James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge 3D is probably the closest we'll come to a memoir from the filmmaker. A documentary account of his 2012 dive to the bottom of the 36,000-foot Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench — the deepest known part of the world’s oceans — as well as the months and years spent preparing for it, the film begins with staged scenes of the young Cameron discovering his love of the sea and of underwater exploration. We see him as a young boy, cutting a hole in a cardboard box and pretending it’s a submarine and putting a small mouse in a jar labeled “Sealab” and lowering it into the water. But this film, which was directed by John Bruno, Andrew Wight, and Ray Quint, isn’t just about James Cameron the filmmaker turned explorer. As the movie unfolds, something subtler emerges about the man.
The ocean has always had a powerful hold on Cameron, as evidenced in films like The Abyss and Titanic. It’s not just a setting for him; he understands the dark loneliness of the sea. Titanic was his great tribute to its unspeakable vastness; once the waves took hold of that teeming, state-of-the-art ship, it was as if nature had come to claim an ancient debt. “We can Google a satellite picture of everything on the Earth’s surface,” he says early on in this film. But not what’s under the oceans: “Down there is the last great frontier of the world.” But as much as he wants to explore it and to understand it, it’s also clear that Cameron respects its mystery and majesty. And while Deepsea Challenge dutifully recounts the development, construction, and testing that went into creating the Deepsea Challenger, the vertical, space-age submersible Cameron used to plunge to this record depth, the film also never lets us forget that the ocean is out there, fearsome and constant.
Along the way, we discover that James Cameron actually talks a lot like a character in a James Cameron movie. “I’ll get chummed into a meat cloud in about two microseconds!” he says, discussing what might happen if his submersible were to implode at a great depth. “See you in the sunshine,” he says whenever he begins a dive — the kind of catchphrase that, in a fiction movie, would certainly be uttered ironically as someone plunged to his near-certain death in the final act. We also see hints of Cameron the notorious taskmaster, the guy who famously almost drove the cast of The Abyss to quit, as we watch the director and his team building and testing and retesting the Challenger. “Jim’s management style is often to put people under pressure,” says one of his Aussie underlings, somewhat nervously.
Deepsea Challenge often has the polished, generic sheen of a sports or educational doc — complete with the blandly triumphant, one-size-fits-all score. It also gives us some expected moments of great beauty: the otherworldly sight of hydrothermal vents shooting jets of black fluid into the water, or a lonely sea cucumber twisting in the current, or a sacred fire-dance performed by the Baining people of Papua New Guinea. But what sets the film apart is the fascinating, occasionally candid portrait of Cameron the man that it offers. When his wife Suzy Amis shows up along with their kids to watch him “dive deeper than the limits of life itself,” Cameron makes it clear (in voice-over) that a greater gift to his kids than his mere presence is his sense of purpose and curiosity. It feels like an explanation both for why he isn’t around as much as he should be and also for the fact that he might die on his dive. Everyone seems to accept that if this man were just sitting safely at home, unable to dream and explore, nobody would be happy.
But perhaps the film’s most telling part comes during the deep dives themselves. When Cameron finds himself alone in his submersible, crammed into a little turret from which he can watch and film the world around him, the bravado fades away, and he becomes a little kid again. “We got us a critter!” he yells upon sighting an octopus lurking at the bottom of one deep-sea trench. “Yesirreebob. Time to zoom in on this one!” he practically giggles, his voice seeming to go up a couple of octaves. It’s adorably dorky, and you suddenly realize that here, miles away from the world that he came from, this driven, ambitious man is finally happy. He’d stay there if he could.