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Aliens of the Deep

(2005) *** G
48 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Directors: James Cameron, Steven Quale. Cast: James Cameron, Pamela Conrad, Dijanna Figueroa, Kelly Snook, Kevin Hand.

With 2003's Ghosts of the Abyss under his belt, James Cameron returns to IMAX 3-D for Aliens of the Deep. And let me tell you, it's almost like his ego is leaping off the screen! That's a little 3-D joke. But seriously, folks, Cameron's been living the life of a millionaire eccentric since 1997's tough-act-to-follow Titanic, and who can blame him? His nerdy enthusiasms for deep-sea and space exploration are genuine, and they converge once more, Abyss-style in Aliens of the Deep, co-directed by longtime Cameron cohort Steven Quale.

Aliens of the Deep is a literal thesis film, putting forth the idea that studying Earth's sunless ecosystems with extreme conditions of pressure and temperature—namely, the deep sea—will prepare us to explore similar settings in deep space. Using ROV Bots, MIR submersibles, and manned Deep Rover "crew sphere" submersibles, a hand-picked team from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab follow Cameron's lead.

"I'm Jim Cameron, and here's the deal. I love this stuff," enthuses Cameron in voice-over. Most of the narration is designed to emphasize the film's own import ("We were really pushing the boundary of being out in an unsafe environment"). In fact, the film's second-most-lasting impression is that of Cameron and his assembled science team wetting themselves (pardon the pun) over how cool their jobs are. The film's most-lasting impression is that they're right.

We take in amazing natural sights that only the work of dedicated scientists could bring us: giant tube worms; "waving fields of bacteria"; exotic deep-water starfish, octopi, anemones, and crabs; an ethereal, gossamer creature that's apparently an as-yet-unidentified species; and hydrothermal vents, "chimneys" venting black smoke from beneath the earth's crust.

Cameron unfortunately gives us considerably more inane observations than science facts. He's like the Joe Garagiola of the deep—"What a beautiful animal. What a beautiful animal. Look at that"—and encourages his scientist charges to follow suit. "How cool is this?" Jet Propulsion Lab astrobiologist "Pan" Conrad asks about a sub. "This is way better than a cardboard box!"

By way of digital effects, Cameron provides speculative sequences about future NASA explorations which could practically apply the undersea discoveries. In particular, he imagines the work of NASA's proposed JIMO, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. Cameron goes too far, though, when he bursts into science fiction to depict young PhD grad student Dijanna Figueroa making first contact with alien creatures on some far-flung planet.

Cameron's unadvisable whims are excusable: as a coffee table book, Aliens of the Deep is a beaut. Cameron knows how to use his IMAX 3-D medium to make his foreground pop pleasingly from his background and thereby recruit the audience into his mission. Ultimately, then, Aliens of the Deep is most valuable as a Children's Museum exhibit. This G-rated outing will undoubtedly spark the scientific interest of many a young'un.

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