There was a time when one had to work unbelievably hard on one’s film; a time when not everything you saw on a film screen was generated with many computers; a time when real things were in front of the camera; a time when James Cameron had not yet made Avatar.
The Abyss, a masterful 1989 science fiction-film by James Cameron, is the result of hard work, the likes of which is extremely difficult, practically impossible, to find today. Huge models and underwater sets had to be built for it and actors had to hold their breath an awful lot. If you know how hard people worked on this film, chances are you will adore it just as much as me.
Close to the edge of the Cayman Trough, a submarine called USS Montana, carrying special nuclear warheads, is sunk by something that moves incredibly fast; too fast to be another sub. After it has been destroyed, Soviet subs start moving towards it but the Americans attempt to get to it first, by sending a team of Navy SEALs to an underwater oil rig, headed by Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris) and designed by his wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), with whom he bickers nearly constantly. While this is going on, a terrible hurricane, called Hurricane Frederick, is happening on the surface.
As the oil-workers and the SEALs reach the Montana at last, Lindsey is the first one to spot something beautiful that seems to be hiding down in the abyss; some creature that she describes as some kind of living machine. After this, things turn for the disasterous, as the rig’s surface support ship, the Benthic Explorer, gets its crane destroyed due to the hurricane which means that the rig gets disconnected from the ship and even nearly plummets into the abyss. Several people on the rig are killed in the chaos. It is also revealed that the commander of the SEALs, Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn) hides something sinister from the others.
The intensity and suspense in many of the scene that follow is genuine, because, like I said, The Abyss was made at a time when one had to do amazing stunts and special effects for real, without using computers, so many of the underwater scenes I would say are as intense to us as they were for the actors who performed them. One scene (the only with CG), involving a tentacle made of water, made me think of Donnie Darko. Despite being 12 years older, the effect in The Abyss looks better!
A subplot involving the Cold War was added for the special edition of the film, which I believe is the complete version of the movie and the version I am advicing you to get your hands on as soon as possible.
It is simply mind-blowing how much of what we see in this movie is real and actually in front of the camera. The people in diving suits submerged under water are really people in diving suits submerged under water; the people who float dead under water are really human beings; the robotic arms on the submarines are totally real; the rat that breathes while submerged in some kind of liquid oxygen is really submerged in liquid oxygen, and I swear to God himself that I am not making that up!! Really, the only things that aren’t real are the occasional models, the brief scene of some of the world’s first ever CG and the aliens. Everything else is entirely real. It is truly amazing!
The acting can also be called ‘marvelous’; Michael Biehn makes for a superb action villain, Ed Harris plays his role with greatness, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio does the same and really, so does the rest of the cast. With the help of both them and some top-notch writing, a smashing set of characters is created.
Out of all the movies I’ve seen, I can guarantee all my readers that The Abyss has one of, if not the most fascinating and interesting DVD-bonus material, documenting the making of the film, in the history of film. It is immensely difficult not to admire how determined both the actors, crew-members and James Cameron were when creating this motion picture – Ed Harris nearly drowned during one of the underwater scenes, even. To say that The Abyss is a masterpiece, is a truly tremendous understatement.
What I will, in complete honestly, never understand is why this is one of James Cameron’s more disliked movies, when a poorly handled cliché that’s pretty to look at, Avatar, is considered a masterpiece. Avatar was boring; The Abyss is the complete and exact opposite.
The film offers absolute greatness in its cinematography, its character writing, its actors, its sets, its stuntwork and its music, which was done by Alan Silvestri. Something I am certain of is that this is my favourite James Cameron-film. The Abyss is quite simply incredible. One last thing: keep an eye out for Garfield the cat. No, I’m serious, just do!
EDIT: Also, do check out the Down In Front-commentary of this film; Trey Stokes might have a few interesting things to say about a film he hepled making, after all.