James Cameron directed Aliens. He also directed Titanic. His latest movie, which opened last week, combines themes from both films and is called--what else?--Aliens of the Deep. This one's a documentary, shot in IMAX 3-D. It's his cinematic take on the emerging science of astrobiology, the search for life in other worlds. Paradoxically, astrobiologists are equally fascinated with outer space and the ocean depths, where water superheated by magma from the Earth's crust spews from cracks called hydrothermal vents and sustains a bizarre menagerie of bacteria and other aquatic life.
Most scientists have to scrounge for grant money, but Cameron made it easy for the researchers from NASA and various universities who co-star with him in the movie. He took them along on 40 dives to vents in the Atlantic and Pacific and filmed the objects of their study with his custom-made, ultrasharp 3-D camera system. To get to where the action is--two miles down in some cases--Cameron used four manned submersible craft and a remotely operated vehicle that was built by the director's brother. Why 3-D rather than regular film? "It's a more immersive experience," says Cameron. "There's more of a sense that you are there."
For their part, the scientists couldn't be more pleased. "The images just blew us away," says Dijanna Figueroa, a grad student in marine biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Nobody has ever seen deep-sea pictures as sharp as these. Among the wondrous creatures they spotted: a white octopus with earlike flaps known as a Dumbo octopus, an anglerfish with what look like primitive hands and a spindly 11-armed sea star. Some were previously unknown to science. "I came away asking new questions," says Figueroa. Viewers will come away in awe. --By Michael D. Lemonick. Reported by Andrea Dorfman/New York