Deepsea Challenge is the latest documentary from James Cameron, director of such classics as The Terminator, Aliens and the more recent Avatar. For many years Cameron has been exploring the depths of the ocean, desperate to see as much of it as possible. Now, Cameron is trying to do something nobody has done before: dive down to the Mariana Trench, the lowest point in the ocean, in a one-man dive. His goal is big and the depth is even bigger, not to mention how isolated it is. Deepsea Challenge documents the preparation for such a voyage, the tests needed to undergo it, the stress it places on Cameron's family and, what we're all here to see, the actual voyage itself.
This voyage is proven to be a more personal vendetta to Cameron than what the trailers advertised and the news reported on. This documentary gives, as most documentaries should, more insight into the overall shenanigans that take place. James Cameron, who narrates over the film as well as cutting between interviews, explains to us how he's always been a curious person, starting from when he was just a child. These flashbacks are shown in the form of short films, which I couldn't help but giggle like a school-girl at. Despite making a documentary, Cameron can't help but implant his skills as a filmmaker too. While I laughed, I have nothing against it. It's actually rather clever how his shorts are incorporated into the overall story, and for that I thank him.
With so much time dedicated to the determination of Cameron, two things must be mentioned. The first is that I was incredibly thankful that Cameron comes across as a nice guy, as we're stuck with him for an hour and a half. He's a joy to watch doing his thing on screen, which brings me to my second point. We really get a sense of who this guy is when he's not behind the camera. He's a dedicated and loving man with a childlike charisma to suit. There's even a joyous scene where we get to see him bring his family in to explore the sub, one that just give him a bit of character. Wait, can I use the word character in a documentary review? Oh I don't know.
While it's all well and dandy to hang out with the Cameron-o-nator, we're given a little too much time to bond. The film, as it rightfully should be, is the James Cameron show. It's all about him, which I'm fine with. What I'm not fine with is how much extra on-screen time is given to showing him wander around or repetitively take us through the way everything works or the meetings the crew have to sit through. The voyage just seems to turn into a sub-plot in comparison to the story of Cameron's life.
Delightful at times, gut wrenching at others, this isn't a job that appeals to me. I'm happy to watch this stuff, but there's no need for me to live it. It goes well beyond proving the dangers of this job, but also the stress. Even as an audience member, sitting at home on my couch, I could feel the stress this crew was dealing with, particularly when it comes to the loss of a crew member, which I wouldn't consider that big a spoiler, in case you were wondering.
Adding to this stress is the repeated testing and re-testing. It just feels like it's going on and on and on. They're necessary tests, but they're not necessary pieces of entertainment. There's no need to show every single test made, and in great detail at that. Perhaps it's because there wasn't enough documented to last for a full 90 minutes, but I would much rather have spent more time at the depths than on the surface.
To sum up, Deepsea Challenge fails to evenly distribute the onscreen journeys, focussing too much on the personal journey of Cameron than it does on the literal journey. Although this is a major flaw, the documentary does a lot right too, particularly in the way of making the whole thing rather entertaining.
3 1/2 Stars