Now that it seems that "The Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson is the new James Cameron -- the king of both historically lucrative Oscar-winners and of the world -- Cameron is free to show us a less familiar side of himself, one free to say things such as "I like big operations, but this is off the hook!" or "I'm James Cameron, and here's the deal: I love this stuff!"
This is the Cameron we get in "Aliens of the Deep," the "Titanic" director's latest undersea
Cameron, who directs with Steven Quale, announces himself, then recedes into the woodwork, letting the movie's scientists take over as they move to the "edge of photosynthesis" and then beyond it in vessels called submersibles. Their search for living creatures produces unidentified life-forms that appear all the more vivid though the sturdy 3-D glasses given out at the theater. One of the more hypnotic is the undulating thing that looks like a strip of translucent vellum with the pattern of certain insects' wings.
"How could a whole ecosystem be thriving without sunlight?" one of the scientists asks. As the crew tries to think beyond heliocentrism, "Aliens of the Deep" cogently argues that its dives and the results they unearth are crucial analogies of what we might find in exploring space. If life can thrive so far below sea level, then it's more than reasonable for life to exist on, say, Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.
"Aliens of the Deep" stirs excitement about exploration of all kinds. It's also a wonder to behold. One sign of a successful IMAX outing is how it makes you believe you are there in every frame, and this one does. The movie could do without the speculation of what we might find in space, something that looks like an outtake from one of Cameron's movies. If this is what we might turn up, why hop in a space shuttle when we can get it at the video store?
Nonetheless, the sea makes a beautiful corollary to space. This would explain why there are so many astrogeologists and astrobiologists doing oceanographers' work here, and why they're so gleefully astonished when they find chimneys piping what looks like smoke underwater at about 750 degrees (a temperature high enough to melt a submersible).
These scientists' joy for their work is infectious, although when one crew member exclaims, "That is da bomb," it's likely that she's been spending too much time with her kids -- or with James Cameron.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aliens of the Deep