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Aliens of the Deep
Reviewed by Jayme Lynn Blaschke, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   James Cameron (director)
Genre:   Documentary
Released:   Premiered January 28, 2005
Review Date:   February 07, 2005
Audience Rating:   Rated G
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

Watching Aliens of the Deep was something of a time-travel experience for me. Growing up, I spent many Saturday afternoons watching Jacques Cousteau and the intrepid crew of the Calypso explore the oceans of the world, bringing all the undersea wonders they found to my television set in glorious color. Directors James Cameron and Steven Quale owe a great deal to Cousteau, but they go far beyond the Frenchman's wildest dreams by presenting this underwater documentary in mind-blowing IMAX 3D format.

Watching IMAX films on the trademark impossibly large screen is perhaps the pinnacle of cinematic experience, whereas 3D has often been relegated to red-blue headache-inducing hell. With wraparound, polarized glasses, however, IMAX has come very close to perfecting the technology—at least until the breakthrough that does away with glasses entirely. The picture was amazingly crisp, and the depth of the image convincing without resorting (much) to the "coming at you" tricks that so many other 3D films rely upon. This is immersion cinema at its finest, with only a few seconds here and there where the effect didn't take and the scene was rendered flat.

As in Cameron's earlier IMAX effort, Ghosts of the Abyss, the audience is transported to the farthest ocean depths, seemingly shoulder-to-shoulder with the explorers inside the cramped confines of their deep sea submersibles. Unlike that earlier film, which focused on stationary wreckage, Aliens of the Deep is all about life — swarming, teeming and strange beyond all reason.

Cameron, along with a handful of astrobiologists, seismologists and planetologists from NASA, the SETI Institute and other respected bodies, make more than a dozen dives to the bottom of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where plate tectonics create a molten rock/sea water interface that results in one of the most extreme environments on the planet. Super-heated water, rich in nutrients and minerals, spews forth from black smoker vents at more than 700 degrees, mixing with the frigid, sub-zero water of the ocean floor at pressures measured in tons per square inch. It is here that extremophile organisms live, flourishing in the murky depths. Elaborate, feathery bacterial mats decorate the mineral chimney structures, serving as food for colonies of billions of shrimp which swim from freezing to scalding and back without so much as flinching.

The diversity of invertebrates is amazing. Ghostly white crabs climb among the rock formations. Giant squid, as long as the submersibles, dart in and out of view. A fat, pink octopus glides past, propelled through the water by wing-like fins protruding from the sides of its body. Strangest of all is a huge, transparent jellyfish-like creature. Delicate, reticulated veins decorate its body, which bizarrely takes the form of a gossamer ring, a living wheel that caroms in slow motion across the screen. It's as beautiful as it is impossible. Yet it is real, and in that instant it's clear why there are astrobiologists exploring the bottom of the sea — this is indeed the closest they're likely to get to genuine aliens. For proxies, they could do a lot worse.

Interspersed among the various strange discoveries on Earth's seafloor are neatly segued animations offering speculations about what might await human explorers in distant alien oceans. A well-done sequence illustrates the concept of the nuclear powered Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, which would explore the Jovian system with a special emphasis on Europa, an icy moon the size of our own thought to harbor a liquid ocean beneath its frozen surface. While the JIMO is unlikely to ever fly due to vastly underestimated technological hurdles, the sequence does a great job of illustrating how much there is out there to learn, and that while such plans may still belong in the realm of science fiction, they certainly aren't fantasies. A dedicated mission to Europa is next, featuring a lander which touches down on the frozen surface and then melts its way through miles of ice to reach the ocean below.

The film concludes with the submersible crews transposed to vessels in an alien sea, approaching a wondrous submarine city as they're greeted by benevolent, bioluminous creatures that resemble a strange cross between slugs, manta rays and octopi. As weird as these CGI constructs are, they're no match for some of the true oddballs featured earlier in the film — oddball creatures that are real, mind you, swimming in our oceans today.

Cameron's enthusiasm is infectious, and the film's languid pace allows the audience to absorb the non-stop wonders in a far different experience than that offered by most slam-bang action films. Taken with Cameron's earlier films — The Abyss, Titanic and the aforementioned Ghosts of the Abyss — it's clear that he has developed an almost evangelical fervor for deep sea and outer space exploration, and is sincere in his desire to convert more to the cause.

The one real flaw in this film is its brief running time — 47 minutes— which cuts things off short right when the speculative elements start to take off. After seeing the attention lavished on real science and real extrapolation here, I would dearly love to see Cameron follow up this film with an adaptation of Wayne Douglas Barlowe's phenomenal book Expedition, done in the same, straightforward documentary style. I would gladly shell out my hard-earned cash for a chance to see that, even if it were only a paltry 47 minutes long.

While Aliens of Deep may be classified as a documentary, it's also science fiction of the purest kind — firmly grounded speculations presented in an entertaining way that serves to educate. Hugo Gernsback would be very proud, and so, I suspect, would Cousteau.


RevolutionSF Fiction Editor Jayme Lynn Blaschke has more in common with Jacques Clouseau than he does with Jacques Cousteau.

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