Adjust your documentary-watching gauge closer to “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” (or, for the kids, Animal Planet) and further away from “Werner Herzog discovers one of the last unspoiled places left on earth,” and you’ll have a perfectly enjoyable time watching “Deepsea Challenge 3D,” the kind of no-nonsense, by-the-numbers doc that captures a rather extraordinary feat: film director James Cameron and his team submerging a vessel (sole passenger: the director of “Titanic”) miles downward into the Mariana Trench.
It’s the kind of film that should be screened in schools as a reminder that math and science are important, and that they can lead to exciting opportunities, even if 21st century children are too jaded to enjoy the re-enactment scenes in which lil’ Jimmy Cameron builds a cardboard replica of the Trieste, the U.S. Navy submersible that went down the trench in 1960.
Fifty-plus years later, having already visited the sunken remains of the Titanic and the Bismarck, Cameron leads an expedition to send a vertical sub down into the trench, some 36,000 feet below sea level, with the filmmaker in a claustrophobia-inducing steel sphere that allows him to control the sub’s external camera-mounted arms in order to pick up rocks and other samples.
(A second, unmanned diving robot goes down as well, to provide external views of Cameron’s craft.)
The tale of this expedition, in and of itself, is a dramatic one, replete with human error (an early shallow dive reveals a plethora of design flaws that have to be corrected) and even tragedy (expedition leader — and “Deepsea Challenge 3D” producer — and co-director Andrew Wight and cinematographer Mike deGruy died in a helicopter crash during production), and it’s fascinating to watch all the tiny pieces of such a massive endeavor come together.
Taking this particular plunge represents a culmination of sorts for Cameron, who has explored the seas in “The Abyss” and “Titanic,” along with several documentary films about his dives. And while “Deepsea Challenge 3D” connects those dots effectively, it often overstates its case, telling us over and over again about Cameron’s love of deep-water exploration, and his technical innovations, and so on.
Not that the guy doesn’t deserve credit for his accomplishments, but the movie begins to lay it on so thick that “Deepsea Challenge 3D” starts to resemble a commercial for James Cameron. (Oh, and for Rolex, too.) It’s not as though Jacques Cousteau’s films kept reminding you how awesome Jacques Cousteau was.
Cinematographers Jules O’Loughlin and John Stokes use their 3D compositions to give us a feel of the ocean’s vastness (in the same way that Herzog’s crew used it to capture the depth of those ancient grottoes in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”), but their closer-up shots reflect the teeming life forms that can be found; when schools of small fishes swim up close to the lens, it’s the kind of giddy moment that 3D can sometimes provide, not unlike that paddle-ball aimed square at the camera in the original “House of Wax.”
A National Geographic special writ large, “Deepsea Challenge 3D” is watchable and engaging throughout, even though it’s pretty clear how everything is going to come together. But hey, knowing the ending of “Titanic” didn’t make that movie any less entertaining.