There’s really no better place to watch James Cameron’s DeepSea Challenge than at the American Museum of Natural History, in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, to be exact, with its giant whale perched up above, and all the various other sea creatures spread around the cavernous room. That’s where the premiere for the film took place, complete with vegan catering, as per the Oscar-winning director’s wishes, earlier this week.
On the cusp of his 60th birthday, Mr Cameron – ahem Jim – is letting the world witness how he became the first person to travel solo to the deepest part of the ocean. It was a feat he achieved in 2012, but the National Geographic documentary about the expedition is releasing this weekend in the US, and in other countries in the months to come.
For Cameron, this feat is one more to be added to his list of achievements. He has, after all, climbed to the top of the artistic ladder, smashing all kinds of box office records with Titanic and Avatar – films that are just as critically-lauded as they are commercially successful. At the same time, he’s achieved his dreams of exploring ocean wreckages and creating new technology to make his movies, reaching the depths of the scientific world. This documentary, which he didn’t direct but is the star of, takes us back to show how this latest feat was achieved and how Cameron’s team came together under pressing deadlines and the tragedy of two deaths, to still make it all possible.
The film follows the crew (which features a very young-looking guy in charge of the electronics who wears great t-shirts) and Cameron, from his dream as a child to be in a submarine, to talking about, and then building, the submersible and testing it, before he actually completes the task himself. In the beginning there are a lot of re-enactments of a little boy, and also of the two explorers Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, who first went to the deepest part of the ocean in 1960, which I didn’t care for too much as they felt a little out of place and inauthentic. Nonetheless, you get the gist that Adult Cameron is fulfilling Boy Cameron’s dream by taking on this task.
What I enjoyed about the doccie is it traces how Cameron’s love for the ocean developed alongside his movie-making – from The Abyss to Titanic and Avatar. Those last two, of course, went on to become the two highest-grossing films of all time, but throughout it all, Cameron’s passion for diving deep below the surface of the earth is unshakeable. As I watched his dreams get bigger, I found my appreciation of the ocean and what lies beneath it, grow too. As he gets closer to achieving his dreams – from exploring the Bismarck wreck to maneuvering a robotic camera into the sunken Titanic – so I found myself getting more interested in the so-called nuts and bolts of how it all works.
Far away from being a science geek and still very uncomfortable with numbers, I found it hard not to be enthralled seeing the kind of fish and sea critters that swim on past Cameron as he’s submerged underwater. Seeing them in 3D made me actually mouth out the word ‘wow’ and I may have even let out a little squeal at the sight of one particular little multi-coloured creature. It’s when the use of 3D really pops. More than just an appreciation for sea-life, though, the doc tries to somewhat put it all into a bigger context – why there’s the need to understand the ocean better, clearer, and what impact that understanding has on dealing with natural disasters like tsunamis.
I will admit though, I did wonder while watching the film, whether this was just one big expensive adventure, sponsored by Rolex, to make one man’s dream to reach the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean come true. Cameron addresses the question of why one wouldn’t just send a robot down to the bottom of the ocean – he believes there’s something to be said for a human being doing it, someone who can bear witness to what really is down there. One of his crew members, whom I spoke to after the premiere, said he disagreed with Cameron and believes there is no need for humans to do what robots can, at a cheaper cost. But the engineer told me he does understand the marketing power behind having someone like the Oscar-winning director complete the task. As Cameron details his love for the ocean, and therefore preserving and appreciating it, he shares that with a wider audience than just those who are already interested in the subject.
Once Cameron finally reaches his goal, as seen at the end of the doccie, I had to wonder though, if any film could ever give him the same kind of fulfillment he seemingly gains from this once-in-a-lifetime, record-breaking achievement. Even if the actual moment doesn’t prove to be quite as eventful as the days leading up to the actual dive. That was one of the questions I got to ask him during an interview that took place the day after the premiere. Cameron’s reply is in my story that’s coming out when the movie hits the South African big screen, tentatively scheduled for next month.
[Top pic: National Geographic Society/Rolex]