Okay, so I watched The Abyss today. It was on HBO GO, and I’m an admitted fan of James Cameron, so I said, “Yeah! Let’s do it.”
The movie follows the perils of the workers on a deep-sea oil rig when the Navy commandeers it to salvage a mysteriously-sunk US submarine. What they find is a form of “non-terrestrial intelligence” that look like jellyfish.
First of all, the movie is instantly confusable with the Michael Crichton novel Sphere, and its Barry Levinson-directed adaptation. The novel came before Abyss, but the movie came after. Chicken-and-egg. Then we get tied up in the comparisons to E.T. Anyway, this movie still manages to feel unique and special, for two reasons: James Cameron, and Industrial Light and Magic.
If you thought The Terminator and Aliens were ambitious, James Cameron went a little nuts with his third film, upping the budget and scale to immense heights. Being one of the largest film shoots of its time, the hardships of the cast and crew rival those of the characters themselves. They shot for hours on end, under 40 feet of water. 40% of the movie was done in this way. Cameron is known for his ceaseless pushing of the impossible. We’ve seen it done since The Abyss, with Titanic and Avatar (the two highest-grossing movies ever- coincidence?). He’s also known for his iron-fisted directing style, which doesn’t jive with every actor’s sensibilities. Ed Harris, playing one of our protagonists, refuses to talk about his grueling experiences on this set.
But then, at the end of the day, we’re given the final product. And man, you’ve gotta hand it to old Jimmy. The movie is great. It moves along through its 2+ hours at a steady, but never too fast pace. We are treated to peaks of intensity in the best ways, like when a crane from the ocean’s surface plummets down toward the oil rig, as our characters brace for the expected impact. It gets closer, closer, and then- BAM it lands right next to the station. Cameron not only knows how to frame an edge-of-your-seat sequence like this, but he also knows how to follow it up with something that circumvents your expectations. Soon after the crane lands, and all seems fine, it begins to slide down an underwater cliff, pulling the station with it.
I can’t really say that the writing or even the story is that compelling. There are some nice character beats here and there, but what one really comes for is the grand yet claustrophobic atmosphere Cameron is going for. We’re placed in the vast depths of the sea bed, where beings from another world are floating about, but at the same time our characters are trapped in a glorified tin can with few resources. It’s a sign of good direction when the audience can feel distinct layers through one singular narrative, much less one that is wrapped up in a massive multi-million dollar product like The Abyss is.
Those millions of dollars went to good use with ILM, or Industrial Light and Magic, which is the company responsible for most of the amazing special effects in today’s cinema. I can’t speak too much to the technical wizz-wam that goes on there, but the results speak for themselves. The special effects in this film make you second-guess the year in which it was made. 1989?? It’s nuts. While you can clearly see which shots are FX shots, they are composited and presented so beautifully that you can’t help but let it slide. This baby won the Oscar for special effects. Need I say more?
And yes, I think the Oscars, particularly the technical categories, still hold merit beyond being a popularity contest. But that’s another post, another day. Another frame. (Ha, the title!)
Before we finish, I wanna give a shout out to Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn. They obviously went through some tough s**t to get this movie made, and they make the otherwise flat dialogue work on screen. Like I said before, there are a few character moments that work, and they work surprisingly well. Harris and Mastrantonio play a couple on the brink (or aftermath?) of a divorce, and seeing them shoved together at the bottom of the ocean to sort things out is engaging. Biehn on the other hand, is criminally underused. His character is bananas, and its awesome the way he convinces us of his insanity. He plays a Navy SEAL who falls ill to high pressure nervous syndrome, and proceeds to DO EVERYTHING WRONG. He becomes a human antagonist amongst all the natural chaos happening around, determined to nuke the jellyfish aliens. Biehn commands the screen with a sweaty, mustachioed physicality that makes you afraid of what crap he’ll pull next. It’s a shame he doesn’t get as much screen time as others, but then, you understand that the film’s larger story needed him out of the way.
Sorry, wrapping up now. There are a lot of other things that I’d like to talk about, but in essence, The Abyss is a great film for a Saturday night with friends. It would couple nicely with a DiGiorno pizza and some comfy chairs. If you’re interested in seeing Cameron’s intermediary work, before Titanic and after Aliens, you really ought to check this out, and even True Lies, which is probably his most unique and bizarre movie to date.
Thank you for reading this overly long, sort-of review of The Abyss.