Monday, February 26, 2018

Diving Deep Into THE ABYSS

by Mark Ahn
Like the depths for which it is named, there’s a lot about The Abyss that feels murky and opaque.

For a generally well-received movie from a big-name director, it feels like a mid-level James Cameron, not reaching the heights of Titanic, or Avatar, or Aliens (maybe because it borrows heavily from all three). It gets crapped on for its length, which goes to almost three hours in the special edition, and for making everybody on set hate Cameron. It sometimes weirdly has a hard time getting free from the odd shadows of Leviathan and DeepStar Six, both underwater movies that came out in the same year (this might just be me). But, it also endures in my memory as one of my favorites that year. Obviously, spoilers because the movie’s almost 30 years old.
The Plot in 89 Characters

Deep sea drilling crew looks for lost sub. They’re stuck; some are crazy. Aliens surface.

The Most 1989 Part of All This

It has to be the absolutely earnest and sincere tone. All of the characters wholeheartedly believe in their own viewpoints, from practical drill rig foreman Bud (Ed Harris), to fastidious rig designer Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), to superpatriot Navy SEAL Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn). There is no time for funny business and nonsense when you’re thousands of feet underwater, and even less when lost nuclear weapons threaten everyone’s existence. The movie doesn’t feel the need to be quippy and ironic, but there also isn’t a constant grimness, either. The story takes time to build some humanity with the rekindling of the romance between Bud and Lindsey, and some bonding moments between the crew.

The height of this earnestness is probably the ending, which gets so much crap because it brazenly proclaims Cameron’s longstanding opposition against nuclear weapons, and even in the longer special edition, feels a little abrupt. (Also, as if to herald the 1989ness of it all, the alien city has that purple, plasticky look to it.) It’s definitely cheesy, and it’s not played for any kind of subtlety, and that fits because the movie isn’t about the gritty details of encountering a new species, but what is common and important for the good of everyone involved. That lack of cynicism is refreshing, since the current trend is to make things dark because it’s more realistic. I think the cheesiness is a small price to pay for an ending that attempts to be uplifting.
The Best Bits

You know what isn’t the most 1989 thing about the movie? The visual effects. This isn’t to say that the computer generated effects haven’t aged, but they generally hold up in the crucial parts, like the water tentacle or some of the submersible action scenes. As for the rest of the mostly practical effects, they are why the film is still vastly rewatchable now. Real actors and stunt people are swimming and playing out the action in all of it, so we don’t get that weightlessness that digital effects tend to have, which, in 1989, probably would have been made worse by the underwater setting. Cameron got around all of that by simply filming for six months underwater, creating the largest freshwater tank in the world, and building state-of-the-art audio and visual recording equipment.

The effects are notable, but Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris ground the film in reality. Mastrantonio’s Lindsey is a Ripley sister-clone, and plays a role often played by men; emotionally prickly, intense, obsessed with technical craft. Harris plays Bud as a verbal, emotive, smarter than he looks everyman who cares about his crew and is still crazy about Lindsey, his ex-wife. I really like Harris’s performance because it’s so different from how we’ve come to know him; his role is more emotionally open and verbal, and it feels like the tone of his performance is the heart of the movie. That earnestness is essential to little parts where Bud decides to keep wearing his wedding band after throwing it away in frustration, or the scene where Lindsey is revived after going into hypothermia from exposure to the cold, pressurized deep water outside of the rig. Cameron’s movies do have memorable individual characters, but Bud and Lindsey stick out to me as characters who connect to each other, this side of Titanic.
The weird Science in the Science Fiction

• Although there have been successful attempts for animals to breathe liquid, it’s only been tested once on a human, who almost died. Ed Harris filmed his scenes with the liquid by just holding his breath inside of a helmet filled with liquid.

• Cameron and dive director Al Giddings would spend five hours at a time underwater, aided by the invention of an underwater tank-filling station, which saved time on the surface.

• Cameron almost drowned when he got so wrapped up in his work that he didn’t notice that his oxygen gauge was at zero. With no oxygen to call for help, he swam up, where a rescue diver stopped and held him about 15 feet short of the surface (as per rescue procedure) and gave Cameron oxygen through a spare tank. Unfortunately, the spare tank was broken, so Cameron got a mouthful of water instead of oxygen, and was still being held by the diver. With no way to communicate what was happening, he ended up punching the rescue diver to get away, finally dragging himself out of the tank.
Many of the cast and crew were vocal about the grueling nature of the shoot and the director in charge of it all, and there are way more stories you can find about the unforgiving production (i.e. ear infections, throwing couches, peeing in wetsuits) but if it’s any consolation, their efforts produced probably the best underwater sequences in a large-scale production in history. Cameron himself clearly learned whatever lessons he thought he needed when going on to film Terminator 2, for which he used the technology for the water tentacle to create the T-1000 effects, and in the water scenes of Titanic. Hopefully their efforts will stand, if only so that nobody ever has to top what Cameron and his cast/crew had to endure.


  1. i think the only version i ever saw of this movie is the extended cut, when it came out in the Special Edition DVD. but right there i was hooked. and i think it's a shame they won't release it on blu-ray because Cameron is too busy working on the other thing.

  2. It's been too long since I've seen this. A few years ago, I wanted to buy, but the Blu-Ray release was supposedly only months away. It still hasn't come yet.

    Also, it's not available for digital buy/rent, or streaming in Canada either. :(

  3. James Cameron is really letting people down with this blu-ray lack of release. Paul, I will mail you my copy.

  4. Just rewatched this the other night. As with Aliens, I enjoy the longer cut, but I maintain that the theatrical cut is the better film. It's far better paced and the ending is far less preachy. And the more obscure rationale of the aliens made them better characters, and the dodgy beach scenes ruin the immersion and claustrophobia they've established so nicely. What I can't get over is the rat scene and how the hell they got away with it. The rat is clearly in distress the entire time. I'm pretty thick skinned but even I had trouble watching that scene this time round.

    1. The rat is a hell of a Chekov's gun; you know for sure that's going to happen to somebody later and so you're squirmy the whole time. They cut that part out in the UK, apparently.

    2. It's brilliantly done as a set-up, for sure. I do recall reading something about the RSPCA in the UK having some issues with it. Having a former girlfriend who was an animal trainer has made me sensitive to this stuff. Her biggest one was Atreyu's horse in the mud in the Neverending Story, you didn't want to get her started on that one! Thanks for replying!

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  6. I heard a lot of different reviews about this film, but I never watched it. I started to look many times, but each ram distracted me and then I just turned it off. After reading the description and comments, I understand that this film really needs to be seen, because it's worth it. So this time, nothing will stop me from seeing it.

  7. The Abyss is impressive on a technical level, but otherwise a very dull film in my opinion. This is the movie that began James Cameron's downward spiral in his script writing. Every character seems like some American archetype, and not in a satisfying natural way. The burly hillbilly dude, the argumentative couple, the quirky guy with the rat, the immoral and depraved marine, etc. The stereotypes baked into almost every character was on my mind the whole film and was an immense distraction. I'll confess that another thing that bothered me was Michael Biehn returning to villain role that he began his career with (The Fan, The Lords of Discipline). Cameron made a brilliant decision in seeing the vulnerable, silent hero
    qualities of Biehn when he cast him as Kyle Reese. We got more of this in Aliens. It was quite a disappointment to me seeing Biehn return to the psychotic douchebag role, although later he did this wonderfully as Doc Holliday's foil Johnny Ringo. I know this is an unfair and highly personal criticism. Biehn is a fine actor and probably wanted a different type of role, but it's painful to me in this film seeing Corporal Hicks but getting Lieutenant Coffee.