The Abyss: The Ultimate James Cameron Movie?

The Abyss may not be the only James Cameron water-based movie movie. Yet his expensive thriller has plenty going for it...

Warning – this article is spoiler heavy…

If you wanted to sum up James Cameron’s approach to filmmaking in a single word, ‘uncompromising’ would be a good choice. In many ways, The Abyss is the ultimate Cameron production, but it’s far from a perfect film, more an example of a flawed diamond. It is a good film though, combining many key the Cameron obsessions: science fiction, underwater exploration, thrilling action, tough female characters, and human issues.

Piranha II: The Spawning is the earliest movie to credit James Cameron as a director, but his involvement in that production was actually minimal. He worked on the special effects and directed it for a couple of weeks before being replaced. Before that, he had busied himself handling model-making and special effects on Roger Corman features. Working in this low-budget environment taught him the basics of filmmaking and allowed him to hone his ability to work efficiently. That sums Cameron up – he’s uncompromising in his vision and his productions are extravagant, but he is also efficient and extremely hard working. He’s a largely self educated filmmaker; he used those early jobs as a training ground and to work his way up the film industry ladder.

The Terminator (1984), which he scripted and directed, is the first true James Cameron movie. This was also his first collaboration with producer Gale Ann Hurd. As for the film, in other hands, a basic plot involving a killer robot transported from the future could have ended up as a forgettable B-movie. The Terminator is a science fiction thriller, but it’s one with a tremendous amount of heart. Already the Cameron blueprint had begun to establish itself: technology colliding with human issues, along with a love story and a gutsy female lead. Modestly budgeted, the film was a massive hit.

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Talk about guts. The next project he took on, Aliens (1986), was the follow-up to one of the most acclaimed science fiction films of all time, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). How do you top a stone-cold classic like Alien? Answer: you can’t. The original film was a masterfully paced science fiction horror, and Cameron decided to place a greater emphasis on action and combat in his film. In addition, he recognised the potential to turn Sigourney Weaver into a fully fledged female action hero. She was the ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, and when the situation arose, she kicked an amazing amount of xenomorph ass. This film was also a hit.

This is where the story of the production of The Abyss begins. At this point, Cameron had two of the all time great science fiction films to his credit. For his next project, rather than flying up into space or journeying into the future, Cameron decided to concentrate on something that had begun to fascinate him as a teenager: underwater exploration. In interviews, he stated that he wanted to evoke the same sense of awe about the underwater world that 2001: A Space Odyssey had with space exploration. There are parallels between the two films: they both involve technology, people surviving in a harsh environment and extraterrestrials.

The Abyss is an underwater mixture of disaster film and science fiction, embedded with an unmistakable Cameron touch. In the opening scenes, a US nuclear submarine crashes while attempting to track an unidentified underwater vehicle moving at a fantastic speed. These sequences give us our first look at the underwater miniature model work used throughout the film, and it looks superb. When the submarine crashes, we’re also given a first look at another hallmark of this film: partially flooded, huge underwater sets. These also look extremely convincing and impressive.

Moving on with the story, the Navy requisitions a mobile underwater drilling platform and places three of its own marines on board to mount a search and rescue operation. Disaster strikes the platform and the survivors are left fighting for their lives while trapped on the ocean floor. There are some good action sequences such as an underwater chase in the submersibles, thanks to a clash between the marines and the oil workers. All the time, we are left to speculate about what lies at the bottom of the trench.

But let’s look more closely at the casting for a moment.

Cameron’s films often rely on an ensemble, and in this film, the main characters are drawn from two groups: blue-collar oil workers and US marines. This touches on one of several similarities with the work of Arthur C Clarke, as the heroes in his stories are often engineers and scientists rather than secret agents or square-jawed fighter pilots.

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I’m going to say that this aspect of the film falls short of perfection. It’s a common misconception that the word ‘motley’ means dangerous or untrustworthy, but it actually means that a group exhibits variety. It’s essential, in a film like this, that the crew be as motley as possible. In common with disaster films, there’s a large number of characters, but in this film, it’s possible to get them muddled up. For example, I couldn’t distinguish between two of the three marines, and when some of the oil workers disappeared, I couldn’t remember which ones they were. Consider the characters in a film like The Poseidon Adventure. You certainly wouldn’t get them mixed up with each other, and you’ve got something invested in them by the time they get knocked off. Cameron’s previous film, Aliens, is a classic example of getting this exactly right too.

However, thankfully, the lead characters are well-drawn.

Ed Harris is brilliant as ‘chief tool pusher’ Bud, a guy who commands a lazy respect from his co-workers. The wonderful Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Bud’s ex-wife Lindsey, also an engineer. She’s the kind of gutsy female character that we’d hope for in a Cameron picture. She crosses the line into ‘cast iron bitch’ territory (her character’s own words). Cameron, of course, is well schooled in the notion that a great character isn’t necessarily ‘nice’. These two people have a lot of history, and we can tell that they must have made an odd couple. Bud is happiest walking around the rig in oil-stained jeans and he comes across as an affable leader. Lindsey comes across as, well, a little less affable.

The two obviously push each other’s buttons, and there are a lot of intimate character moments that make the most of them being a formerly married couple. In the director’s cut, there’s a great, tiny, moment: Bud is snoring while he grabs some sleep, and without looking up, Lindsey says, “roll on your side,” which he does without waking.

There’s another great detail that was in the script but never shot. At one point Bud, frustrated by his latest blow up with Lindsey, throws his wedding ring into a chemical toilet. He then retrieves it, and this is pivotal when he holds a hydraulic door open later on. The idea behind that was that, because they are both engineers, they have wedding rings made of titanium.

The relationship between Bud and Lindsey is one of the best aspects of the film, but near the beginning it reveals another weakness: some dialogue is a tad expository. Take this line as an example: “We were that close to proving a submersible drilling platform could work.” Clunkers like that crop up from time to time. Speaking of time, it’s a long film – two hours and 19 minutes for the theatrical cut. The director’s cut stretches to two hours and 51 minutes. 

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An assessment of the the ensemble cast goes hand-in-hand with a look at the setting they find themselves in. Nearly all of the film takes place underwater. The underwater oil rig represents an extremely tough environment, and the film conveys the overall atmosphere extremely well. On the one hand, there is the mutual respect that’s essential when you’re putting your life into the hands of the person next to you every day. One the other hand, there’s no room for airs and graces. They bicker and they clown around; it’s an underwater family. It’s a male-dominated work and living environment, and yet Kimberly Scott does a good job in a supporting role as a woman who fits in as one of the guys. It’s always great to see frequent Cameron collaborator Michael Biehn too. He’s on fine form, as always.

In many ways, the setting is the star of the movie, and the way that Cameron went about creating it is the stuff of movie legend; The Abyss is commonly regarded as being the toughest shoot in film history. The sheer scale of what went on is incredible. To create the underwater environment, James Cameron made use of an incomplete nuclear reactor housing. When filled with water, this gave him the largest underwater filming tank ever created. Into this he placed the enormous underwater drilling platform, some submersibles, and then finally, some actors who didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for.

All of the principle actors had to become fully qualified diving experts, and everyone involved in filming had to become accustomed to working underwater, hour after hour, week after week. Halfway though the production, a lightning storm erupted and destroyed the tarpaulin that covered the tank. This meant they had to switch to night shoots. At one point, Mastrantonio allegedly walked out of a scene in tears, shouting “we are not animals!” Ed Harris has claimed that he pulled over to the side of the road, one night, and began weeping due to the stress of the shoot.

A scene in the excellent ‘making of’ documentary, which can be found on the special edition DVD, illustrates the commitment that James Cameron and his actors had to realism. When you see Bud swimming underwater dragging the unconscious Lindsey behind him, that isn’t a pair of stunt performers. Ed Harris is wearing a diving suit, but Mastrantonio is simply holding her breath. At the end of each take, divers rushed in to give her an oxygen supply.

Although this way of working added up to a gruelling ordeal for the actors, the results are exceptional.

First of all, the sets and the underwater sequences look fantastic and highly authentic. Secondly, while the actors were going through hell, the awful conditions inject an extra something into their performances. While the characters were being pushed right up to their breaking points, so were the actors. While making a film, sometimes an actor announces that they want to do some of their own stunts, and it can seem like an ego thing, but it’s often an acting thing. The performances here are extremely committed.

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The way that dialogue is recorded adds another touch of authenticity to the film. Rather than dubbing the sound in afterwards, Cameron recorded the sounds of the actors speaking with an in-suit microphone system. Capturing the actors’ speech while they are actually working in the suits (which were designed to illuminate the actors’ faces) is another touch that enhances the performances.

On the whole, the special effects are excellent. The sets, that are often partially or fully flooded, look substantial. Some use is made of miniatures, convincingly so. I’ve said it before, but many films of this vintage beat films from ten or fifteen years later, in the looks department, because they are not reliant on CGI. I honestly think that we’re going to have a lost decade of films that are let down with terrible-looking computer graphics.

That’s not to say that The Abyss doesn’t make any use of CGI. An alien water probe is entirely generated inside a computer. However, Cameron wasn’t satisfied to use the computer graphics to simply add bling to the production. The alien probe is characterful, and it interacts with the human actors, at one point mimicking their facial expressions. Obviously, the success of this ground-breaking sequence was not just an influence on future Cameron projects such as Terminator 2 and Avatar but also on filmmaking as a whole.

The aliens themselves are skilfully produced animatronics. They look good, and it would be a number of years before CGI could compete on that level for character animation.

At times, some use is made of miniature versions of the submersibles. For these, Cameron shot footage of the actors then played it back on a little projector inside the miniature. This is one of the few areas where the special effects haven’t dated all that well.

In addition, there are a few areas where traditional, hand-drawn animation is employed, and it doesn’t quite fit. In other places, typically of that era, blue screening and back projection are used. Compositing is one area in which CGI was superior to traditional methods right from the beginning. Here Cameron catches a break, as we are seeing underwater scenes, and it’s forgiveable that something on another plane, in that environment, has a slightly unreal look to it. However, I’m being mean to a film that was made in 1989. Wherever humanly possible, Cameron got a believable look by actually getting the actors doing things for real on gigantic sets. Overall, it’s a superb looking film.

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When all hell breaks loose, a third of the way in, the film becomes something akin to a claustrophobic disaster movie. While the crew are fighting the elements, they are also dealing with the conflicts developing between them and the marines, all the while contemplating whatever lies at the bottom of the trench. As you’d expect from James Cameron, the film doesn’t disappoint in terms of action sequences.

In all his projects, Cameron looks for the human, emotional angle amongst the technology and the high stakes, and The Abyss is no exception. Alan Silvestri highlights this with his score. It’s bombastic during the action sequences, it’s spacey when alluding to the unknown forces at the bottom of the trench, and it’s dreamy or menacing when underlining the wonder of exploration.

By halfway through we’ve had a taste of thrills, but this is the point where the film changes tack a bit, and it’s clear that Cameron wants to deal with some raw emotions.

As I said, the performances from the actors are extremely committed. There is a moving scene between Bud and Lindsey in which they are stuck in a submarine together. It involves a tremendous sacrifice, and it’s obvious that the two are still in love. I admit that I’ve sometimes shed a tear over this section of the film, it’s that good. The culmination of the following few scenes is perhaps the highlight of the film. It doesn’t feel trite, because the film has earned an emotional response. However, ironically, this scene is also the turning point towards the overwrought sentimentality that dogs the final third.

If you were beginning to well up at the start of the resuscitation scene, odds are you’ll begin to wince by the end of it.

Cameron is normally an economic director (at least in his earlier career), but part of the reason that the final section drags is because he’s making the same points over and over. He’s already established that Bud and Lindsey are still in love; we don’t need to be shown that again and again.

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It’s a bit surprising to see people involved with a production criticise it in a ‘making of…’ documentary, but one of the actors and Gale Anne Hurd both acknowledge the strange ‘left turn’ the film takes in the final third. As well as being overly sentimental, this section of the film is slow in execution. Don’t forget that this is a film of bladder-straining running length anyway.

Some releases of The Abyss include a director’s cut that puts back loads of footage that had been trimmed (who else remembers Channel 4 showing it?). As with Aliens, it’s a treat for a fan, but on the whole, I’d argue that the theatrical cut is the better film (appreciating not everybody agrees). In particular, the end section of the director’s cut is even slower, more sentimental and more face-slappingly literal. It doesn’t help matters that the special effects and score in the extra ending scenes fall bellow the high standard set by the rest of the film.

Going back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke and Kubrick realised the benefits of not showing us everything and leaving us something to contemplate. However, Cameron seemed to want to turn his film into Close Encounters of the Third Kind, if not E.T. I’d argue that giving us a close up look at the aliens is the biggest mistake, and is unnecessary. It’s obvious that Cameron wanted to give us not only a human element, but also a transcendental and philosophical message to go with it, but he over-eggs the pudding. Tightening up the final section and doing away with most of the alien morality play, and I think that this film would have been up there with Cameron’s other films.

As it stands it’s a great film, but one with a few problems. And yet I ask myself, is this the ultimate Cameron film, flawed as it is?