Film Discussion

The Abyss – Looking back at James Cameron’s underwater adventure

The Abyss is the one film that James Cameron has directed, so far, that could best be described as a ‘flop’. Not that it was a massive bomb by any stretch of the imagination, but of his work as writer/director, it is the one film of his that underperformed at the box office. But then again it did come out in the summer of 1989 which was a massively busy summer season at the box office.

Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2 – the summer of ’89 was a very busy season, although interestingly it wouldn’t be Tim Burton’s gothic interpretation of  the Dark Knight, or the adventures of Henry Jones Jr and Sr that would keep The Abyss from the top of the box office on its opening weekend; it was, interestingly, Uncle Buck. But as James Cameron himself has said on the subject recently – who in this day and age is talking about Uncle Buck?

Uncle Buck is a fine film, and one of John Hughes’ more enjoyable entries into family comedy, but The Abyss is an incredibly cinematic achievement in terms of production and storytelling ambition. It would also be the first film that Cameron would direct that would prove incredibly difficult to craft and bring to the screen; a production that would have its own follow up when Cameron would return to the ocean for the filming of Titanic. They say you should never work with animals or children, but water could easily be added to that saying based on the stories that came out of The Abyss, Titanic and even Waterworld.

The genesis of The Abyss stemmed from a lecture that James Cameron attended at seventeen years of age, concerning the breathing of liquid oxygen, which inspired him to write a short story at the time, and was an aspect that would play a massive part in the narrative to the film that Cameron would make after Aliens.

After striking gold with The Terminator and Aliens, for his third film Cameron had the free reign to make whatever he wanted, and what he would end up doing would be a complex production for an incredibly ambitious film that would play out as 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind within the depths of the ocean.

Production took place at an abandoned nuclear plant in South Carolina, where 7.5 million gallons of water were used to fill up its abandoned reactor. The majority of the cast, including Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Cameron regular Michael Biehn, were trained in deep sea diving, given that a massive amount of the film would take place underwater.  The Abyss‘s budget would end up around $45 million; a sizeable amount and the most expensive film that Cameron would make up to this point in his career.

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The resulting production would be intense and deeply troubled, with crew members eventually wearing t-shirts that said things like ‘The Abuse’ and ‘Life’s Abyss and Then You Dive’. Ed Harris nearly drowning during the filming of the film’s intense final sequences, while Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio stormed off the set during the filming of the famous resuscitation scene when the camera ran out of film and she had spent a lot of time in the cold, topless, soaking wet and having her chest pounded repeatedly by Ed Harris.

Unlike Titanic seven years later, The Abyss would be met with a polarised reaction of sorts, with reviews ranging from positive to mixed and the box office lower than expected – the first underperformance since Cameron hit it big with The Terminator in 1984.

Thirty years after its release, it arguably remains Cameron’s most genuinely ambitious film. While Titanic and Avatar are also incredibly ambitious, no doubt about it, there’s always been something about the reaction to The Abyss that has made it a terribly underrated film from Cameron.

As always with Cameron, there are themes here that run throughout his films that are given a run-through here, but in a way that always makes them feel different. We have a love story, this time an estranged one between Bud (Ed Harris) and Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a character suggested to have been inspired by Gale Anne Hurd; the use of nuclear weapons and the threat of them as a storytelling point (nuclear weapons, or a nuclear explosion, are at the heart of The Terminator series and Aliens and would be again in True Lies); and the supporting ensemble, a wonderful set of characters in their own way, have a blue-collar feel. Ironically if Aliens changed the ‘truckers in space’ to ‘marines in space’, the underwater oil riggers have a similar feeling to the cast of characters from Aliens.

There are marines here, a holdover from Aliens in a manner of speaking, but in this case, they are the antagonists. Cameron regular Michael Biehn, previously the heroic Kyle Reese and Dwayne Hicks in The Terminator and Aliens, is the bad guy, albeit a complex one whose psychosis is pushed by his falling to the high pressure nervous syndrome and whose eventual actions are given a tragic undercurrent given that he isn’t acting out of pure evil.

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The film seemingly builds up to an incredibly emotional crescendo when, stranded in a submersible taking on water and with only one diving suit between them, Lindsey makes the decision to allow herself to drown so Bud can bring her back afterwards. The resulting scene may have proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for much of the cast, but the resulting power of the drama and the performances from Harris, the supporting cast and the haunting image of Mastrantonio’s lifeless face filling up the frame, may very well be the best scene that Cameron has ever filmed, even if his methods proved too much for everyone.

It would almost be brilliant enough to end the film there and then, but it’s only the end of the second act and the film has one more element to play. It is the final act that either cements The Abyss or where it falls apart.

The Abyss presents us with an alien presence that recurs throughout. Given its 1989 release date and, presumably, setting, the Cold War is at the heart of a lot of the narrative, which is where the nuclear threat gains traction. Coffey (Michael Biehn) believe that there are Russians, and not aliens, in the vicinity of the underwater oil rig. The end of the film, a deep-sea tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, sees Bud make the dive to the bottom of the ocean, using liquid oxygen to do so, and eventually to an otherworldly discovery.

On its 1989 release, The Abyss had a 140 minute run time. Given the success of the Special Edition of Aliens in 1991, a special edition of The Abyss was prepared for release in 1993, which restored thirty-five minutes of material, including a tidal wave sequence in the final moments, and more scenes between Bud and Lindsey. The latter element of the film was already powerful enough, but the restored material added more layers and more brilliant scenes between Harris and Mastrantonio, which, like the new background details given to Ripely and Newt in the Aliens Special Edition, and the added Kyle Reese cameo to the Terminator 2 Special Edition, feels as if it should never have been cut at all.

Best of all, the film going from an intense and epic claustrophobic thriller to one with science fiction elements also feels somewhat more earned and natural than it did in the theatrical release. With a longer running time, Bud discovering the aliens at the end is a bigger deal, and it comes with a genuine message, even if that message does make the extended version feel just a touch preachy – which almost makes it lose a few points. The more synth-heavy score by Robert Garrett in the added scenes also jars badly with Alan Silvestri’s grand, beautiful orchestral score.

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While it’s not without its flaws in either version, on a personal level I have always loved The Abyss, and maybe because it’s ranked lower compared to Cameron’s other works, the underrated reaction to the film has always made me love it more. Yes, The Terminator and Terminator 2 are better films, and Aliens, of course, handles the extraterrestrial element far, far better. And maybe The Abyss would have been better if it just stuck to the Cold War paranoia elements. But the ambitions of the narrative, the gorgeousness of Mikael Salomon’s underwater photography,  the scale of Cameron’s direction and what is without doubt Cameron’s most real and mature romantic love story (some of which is rumoured to have stemmed from where his marriage to Hurd was at the time) has always made me love it more and more the older I get.

In many respects one could argue that The Abyss is to James Cameron what Blade Runner was to Ridley Scott: undervalued on its release, then given a director’s cut, but which might actually need one more pass in the editing suite in order to make it into the masterpiece that it really ought to be.

A Blu-Ray release of the film has been rumoured for years; it has been given myriad VHS, Laserdisc and DVD releases, although the latter has a non-anamorphic transfer which makes it a pain to watch. Recently, in an interview for Empire Magazine, Cameron stated that the film, along with True Lies, has been given an HD makeover by 20th Century Fox and is waiting for his approval but he hasn’t had the time to do so. It’s a shame, because of all Cameron’s work, this is the one that would visually work with a 4K transfer. It has shown up on Netflix in the past year, but this is a film that demands a new transfer, or a new cut, or a new something. With Avatar sequels on the way and the forthcoming release of Battle Angel: Attila, it would be lovely to see The Abyss be given some sort of new release and be rediscovered by a new generation whose only exposure to Cameron has been through Avatar or the many screenings of Titanic on E4 or Film Four.

Even with its perceived flaws, the resulting years have been nothing but good to the film, and it’s also a reminder of how gritty Cameron’s work could be. While The Abyss was the first of his films to gain a PG-13 rating, there is still a gritty quality to the work here. The world feels lived in, in much the same way as the world of The Terminator did, and the manner in which he continued the world of Ellen Ripley and the blue-collar cast of characters. Its mature love story is something that would be lacking from his films from this point forward, even though we do have one of the great modern Hollywood epics on its way and another all-time brilliant sequel.

Unlike Titanic and its youthful romance, The Abyss‘ beating heart is Bud and Lindsey. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio may very rarely talk about the film, but their work here is brilliant, and the emotional maturity and realism to the relationship is something Cameron wouldn’t bring to his work again, albeit for obvious reasons given, that Jack and Rose, and Jake and Neytiri, are very different relationships. It’s just interesting that as Cameron has gotten older his love stories have gained a more youthful quality, and yet the central relationship of one of the films he made when younger is one that is mature, somewhat bitter and yet redemptive and real.

With its serious message concerning world peace, one may come away thinking The Abyss is a little preachy, but in this day and age, when Cold War tensions have flared up yet again, the film has taken on a prescient edge that it would have lacked after 1989 but which has become all too relevant given that the ‘Russian threat” plays out in the background of the science-fiction trappings.

Coupled with a central relationship that gives the film a powerful beating heart, and underwater photography that is some of the greatest put to film, thirty years after its premiere and mixed reception, it remains Cameron’s most pure and ambitious film to date and one forever ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal.

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