as "Man in Space" and "Our Friend, the Atom." The introductory segment about the sun would have played out on one of Kimball's shows with animation, the central part of the program showcases the current exploration, and the end shows an elaborately animated sequence on future exploration.

After viewing the 1992 IMAX feature "Titanica," Cameron met with director Stephen Low to research new filming and underwater lighting methods. This resulted in not one, but two IMAX films on life in the deep ocean, especially the vents. Last year, Stephen released "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea," a film executive produced by Cameron, which covers much of the same material, but is presented in a much more educational format. If you get a chance to see "Volcanoes," I highly recommend it, as Stephen Low is one of the most gifted IMAX directors around. That's not to say that I don't recommend Cameron's film. I certainly do, for the underwater footage is astounding.

Copyright 2005 Walt Disney Pictures / Walden Media

Whereas Stephen choice to film his project with IMAX cameras, Cameron has opted to go the all-digital route. The debate still lingers in the filmmaking community as to which displays the clearer picture, but as digital filmmaking technology increases exponentially, it gives film stock a ride for its money. And this shows in "Aliens," where the 3D footage is unbelievable. From giant tubeworms on the ocean bottom to millions of shrimp swimming in and out of black volcanic plumes so hot that the windows of Cameron's submarines are posed with the threat of melting, the viewer receives an experience that only a few daring researchers have been able to experience prior.

Much like "Ghosts of the Abyss," Cameron tries to link these 3D documentaries with his past works. Titles are one thing, being clear links to his classic films "The Abyss" and "Aliens" (it should be noted that Stephen Low's "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea" is narrated by Ed Harris, star of "The Abyss."). But "Aliens of the Deep" goes one step further. The final scene of the film has researchers in a submersible encounter aliens outside an underwater city - an almost duplicate scene from "The Abyss." The score even tends to duplicate that of his earlier film at this point.

The good news is that Cameron is moving on. His next film, to open in 2007, will be "Battle Angel," a 3D epic based on a Japanese manga which will be shown in IMAX and 3D digital cinemas around the world (Cameron expects over 1000 of these systems to be installed in North American cineplexes in the next couple of years). Following that will be his long-awaited film about the first manned landing on Mars. And if he ever gets around to it, True Lies 2, which will also be 3D. For now, though, sit back, forget the narration, overlook the mundane opening, and enjoy the spectacle. James Cameron knows how to make the screen come alive with wonder.

"Volcanoes of the Deep Sea" is showing in large format theatres world wide. For more information, visit www.volcanoesofthedeepsea.com "Aliens of the Deep" is showing in select IMAX 3D theatres. For more information, visit www.aliensofthedeep.com

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