This production's title is a bit misleading. It turns out that the "Aliens" are invaders in the Deep, not denizens "of" it. The "aliens" are the descendants of African primates, and we see their actions, their wishes and their responses to what they find at the depths. Although the film does give us glimpses of the sea bottom, the mysterious "black smokers" and the inhabitants associated with them, most of the footage is of the researchers, the support team and, of course, "Jim" Cameron. While scientists and their work need more recognition, the many shots of them peering through portholes, communicating on almost indecipherable squawk boxes and squirming about in confined diving vehicles doesn't give us much of "the Deep".
After some initial preparation activities, including stripping the side from one of the ships, the probes are launched. Two hours descent is compressed into twenty seconds, but the sea floor, over 800 metres down is reached. There's a great deal of interprobe conversation and both internal and outside shots of the vehicles. Cameron's budget extended to five probes altogether, giving him every possibility for film-making. Wisely, he chose both international and interdiscipline characters, with a mix of Russian, US, geophysicists and astrobiologists. The film buff will recognise none but Cameron, but it's hoped the research community will pick out familiar names. Personal accounts abound, but one has to wonder at somebody blocking a viewport with a baby's photograph.
As a producer, Cameron has a sense of lighting and filming scenes, and some of these are little short of stunning. Sea life at depth is sparse, but "something nobody's ever seen" is likely to appear. One, a form of jellyfish, brings the predictable gasps of awe, and with good reason. It's indeed a bizarre creature with possibly a lengthy history. The scarcity of life suddenly turns abundant as the divers approach a "black smoker". Cameron's lighting talents come to the fore as one vehicle lights the chimney from behind while another films the discharge in glorious close-up. It may be "Hollywood lighting", but the resulting image seems worth it.
Through it all, one has to wonder if the researchers entertained thoughts of how it was that James Cameron had one robot and four manned dive vessels when their chance at but one means scheduling and a queue. Preparation and its problems are not minor aspects of deep ocean research, but how much of it's necessary for a commercial film? More to the point, although the scientists struggled to impart that the sea is 70% of the Earth's living space, the science behind Cameron's effort remains subdued. It's true that studying how to do tasks at the bottom of the sea will aid in exploring other planets in the search for ET life. But there is much to be learned about life itself at depth - a topic remains little explored.
Finally, the question remains whether an IMAX film truly can be brought to the home screen. Only those who have seen this in both formats can judge. If you want to see a realm new to surface eyes, this film may be an interesting starting point. Don't stop here. If this film doesn't prompt you to go on to find a real film on the ecosystem of three-quarters of the world, it has failed in its task. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]