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THE ABYSS (1989)


James Cameron's next film followng Aliens would centre around extra-terrestrials again, but this time they would be benevolent beings living on Earth. It was one of the first stories Cameron had wrote (when he was in high school) and the cost of filming underwater meant that it wasn't until Cameron had the clout from two hit films that he could get the film financed.

Once the project was announced, two other underwater sci-fi films were rushed into production at the same time, Leviathan and Deepstar Six, and were actually released before Cameron's film.

A never-completed nuclear power plant in Gaffney, South Carolina was chosen for the underwater filming (forty percent of the film would take place underwater). A massive tank was filled with water and the actors and many of the crew had to take diving lessons to work in it. It was one of the most troubled productions in Hollywood history (star Ed Harris was left traumatized by the experience, though he did graciously take part in a warts and all making of documentary after the production).

There were all sorts of technical problems, including an incident where too much chlorine in the water bleached people's hair, and Cameron clashed with cast and crew frequently in his obsessive quest for realism. When the giant tarp blocking out daylight ripped, the production had to switch to night shooting. The shoot was so nightmarish the cast and crew even wore t-shirts with slogans such as "Life's abyss and then you dive". It's something of a miracle the film was even completed.

The film starts simply with sounds of a sub pinging over the Fox logo followed by the title (the Y stretches down like an abyss) appearing on the screen.

The story begins with a tense scene of a sub encountering an unidentified underwater flying object that cuts all its power. Once the sub crashes in the two mile deep Cayman Trough, the rescue mission is instigated.

Bud Brigman's underwater rig is commandeered by a group of Navy SEALS and Bud's estranged-wife, Lindsey (the tension between them is so thick Bud suggests that all hurricanes should be named after women). Bud throws away his ring after one terse exchange with his wife, but then has second thoughts and retrieves it from the toilet (amusingly, his hand is blue for the rest of the movie).

The famous scene where Beanie the rat breathes in liquid was filmed for real and caused some controversy, especially in the U.K. Censors there removed virtually all shots of the rat as they claimed it encouraged animal cruelty, even though it survived the liquid breathing process in real life. However, it died of natural causes shortly before the release. As Todd Graff amusingly recalls on the Under Pressure documentary on the DVD, no one would believe him that the rat's death was unrelated to the liquid breathing.

The scene where a raging storm above causes the crane to come down and drag the rig along, causing flooding is very intense. There's a nice moment where Bud's life is literally saved by his wedding ring, as it prevents a door from closing on his hand and trapping him in a flooded area.

When Lindsey heads out to try and get more oxygen for the rig, she encounters an even larger fluorescent submersible, and is convinced there is an alien intelligence behind it.

When Lindsey learns Coffey has a warhead she challenges him and calls him Roger Ramjet. Bud tries to warn her of the danger of arguing with psychos that have nuclear warheads.

The aliens reveal more of themselves, even sending a pseudopod made of water in to investigate. Neither Industrial Light and Magic or Cameron were sure they could pull off the pseudopod sequence at the time (the sequence would have been eliminated if ILM wasn't up to the challenge). The success of the living water tentacle would lead to a much more elaborate technological breakthrough with Cameron's next film.

This only makes Coffey more paranoid and deranged, leading to violent conflict. There's even a moment where it seems Coffey is about to rape Lindsey, but he just puts tape over her mouth to shut her up.

The fight scene between Bud and the increasingly disturbed Coffey, and the subsequent submersible chase are both very thrilling.

The emotional highlight of the film, even more so than Bud's later descent into the abyss, is the resuscitation scene, where Lindsey lets herself drown so Bud can carry her back to the rig and then revive her.

While some might feel this scene goes too far, it perfectly demonstrates the depth of love between these two individuals. Instead of giving up at the point where most people would, Bud perseveres and brings Lindsey back to life through sheer force of will. It's one of Harris's finest acting moments as Bud literally screams himself hoarse in his effort to revive Lindsey. It's all the more impressive considering he wasn't even acting to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in many of the shots.

During the filming of the resuscitation scene Mastrantonio stormed off set after going through the entire traumatic experience only to learn the camera was out of film.

The couple's roles are then reversed as Bud goes into the abyss wearing a liquid breathing apparatus, setting a world record for deepest dive.

Cameron finds time for humour in even the tensest sequences, such as when Bud has to cut a blue wire with white stripe, not a black wire with yellow stripe, in order to defuse the nuclear warhead Coffey has sent down the abyss attached to a submersible. Of course, both wires look the same color under his green flashlight.

Bud is near death when an alien takes him into their city. It's a spectacular sequence, the multi-colored reflections on his helmet recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some people were disappointed that the aliens turn out to be nice, but the film could have ended no other way. Thankfully Cameron resists the urge to make the E.T.'s Bud encounters too sentimental and Spielbergian.

The ending may be a bit too pat, with everyone brought to the surface and magically fixed by the aliens so they don't need to decompress, but it's a minor complaint in such a magnificent film.

The three lead performances are excellent. Michael Biehn returns to work with Cameron yet again, ostensibly playing a villain this time. His psychotic Navy SEAL, Coffey, is a memorable portrait of a good (if lacking in niceties) soldier gone wrong. In a memorable scene he cuts his arm with a knife due to pressure sickness, while giving the outward appearance of normality. Though it would be easy to hate him, Cameron and Biehn resist the urge to make him one dimensional, and his eventual demise is a subdued, almost tragic moment rather than the usual crowd-pleasing villain death.

Mastrantonio manages the difficult task of playing Lindsey Brigman as both a cold "bitch" and a sympathetic heroine. Her character is introduced, amusingly but rather impractically, wearing high heels on an aircraft carrier. Her cold exterior slowly erodes as the film goes on.

Best of all is Harris, who throws his heart and soul into playing Bud Brigman, especially in the legendary resuscitation scene. He really deserved an Oscar nomination for the role.

Of the supporting cast, Todd Graff is especially entertaining as the comic relief character, Hippy, who thinks everything is a conspiracy. Leo Burmester is good as the gruff but loveable catfish, who refers to his fist as "The Hammer" (foreshadowing him punching out Coffey later in a crowd-pleasing moment).

The dialogue is good, if a little on the nose and over-earnest in places (perhaps a hold over from the drafts Cameron wrote in his youth).

The whole film has an amazing attention to detail. Though the film is more reliant on drama than action, the action scenes are up to Cameron's usual standard. Cameron also does well directing the first big emotional scenes of his career.

Cameron is quoted in the official production notes as saying, "The design philosophy of the film was to be as real as possible. Even though the film is ultimately fantasy, the intention was to make it grittily realistic". The film follows that aesthetic closely. The design of the underwater rig is very authentic (it even has a Garfield on suckers staring out a window into the abyss).

I've already praised the groundbreaking special effects by ILM, though some of the effects aren't as good. The alien city doesn't look as impressive out of the water. One critic even referred to it as an oil-slick pizza!

The underwater sounds add a lot to the impact of the film. Much work had to be done in post-production due to the nature of filming, such as removing the annoying breathing sound from underwater dialogue.

The score by Alan Silvestri is intense when it needs to be and also captures the sense of wonder of the alien encounters.

The film works very successfully on an emotional level. If Aliens was about motherhood, the theme of this film is marriage. The disintegration of Bud and Lindsey's marriage, and their reconciliation at the end, is believably handled. The film, at least in its longer form, also has a strong anti-war message, and could almost be seen as a modern updating of the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The Abyss was Cameron's most technically accomplished film to that date, and also his most personal and emotional. The Cold War subplot dates the film slightly, but other than that it gets better with age and the Oscar-winning effects still look just as stunning. Though it was widely seen as a disappointment following Aliens, for my money it is a much more interesting and rewarding film.

The film did receive criticism at the time that the ending of the film seemed like a left turn and the aliens weren't as well developed as the troubled marriage between Bud and Lindsey. This was partly because the human relationships were so powerful, and partly because, like Aliens, The Abyss had a large section of the film cut out before release.

The extensive deleted scenes (around 30 minutes was cut out to get the film down to 140 minutes) would have explained the aliens' intentions a lot more clearly.

Until the scenes later surfaced in the special edition, the only way to get the whole story was in Orson Scott Card's superb novelisation. There are many elements in the book (which Cameron personally authorised) that are only barely hinted at in the film, such as the fact that when the water tentacle enters the rig it heals Jammer's mind and that the aliens could have disarmed the bomb at any time but they wanted to see if Bud would do the right thing.

It's possible that, aside from reasons of pacing, the scenes revealing the aliens' true intentions were removed because the no-nukes message was deemed out of place in the current climate of glasnost. It's clear watching the theatrical version of the film that something is missing, but it doesn't hurt the film too much, at least on first viewing.

Even in its edited form, The Abyss remains one of Cameron's greatest achievements. The obsessive attention to detail paid off in a film that left the other underwater "epics" that came out around the same time looking even cheaper and cheesier than they would have already.

The impressive production design and overall realism (the film makes a point of noting how long it takes to decompress) make it stand out among all the sci-fi films where it's obvious that the filmmakers don't give a damn. Cameron said he wanted to do for the underwater what 2001 did for space, and while the film doesn't quite reach Kubrick's level, it comes close. In many ways, it's Cameron's undiscovered masterpiece, and features many themes that Cameron would return to on a larger scale with Titanic.

Cameron's film was eagerly awaited following the success of Aliens but, unfortunately, when it was finally released in the summer of '89 it was somewhat overlooked in the wake of other blockbusters like Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It didn't help that research by the studio showed most people didn't even know what an abyss was! Reviews were very mixed and the film grossed around $55 million in the U.S. (a fair amount, but much less than 20 th Century Fox were hoping for after all the time and money invested in the film). It was, at the time, considered Cameron's first misstep, though it did win an Oscar for visual effects.

However, like many cult sci-fi films, The Abyss has slowly gathered more acclaim in the years since, especially with the release of the Special Edition. The longer version adds lots of small moments that flesh out the characters, but also restores the major subplot of the aliens warning mankind that if they don't put aside their warlike ways they will face the consequences.

Their message to mankind is in the form of giant tidal waves that approach the major coasts of the world and then freeze, towering over the frightened people below. Meanwhile, Bud debates with the aliens while they show him images of mankind's warlike nature throughout history. Eventually, Bud convinces them of the good in humanity and the waves recede, but it's clear the world will be a very different (hopefully better) place.


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