‘The Abyss’ (1989)

by James Cameron


Those who acclaim The Revenant as “historically significant” in what a physically and mentally grueling production it was are not wrong. But there was a time, before the most meaningful work on a movie was turning a green sheet behind the actors into landscapes and monsters, where hardships of magnitude were commonplace. And never once has it reached the same extreme as with James Cameron‘s The Abyss in 1989- which, fittingly, is also one of the earliest movies to employ advanced CGI, making it both a quintessence of practical/traditional filmmaking and a prediction of how filmmaking would come to change in the next few years. We would see such films as Terminator: Judgement Day, Jurassic Park, and the adaptation of Lawnmower Man that I was too dumb to understand. An exciting couple of years it certainly was.

We can discuss which movie out of The Revenant and The Abyss was the most physically exhausting but it’s well-documented that the mental toll The Abyss took on its crew is incomparable. Harrowing though it was, the finished film is worth it on so many levels, giving us a uniquely claustrophobic and nightmarish thriller that simultaneously supplies deep characters, quotable dialogue, effective action, and the story of a thought-provoking secret from the bottom of the ocean, fueled by forces we can scarcely begin to understand.

In The Abyss, Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio star as an unhappy couple brought together by just such a force, but there is more to their discovery than that. They play Virgil “Bud” Brigman and Dr. Lindsey Brigman, two workers at a drilling rig who, along with a versatile crew of lovable characters, venture into the depths of the ocean (inside a submerged base of sorts, accompanied by small one-man crafts) to search for a nuclear submarine that disappeared under mysterious circumstances. As the heroes race against a hurricane and intervening Russians draw near, things start going awry and the situation worsens to a point where the entire crew is more or less marooned at the bottom of the ocean. And as you’re likely aware, they learn soon enough that they aren’t alone.

Among the team is also a none too trustworthy squad of SEALs led by Michael Biehn and several other memorable figures with quips to spare. The creatures they see are dubbed NTIs, which stands for Non-terrestrial Intelligence.

What follows is the result of filmmaking so ambitious that it was at certain times life-threatening. Many of the dimly lit underwater scenes were shot inside giant water tanks (where Cameron would be forced to spend entire nights in his special director’s submarine), extras were instructed to hold their breaths and lay still under water while playing corpses (one of them had to hold a live crab in his mouth for full effect), and Ed Harris had to wear a diving helmet filled with liquid during scenes where Bud is supposed to be breathing a newly invented form of liquid oxygen (he is said to have broken down crying in his car on the way home from shooting one night). The actor didn’t get to do that; instead he was not only submerged for long stretches of time, but his diving helmet was filled with a fluid that had to be removed when Cameron yelled “CUT” and then reinserted when it was time to shoot again.


Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in ‘The Abyss’.

Also worth mentioning about the liquid oxygen is that it actually existed. It just didn’t work as well for a fully grown Ed Harris as it did for the rat the characters test it on at one point in the film. Yes, even outside the context of the movie’s universe, that rat was in fact breathing liquid.

And then, naturally, there are the aliens, whose look and interactions with our heroes were achieved via advanced old-school puppetry (movement designer Trey Stokes, who also worked on Team America: World Police, retells his experience in a FriendsInYourHead podcast about the film) and convincing rear projections. Yet with all this effort – all these tremendous sets, and all the practical special effects – one of the most attention-grabbing things about the film was its groundbreaking usage of CGI. The scene where the NTIs try to communicate with the humans by manipulating the sea water to form a sort of tendril, which also morphs into the crewmembers’ faces in one end, still kind of holds up.

It is true that The Abyss initially underwhelmed audiences and did little besides inspiring Hollywood to give this CGI thing a go after all. However, the film that was released in 1989 was not complete. A few scenes that depict the hurricane on the ocean surface and an important scene from the film’s tail end were all cut, mainly because the budget and technology at the time didn’t allow for the effects and images Cameron envisioned. But all was not lost. Way after Cameron had made Terminator 2 and technology had progressed, he went back to The Abyss and finished what was left, giving us the Special Edition; the real version of the movie. The version I saw and was amazed by.

I’ve written about this film before and my astonishment is unchanged. The production design and special effects are still more mind-boggling to read about than most of what modern films have to offer, the characters are still a damn sight more captivating here than in Cameron’s (noticeably less three-dimensional) 3D showcase Avatar, the eminent score by Alan Silvestri still immerses me in its plot and fantasy flawlessly, the actors still do an equally resplendent job, the action and drama is still singularly nail-biting… I could rabble on. It is, to summarize, an admirable project to this day and an instance of struggle and dedication that did not go to waste. They worked ’til their fingers bled; possibly longer.

James Cameron would carry his apparent fascination with underwater exploration into some of the better scenes in his Titanic from 1997, but I will continue to argue that Titanic was the point where he began to transition. His movies became less interested in their own characters and more so in the technology that went into their creation. Granted, he has only made one more film since he released Titanic, but since he recently swore that his next four films would, in fact, be Avatar sequels, I believe I needn’t say anything besides “go home and watch the Special Edition of The Abyss tonight”. It did stellar things back in its day and it has aged with grace. Hopefully you will enjoy the voyage into the dark unknown as much as I have.


NOTE: Yes, I have indeed renamed the Movies Magnifique segment into Favorite Movies (and also changed the titles of a few previous entries in the category), mostly because I want these posts to be more personal than my other reviews and also because it sounds less pretentious. I would guess. We’ll see if I change it back.