(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.
I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point; certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and thematically, but it’s impossible to deny the picture has problems. And, par for the course with Cameron, they originate from his self-styled screenplay.
The Abyss was something of an outsider in the 1989 box office stakes. This was the summer of Batman, of course, but a throng of high stakes sequels (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, Lethal Weapon 2, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) were also fighting it out. There was a lot riding on the movie for Fox, who suffered a fairly non-descript year (at 24th, their only picture beating The Abyss was The War of the Roses’ pungent festive bouquet) and were betting on a director who previously scored big for them (Aliens) but who was also proving very costly in his ambition.
In the event, based around a shoot in an abandoned nuclear power plant turned into a vast water tank, the film was an endlessly fraught and troubled production. It was so gruelling, the crew had t-shirts made up bearing the legacy “Life’s abyss and then you dive”. As such, the 1993 documentary Under Pressure: The Making of The Abyss is a must-see, anticipating the forthcoming DVD era of high quality making-ofs. Ed Harris had evidently mellowed somewhat in the space of four years, now willing to recount his experience playing Virgil “Bud” Brigman. He had earlier said of the tormented shoot, “I’m never talking about it and never will”. Cameron, ever petulant, had responded to reports of actors’ complaints by asserting that the crew had it harder, which is about as playground as it gets.
The picture cost a reputed $60-70m, having gone significantly over budget; it made a not-terrible, but seriously insufficient $54m in the US, landing just outside the summer Top 10; sleepers such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Parenthood, Dead Poets Society and Uncle Buck pummelled it. The biggest hits, Batman and Indy, were also costly (but not as costly), but they made multiples of four or more on their budgets Stateside alone. The Abyss’ saving grace was that (unlike Terry Gilliam’s’ cheaper, but dumped on release, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) it did actually get seen, even if not enough (a suitable comparison might be the previous year’s Willow, which cost half as much and made more money, and was considered a major disappointment). There’s also the small detail that, be it through luck of averages (he has completed only four features in the 27 years since) or simple canniness, Cameron hasn’t suffered such a tepid response to a movie since.
Indeed, undaunted, post-Terminator 2: Judgment Day (the biggest hit of 1991), his production deal with Fox enabled him to go back and complete his originally intended version, retooling the effects that weren’t up to snuff first time out. There are a number of ironies in this regard, and one wonders the extent to which his expressed opinions were simple sour grapes. Most reviews of the picture – which were generally not at all bad, and admired the craftsmanship at very minimum – complained about the soggy, overwrought, one-step-too-far ending; even Alan Jones, an unconditional Cameron acolyte, took issue in Starburst.
So, having had his pride stung in theatres, Jimbo expounded on why the cinema cut was superior, effectively a rebuke to his harshest critics “I felt I was losing something by breaking my focus…. And coming off the main characters was a far greater detriment than what was gained” Unfortunately, what he misses here is that he had already broken the spell with Lindsay’s (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) indulgent, gratuitous monologue to Bud as he descends the trench, and that his – as usual – over-emphatic, melodramatic yelling requires that broader, philosophical emphasis to restore a semblance of balance; as Roger Ebert commented the Special Edition ending “makes the film seem more rounded”.
In that sense it achieves the opposite result to Aliens’ extension, where the underlining of the thematic elements serves to rather bludgeon the point. Which goes to emphasise that Cameron’s instincts, while crowd-pleasing (see Titanic), may not be the most refined. Calling him out for floundering, when he’s just – well, more than two hours before, actually – quoted Nietzsche in the introduction, so announcing his lofty goal of something thought-provoking and profound, is fair game.
The problem with Cameron though, is he takes his big idea and doesn’t try and reduce it to a more measured, digestible form. It remains a big idea, and his touch in communicating it is only ever as delicate as a fist in an iron bathysphere. This is most evident with his ever-extravagant running times. As superior as the Special Edition is, we reach the fifty-minute mark – like Aliens – before anything really exciting happens (and it’s past an hour before we see an alien, I mean NTI – non-terrestrial intelligence).
And, unlike the Aliens Special Edition, much of that first hour isn’t especially engrossing (there’s even a singalong). Although, it should be noted that the proceedings are fronted by a couple of pros, actors who rise above the limitations of their dialogue and make you invested in their relationship. This, despite the inevitable overkill of establishing Lindsay as the “Queen bitch of the universe” (that’s another bitch notched on the Cameron bedpost of a reductive female characterisations), so she can soften up and learn to deserve her man. This is Cameron clueless about when less is more (“Hurricanes should be named after women”), and his actors injecting depth into their caricatures by sheer force of talent.
Hippy: I give this whole thing a sphincter factor of about 9.5.
He is trying to hone some elements down, though. There’s a clear intent to pursue the blue collar realism of Alien (and The Thing, albeit some of those are by way of elbow-patched corduroy jacket realism), but unlike those films, the supporting actors don’t really stand out. With the exception of Hippy (Todd Graff), the Hudson comic relief, that is, devised as a broader type.
Cameron’s insertion of vital plot points early in the proceedings shows the same indifference to letting the seams show as it did in Aliens. The fluid breathing system (renowned for being a scene edited in the UK, on the grounds of cruelty to animals; Cameron would probably retort that he’d had it harder than the poor unsuspecting rodent - or rodents, since he subject five of them to the treatment) is introduced not so much in passing as with a big signpost around it saying “Yep, we’ll be coming back to this”, but it isn’t quite as in-your-face as Lindsay lecturing Coffey (Michael Biehn) and his SEALS about the dangers of HPNS (high-pressure nervous syndrome), mere moments before he begins exhibiting the tell-tale symptoms.
Coffey: It went straight for the warhead, and they think it's cute.
Regarding Coffey, the "AJ square away, jarhead robot", Biehn gives a fine unhinged performance, relishing the chance to go against type and deliver a masterpiece of nuke-arming madness (“Sniff something? Did ya, rat boy?”), but he exits to soon in the cinema version and there’s nothing sufficiently dramatic or formidable to replace him; in the Special Edition, we have The Day the Earth Stood Still. Added to which, Biehn’s also having to battle against Cameron’s OTT instincts (self-harming under the table). But, while The Abyss is not a funny film – Cameron is not a natural comedian, and Hippy frequently strays into irritating rather than exuding the natural likeability of Paxton in Aliens – Biehn contemplating the watery depths through a portal, a suction cup Garfield suspended next to him, is exactly the kind of effortless aside Cameron needs more of, in his writing generally.
The worst offender, though, isn’t the unlikelihood of bringing back Lindsay from the dead – I’m on board with that; it’s the entire point of the love story – no, it’s the subsequent pep talk she gives Bud. It bears stressing that Mastrantonio is fantastic in this movie (Harris) too, and her delivery of material that could easily be unbearably corny (“Coffey looks, and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You’ve got to look with better eyes than”) absolutely works because of how much she sells the sincerity.
But even she’s not up to the garbage Cameron gives her during the death dive. “It’s not easy being a cast-iron bitch” Lindsay offers, after she has been instructed, patronisingly, “No, Lindsay, talk to him”. She proceeds to feed Bud a confessional that’s enough to make you forsake all and embrace the icy infinite. “Bud, I know how alone you feel. Alone in all that cold blackness. But I’m there in the dark with you. Oh Bud, you’re not alone”. Good bleedin’ grief! And that’s before an anecdote about a power cut serves to maroon the message high and dry (“But there are two candles in the dark”).
This would be the killer – and I can appreciate in retrospect just how much – if not for the salve that is The Day the Earth Stood Still alien intervention. It shifts focus in a necessary way, because Cameron has become so fixed on his emotional payload, he has caused the film to start internally haemorrhaging. We get another unwelcome dose at the very end, alas, as all are reunited and cheering as one, instructing the director’s beloved military “Looks like you boys might be out of business”. It’s too much, much like Cameron’s infamous Oscar acceptance speech would be nine years later, but the good at least has been done by then.
Elsewhere, Jimbo’s assembled production team also produce mixed results. Besides the usual military fetishism, furnishing a suitably percussive score (he had practice on Predator), Alan Silvestri ladles a heavenly choir over the NTIs that doesn’t so much milk their wonder as sluice it all over the soundtrack. He’s only responding to what’s on screen, of course, as the aliens, when we see them, are impossibly cutesy, twinkly, tiddly-twee-dinky. Which goes to one element that’s sadly on the debit side with the Special Edition, thanks to their greater exposure; Cameron’s benign extra-terrestrials aren’t mysterious, like those in Close Encounters, or endearing, like E.T., they’re merely antiseptic bearers of a 40-year-old (some might say hackneyed) message. It’s as if it’s only either or for Jimbo; they’re xenomorphs, or these, or nothing.
But there’s a whole lot of good stuff here too. Mikael Salomon’s cinematography is absolutely stunning, as is the design work generally (the designer diving masks could have been lifted from a Ridley Scott film). The underwater work feels entirely authentic, because, give or take, it is (see the same year’s Leviathan for avoiding any such pain and having very little gain as a consequence; both get around the need to decompress to reach the surface, but alien intervention is at least more plausible than George Pan Cosmatos’ flashing red light). The effects work remains impressive, including the ground-breaking water tentacle.
And, despite the script flaws, Cameron melds some great ideas. Occasionally too, he includes a moment that speaks with the volumes only silence can service; Bud throws his ring down the chemical toilet, then returns moments later to retrieve it, receiving a blue hand in the bargain. The initial storm triggers a classic piece of Cameron escalation, the capper being the moment of relief with the out-of-control crane, attached to the base, hitting the edge of the trench and coming to a rest… and then toppling inexorably over. Later, there’s the claustrophobic feat of swimming from pool to pool in an attempt to intercept Coffey. And the conundrum of how to get out of the sub with the one air supply (“I drown, and you tow me back to the rig”).
The Abyss fails to reach the plateau of sustained tension Aliens boasts, but when it does go there, it frequently surpasses it. If Cameron had the elegance to hang back, rather than crowd out and shout at his picture, cast, crew and audience, he might have created a classic. It’s Harris who makes the scene of resuscitating Lindsay work, through sheer dedication and an intensity that surmounts the stodgy dialogue (“Goddam it you bitch, you never backed away from anything in your life, now fight!”). And, despite her yabbering on, there’s definitely an eerily hypnotic quality to Bud’s descent of the trench and his zen calm at his likely fate (“Going to stay a while knew this was a one-way ticket but you knew I had to come”).
Both the elements of the tsunami walls hovering around the coasts of the world and the screen of images of man’s atrocities, from Nazis to Nam, as Bud is given a front row seat recapping our self-actualised horror show, work as well as they do for the same reason as the answer to Bud’s query of why the NTIs held back (“You could have done it. Why didn’t you?”), which is to show his typed reply to Lindsay. I actually like this, despite it subjectively being as unsubtle as the rest of the picture; the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” moment is earned, and it’s a valid shorthand (rather than Bud being called on to persuade the aliens to change their minds).
Lindsay: Raise your hand if you think that was a Russian water tentacle.
True, elements of the global escalation feel a little flimsy, and did so then. Not least that this is a Soviet threat; timing-wise, a number of pictures (including The Hunt for Red October, which was time-capsuled to 1984 as a consequence) must have found execs cursed the ill luck of the Berlin Wall’s fall at such a financially disadvantageous moment. Hippy’s presence as a paranoid (“Hippy, you think everything’s a conspiracy”; “Everything is”) is a lift from Palmer in The Thing, but without any consequence or subtext here; it’s merely an idle aside.
But there’s a coherence here at least, in eschewing the hypocrisy of preaching against war and destruction by reaping war and destruction (Aliens, Avatar), and having protagonists who don’t raise arms in response to others aggression (okay, there’s the occasional iron bar; we can excuse that, under duress). It also can’t be underemphasised – again – what a godsend Harris and Mastrantonio are to The Abyss, singlehandedly pushing it from the comic book territory every other of the director’s pictures inhabit. Is this his most mature film? Well, yes. Which isn’t to say it’s his best, or that he’s been particularly more enlightened or conscious in the way he has gone about it. But The Abyss, despite its problems, is less troubling in its sentiments and feels sincerer in its emotional content. I suspect this is as grown-up as Cameron gets.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.