I'm going deep for June's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM). Almost a decade before sinking the Titanic, James Cameron brought us out of the depths in The Abyss, an epic production that remains as impressive now as it was in 1989. Although it's lived on primarily as a result of its Academy Award-winning visual effects, I find the the real brilliance of the movie is that so much is done with so little. The story couldn't be any simpler: a bunch of people trapped on the edge of a bottomless ocean canyon. Something mysterious is coming up from the depths of it, and they don't know what it is.
On the idea behind the story, Cameron said this:
"I wanted to do the definitive diving movie. But what do you do? Show the beauties of the coral reef or the perils of killer sharks? Those films have already been done. What I wanted was to go into the realm that had always excited me the most because of its extremes and its absoluteness—I wanted to go deep into the ocean.
In high school, I participated in a weekly science seminar where different speakers were brought in to talk about everything from childbirth to the latest advances in physics. One of those speakers happened to be a commercial diver who had participated in an experiment in which he had breathed with a liquid in both lungs for something like forty-five minutes. That really blew my mind. Here was a guy who had used his lungs as a gill mechanism. From that seminar came the idea for a story I wrote about some scientists in a research installation on a cliff overlooking the Cayman Trough. Using liquid breathing suits, they began making forays into the deepest depths of the ocean—but no one who goes down the cliff comes back again."
The Abyss opened in August of 1989 with little fanfare and little in the way of praise aside from awe in its visual effects. Its cast was familiar to moviegoing audiences, though not necessarily comprised of bankable movie stars. Ed Harris was several years removed from The Right Stuff, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had already passed her career peak, a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1986's The Color of Money. Harris would muddle through tough guy roles for more than a decade after The Abyss until being nominated for Best Actor for Pollock in 2000. Mastrantonio's career, however, fell off sharply after 1992. She returned to the water in 2000 for The Perfect Storm (with a strict contract stipulation that she remain dry throughout filming - why even take the part?), but has otherwise settled with her family and held on to her title as the Oscar nominee (for an acting role) with the longest name in the history of the awards.
In addition to the absence of a major star, The Abyss was also plagued with production difficulties and a ballooning budget (much like Cameron's Titanic some years later). The cast had to undergo decompression on a regular basis from filming underwater, Mastrantonio reportedly had some kind of mental breakdown during filming, and tension filled the set while shooting progressed at an abandoned nuclear power plant.
And so, despite Cameron's legitimate success with The Terminator and Aliens, The Abyss would come and go as just another sci-fi popcorn movie for a hot summer afternoon. It would have been pretty amazing to see it in the theater (hint hint, 20th Century Fox - how about a Director's Cut rerelease on the 20th anniversary next year?).
Cameron would have massive success just two years later with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and would of course go on to see Titanic receive 14 Oscar nominations in 1998. That achievement accomplished and with nothing left to prove, Cameron has not done much of popular significance in the last 10 years. Within his decade-spanning career, which includes some of the most notable sci-fi movies of the last 30 years, The Abyss remains little more than a cult favorite these days.
One of the things I find ironic about The Abyss is that despite my great fear of the deep sea, I don't actually find the movie that scary (which is fine, I think, as Cameron didn't set out to make a horror movie). That being said, there are moments of suspense and tension that quicken the pulse even after repeated viewings. Claustrophobics in particular may not be able to make it to the end of the movie. The rest of us may find just find ourselves involuntarily holding our breath as the movie progresses.
But the story is more than just an entertaining underwater adventure, which brings me back to the beginning. I'll admit there are some cheesy lines and cliched action sequences, but this is no Waterworld. Within the simple story of trapped divers, Cameron taps in Cold War-era paranoia, the complex relations between separated spouses, and, quite ambitiously, the origins and existence of mankind.
Said Cameron in an interview with the NYT's Lawrence Van Gelder in 1989: "This film uses underwater as an environment in a different way,'' he said, ''a bleak, almost lunar environment, where the barrenness of the environment makes it a crucible for human behavior - kind of man against the elements, how we bond together. Ultimately, it boils down to a story about love, personal challenge and adversity.''
To me, the possibility of alien life at the bottom of the ocean is much different than the possibility of life in outer space, for the simple fact that we've all actually been in the ocean; it's finite, and it's been part of our daily lives for millennia. But how well do we really know it and, well, what if...?
I don't think there are aliens at the bottom of the ocean. I just think it's a cool idea, and one that's beautifully demonstrated in The Abyss, one of the only movies to even approach that kind of story. Even if someone were to make another attempt, there's just no way they could achieve the level of realism seen in The Abyss, because if anybody knows what they're doing underwater, it's James Cameron. What are the chances actual water would even be used in a 2008 version of The Abyss?
Those days are over, but at least some cool movies were made before the end of the era.