Though its credits list three relative unknowns as directors, Deepsea Challenge 3D is really a James Cameron project through and through, infused with his technological wizardry, his childlike sense of wonder, and his megalomania. Not even 2003’s Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron’s own exploration of the RMS Titanic’s underwater graveyard, is as direct an auteurist statement of purpose as this. That fact, it turns out, makes for a rather frustrating experience, alternately entrancing and exasperating.
The “challenge” of the film’s title is simple enough: Cameron, with the help of a crack team of scientists and engineers helping to create a special deep-sea-diving capsule, aims to go down to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, a feat that has only been accomplished once before, 50 years ago. Deepsea Challenge 3D becomes partly a narrative of process, with the filmmakers giving almost equal dramatic weight to the ecstatic triumphs and brutal setbacks of Cameron and company’s mission. As is the case with most process-driven narratives, however, the specific step-by-step details are less interesting than their underlying implications—in this case, what they suggest about Cameron himself and his worldview.
Some of these implications are, in fact, made so explicit that they’re straight-up text rather than subtext. “The sea is my church,” Cameron says at one point; elsewhere, he expounds with a near-spiritual fervor on his desire to explore the outer limits of the universe and discover things about our world most humans have yet to even comprehend. Such grand pronouncements aren’t surprising coming from the man who made The Abyss, a spiritually inflected underwater sci-fi adventure which, Deepsea Challenge 3D suggests, was a turning point for him: Not only did the 1989 film allow him to tap into his ingrained thirst for underwater exploration, but it planted the seeds of what has, in recent years, become even more of a passion for him than filmmaking.
In this deeply personal context, then, Deepsea Challenge 3D plays largely as a 90-minute geek-out session, with Cameron’s technological obsessiveness and persistent perfectionism on full display as he strives to achieve his goal. Less explored in all the ensuing back-patting is the question of whether Cameron is, in fact, sincerely interested in learning more about the world around him or whether this mission is merely intended to stroke his own ego. A couple of above-ground detours in Papua New Guinea are telling in that regard, as his interactions with locals in that environmentally volatile land evinces little genuine interest in their way of life except as grist for more eye-rollingly banal ruminations on humanity and nature. No wonder his talk about the potential scientific advances of his journey feel like lip service at best.
Perhaps most damaging of all in Deepsea Challenge 3D, however, is the way Cameron’s nerdy enthusiasm, however admirable in theory, ends up detracting from the effectiveness of the underwater footage he captures. At least in The Abyss and Avatar, Cameron allowed a sense of exploratory wonder to arise organically out of his fastidiously detailed environments without feeling a need to have characters comment on how awesome the imagery supposedly is. In Deepsea Challenge 3D, by contrast, we hear his delighted exhortations so often above the deep-sea images that their inclusion on the soundtrack starts to feel like the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to shove enchantment down our throats.