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Deepsea Challenge (Blu-ray Review)

coversmallThink about the great success James Cameron has had over the course of his career in cinema.  A special effects and now camera wunderkind, the man is responsible for the top two grossing films of all time (not accounting for inflation), launching the careers of numerous Hollywood stars.  Like King Midas, his every touch bestows gold, with a career trajectory that points ever higher upwards to previously unimagined heights…which is why his other passion is so fittingly ironic.

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Film 

There’s something to be said about a man who lives his dreams, who doesn’t let anything stand between himself and his goals. The Abyss and Titanic may have their links in Cameron’s history, but there’s so much more the man has done underwater that helps define this modern renaissance man’s life and accomplishments.  When there isn’t sufficient technological capabilities for the excursions to be undertaken, the world has discovered a twist on the old adage “where there’s a will there’s a way,” as all it takes is James Cameron (and his unsettlingly large bank account) and his sense of exploration.

Forgive this laundry list, but see if you can spot a pattern: Ghosts of the Abyss.  Aliens of the Deep.  Volcanoes of the Deep Sea.  Expedition: Bismarck.  Last Mysteries of the Titanic.  Sanctum.  Now, Deepsea Challenge.  HBO’s hit series Entourage had a running gag of having Cameron direct a DC comics adaptation of Aquaman, and it’s quite fitting for two reasons: the man practically has gils, and if there’s any man who could make something as boring and, let’s face it, entirely worthless as Aquaman chic, it’s Cameron.

In his latest adventure into the depths, Cameron takes the Deepsea Challenger to the deepest point in the ocean, the Mariana Trench, and unlike the one previous expedition to such depths, Cameron goes alone.  National Geographic’s Deepsea Challenge is a document of this journey, from the conception of the idea, to the creation of the craft, its test runs, and on to the extremely dangerous journey, almost seven miles underwater.

Love or hate the man’s films, my opinion of the man changed from casual indifference to admiration due to this documentary, solely due to the logistics of the journey.  Yes, there’s a team of engineers and scientists creating the Deepsea Challenger specifically for this dive, and yes, they take it on a few test runs before going to the great unknown; that said, all it takes is one mistake, miscalculation, or even freak accident, and you’re dead.  There is no back-up unit, no method of extraction in case of disaster.  Cameron puts not only his money where his mouth is, but his life, in the name of science, to document a world unknown to us.

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Deepsea Challenge is a very in-depth documentary, which hits a very wide spectrum of topics, including some brief historical recreations to explain Cameron’s fascination with the depths of the ocean, but it isn’t without fault.  This 91 minute feature only begins the descent into the Mariana Trench when the film is already almost finished, the adventure itself feeling like a footnote, the creation of the craft and the focus on the people behind the story taking the brunt of the focus, somewhat unfairly.  Considering how amazing this journey is, I would have loved to have seen more underwater shots, both in the descent and ascent, and in the landing and subsequent exploration.  It almost feels like a tease, like watching The Big Lebowski hoping to see the bowling tournament that’s discussed in every scene but is never shown.

Fans of Jacques Cousteau’s amazing body of work will find this piece an homage of sorts, albeit one that’s been through an extreme makeover.  Those interested in how technology is conceived and created will be tickled pink, as this feature truly aims at their hobby.  Cameron cinema-fanatics may not have their interests piqued, though owners of home 3D equipment will have another title from the man who revolutionized the technology, using his trademark camera equipment.  There’s no universal recommendation for this title due to the varied interest groups for it.  Deepsea Challenge didn’t go deep enough (pun intended) in what I felt were important topics, but for some, it may hit just the right spot.

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Video 

Encoding: AVC MPEG-4/MVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio:  1.78:1

Clarity/Detail: I’m a huge homer for films shot with the RED camera family, and it’s a well known fact that the Cameron created Fusion Camera System has revolutionized filming techniques.  What Deepsea Challenge does is combine these two aspects, with some shots done in IMAX-styled extreme-detail, via the RED, and obviously the 3D done by Cameron’s brainchild.  This should go without saying, but that means that the previous two sentences are touting extreme detail and clarity, regardless of picture format, and this disc is an accurate representation of this.  The miniature cams from inside the vessel have their limitations, but that’s an inherent issue, not a disc issue.

Depth: James Cameron.  3D.  This should go without saying, but yeah, this is top notch, top tier in terms of picture depth.  Sure, the moments inside the crammed Deepsea Challenger have their limitations, but aside from shots inside an oversized soda can, this is perfection, with every layer sporting extreme clarity, every shot featuring tremendous, realistic depth.

Black Levels: Pretty much a non-factor.  Even in the deepest parts of the trenches, due to the lighting, we mostly see dark blues of various grades, and very little of the machinery is black.  Picture brightness is not an issue, and there’s no contrast boosting, this is just a bright flick not featuring much darkness.  A crazy thought, to be sure, but for the first time I’ve ever reviewed a disc, this is a non-issue.

Color Reproduction: As accurate as possible given the filming techniques and conditions.  It always seems a little off when an underwater feature is as vividly bright turquoise as a cartoon character, and this flick doesn’t give in to this over-lit cliche.  Blues are dark, gloomy, moody, and greatly accurate.  In non-dive shots, colors are rich, sharp, and vivid, a testament to a certain amazing camera rig that Cameron created.

Flesh Tones: For exterior shots, perfection, nicely saturated, varied, just natural and healthy.  However, there are quite a few shots taken inside the vessel that are lit only with strips of LED lights that look somewhat blue; as such, those shots have a bit of a tint to them that is somewhat unavoidable.  An accurate representation of the flick.

Noise/Artifacts: This is going to be fun…Features of this sort are always suspect to serious banding effects, and Deepsea Challenge 3D is no exception.  Taking an infinitely deep and dark surface, lighting it with limited (and by limited we mean a couple) bulbs, and expecting bright, vivid blues, let alone as deep as this feature goes, would be insane.  It’s really neat, though, the way some of the bands wash and wave due to the movement of water, the unnatural look of these layers absorbing and shifting the materials around them in their inability to smoothly gradient.  There are also some minor macroblocking artifacts, but they are in the archival footage used in previous Cameron films, and a few fly-on-the-wall cameras have their own little quality problems.

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Audio 

Audio Formats: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, English Dolby Digital 2.0

Subtitles:  English SDH, Spanish

Dynamics: For a documentary, this isn’t a bad sounding disc.  One has to keep in mind the whole “this is James Cameron, explorer, not James Cameron, mega-blockbuster maker” effect and keep expectations in check.  This Blu-ray has clear, clean sounds, no hiss, crackle, and only the slightest bit of distortion (which is from the equipment used between vehicles, not the fault of the disc).  This is an accurate representation of the material presented.

Low Frequency Extension: A little roar exists every now and again, a little bit atmospheric, a little in the score, but for the most part, this feature has very little bass.

Surround  Sound Presentation: A weak spot.  Yes, there are some small effects that fill the room every now and again, and sure, there are bits of score that spread through the room, but this documentary starts out sparing on the rears, and eventually forgets they exist, hoping we do, as well.

Dialogue Reproduction: Clear, crisp, sharp.  There’s no problems with mixture, with dialogue always being represented with solid prioritization, without a single misheard word.

Disc Technical Specs: BD50, Region A, Release Date: November 11, 2014

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Extras 

This two disc combo pack features a Blu-ray disc that plays the film in both 2D and 3D, as well as a DVD copy.

The Deepest Point on Earth (HD, 3:32): Essentially, a tease; not quite a trailer, but definitely not a featurette or behind the scenes look at anything.

An Alien World (HD, 2:13): This feels like a redundant cut scene with the same feel as the main feature.

Trailers/Previews (HD): A trailer for the film, as well as the pre-menu content accessible yet again.

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Summary 

I’ll admit: Deepsea Challenge is my first time with James Cameron, explorer, after having seen most of the work of James Cameron, blockbuster guru, and the experience overall is positive, shedding light into a man whose passions are revealed to the world.  This in-depth look at a real scientific expedition from conception and creation to completion, though it does have its shortcomings about the results of the dive itself, an oddity due to the fact that the dive depicted in this film was done in 2012, and this release comes to light in late 2014.  This release features top tier video, though somewhat mundane audio and some truly poor supplements.  3DTV owners should consider this release a must own.  Standard 2D viewers may need to weigh their interests before diving in, but at least give it a look-see.

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Writer/reviewer, gamer, father, technology early adopter. Formerly published on the now-defunct Project-Blu and Highdefdigest.

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