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
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
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.