June 30, 2008

Underrated MOTM: The Abyss (1989)

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.


  1. Still never seen this. I blame it on an aversion to the deep sea (it freaks me out) and to Mary Elizabeth Mastrolongnameo, who bothers me even though she's never really bothered me. It's weird. I think it's just cause she always seemed 15 years older than she actually was.

    Your post lessens my fears on the first part. Not much you can do about the latter, I suppose. ;)

  2. Believe me, Fletch, I'll hang out on the beach with you. But like I said, this doesn't really play to those fears in the way that Jaws or Open Water or even Titanic or Poseidon do. It's like Cameron says, almost a lunar landscape.

    Funny that you mention that about MEM (let's make it easy) - I actually had to look up her age at the time of filming (31) because I couldn't believe could be as old as her character. I was wrong. We were both right.

    By the way, that's what bothers me about Angelina Jolie as well...

  3. I agree that this one's underrated...though the director's cut is a definite improvement on the theatrical version.

    Much about this film (particularly the special effects) is spectacular...it's just that it tries to do too much plotwise, which can be off-putting if you're not prepared for it. It's hard not to sympathize with Cameron's epic vision, though.

  4. I have never seen this one either, and I blame it on myself.


  5. It's been a long, long time since I've seen the Abyss. I loved it, back in the day, and still clearly remember that horrible scene where the room is slowly filling with water.

    Need to see this again, real soon.

  6. Do you like the extended version more or the original? Because isn't there a huge time difference between the two? I actually haven't seen the original version, just the extended cut and I found it to be really enjoyable.


  7. I had a friend who wanted me to watch this for years. I wouldn't do it. I told him it looked boring. Finally, one day, he talked me into it. I loved it. The Abyss had me hooked after the first five minutes. I'm so glad other people didn't refuse to watch it.


  8. Right, Luke, there's a lot packed in there and sometimes it feels like it's going to go off course, but I think it holds on pretty well. Incidentally, I think the ending is maybe the worst part of the whole thing.

    Whitney and Luke, I have not seen the extended version. I'd like to, though, and listen to the commentary. I think the extended version adds almost another 30 minutes to it. I have no idea what I've missed.

    Plenty of time, Nick. Settle in because it's a long one...

    Ibetolis, glad you remember it fondly. Well kind of, as I agree there are some hard-to-watch moments.

    Hehe, Scott, hopefully you can trust your friend's judgment a little more now? I haven't even seen the trailer but I could see how this wouldn't appear to look very good from afar. Glad you took him up on it.

  9. I went into the original Abyss with high hopes coming off of the terrific Aliens. It's good but the ending sucks the life right out of it.

    Then a few years later when they rereleased it with a new ending I had high hopes again...only to be totally burned once more.

    Me and the Abyss are not friends.

  10. I was fascinated by the this movie as a child, and I've only seen it all the way through twice, at least 15 years ago, but I can still clearly remember a good portion of the film. That's a good sign a movie is pretty good in my book as I have trouble remembering average-crappy movies a month later.

    Did that make sense at all?

  11. Ouch, Craig, duly noted. As I just noted to luke, I also find the ending not so hot. I haven't even see the alternate version, but it's sad to hear it's not an improvement. Never good to have a great movie stumble at the finish line.

    Yes, Rachel! Lots of sense. I also hadn't seen it in many years. In fact it's the first Underrated MOTM that I actually revisited on purpose - the others I haven't seen for a long time.

    Yes, the images from this one stuck in my head for years and years, even though I couldn't remember exactly what happened when. Great observation.

  12. What's that other Alien at the bottom of the sea movie? Oh yeah ... "Sphere" directed by Barry Levinson, of all people ...

    I dunno, I always thought Cameron was overrated ... he was fine with Terminator and T2, but I never saw a more bloated piece of junk than Titanic ...

    Also perhaps the CGI effects weren't quite there enough for The Abyss like they were a few years later for T2.

  13. This was on cable last night. I started to watch it, but obligations pulled me away and then it was past my bedtime. The crashing sub at the beginning was horrifying. I was pretty sure it couldn't get worse than that. Didn't like Ed Harris' character or the fact that he had a relationship with MEM (boilerplate thriller plot point) or the fact that the crew on the ship called her "oh no, the bitch on wheels." That kind of talk really puts me off. Probably won't go back to it.

    The hubby said it was like The Sphere, which I also haven't seen. I think I'll watch this one instead.

  14. I can always count on my fine readers to put me in check. Thank you, Rick, and here's where I admit that I didn't see Sphere. It was right when I thought Samuel L. Jackson started heading South, and I skipped it. Meant to read the book (by Chrichton?) but I never did that, either.

    While Cameron's hits are spread out over the 80's and 90's, I would still consider Aliens, T1 & T2 (even T3 wasn't THAT bad), and Titanic as pretty important American films. Each left their own mark, for better or worse, depending on your taste. I chose The Abyss because I feel it's been overlooked, and that it's not been done in many other ways (nevermind Sphere, of course...).

    I can respect that, Marilyn. Without spoiling anything, Ed Harris becomes less and less of a jerk (predictably) as the movie progresses, and that harsh language begins to fade (it bothered me, too). As it turns out, I would consider MEM's character here another strong (emotionally and physically) one from James Cameron, albeit not quite as ruthless as Sarah Connor. She (MEM) could be considered the heroine of the film in more than one way.

    I still encourage you to check it out. The sub sinking is probably the most horrifying moment, though there are some thrills to be had along the way.

  15. I was surprised to hear how many film geeks hadn't seen this yet. I do think The Abyss is criminally overlooked and wanted to write something to that effect, but had trouble renting a DVD from Netflix that wasn't pan and scanned.

    This movie has all the problems M. Night Shyamalan has had starting with Signs. Cameron could have definitely used someone he would listen to telling him what in his script needed a fix, but the vision and design work here is in a class all its own.

    20 years later and I can't think of many directors who've done 1/10 of the things Cameron accomplished in this picture. A movie like Sphere is not even to be used in the same breath as this flick.

  16. Despite my initial cranky response, it's fair to say Abyss is better than a lot of people give it credit for being. Joe is right, if someone had taken Cameron by the hand and he'd listened, the ending might have delivered on the film's promise and we wouldn't even be having this discussion.

  17. Thanks, Joe. I would have loved to see you tackle this one, especially since you enjoy it. With our powers united maybe we can demand at least a theater rerelease next summer! At least Cameron didn't become Shyamalan with his next movie, T2.

    I kind of just accepted the ending as blah, Craig, maybe because by that time I was so worn out with all the other stuff that already happened. Maybe Cameron was the same way, too tired to make something decent of it. What that would be I don't know, but still.

  18. I adore THE ABYSS, and prefer only ALIENS to it in the Cameron filmography. It's not perfect-Cameron could have probably kept a climax or two, but none of that much matters-at the heart of this picture is a love story of surprising conviction. Harris- Mastroantonio just plain go for it, and one of my favorite scenes in a Cameron movie is when Harris has to revive her. And what about when the aliens reveal their motivation for saving Harris by showing his message to his wife back to him? Come on guys, me thinks you need to rewatch this one. It's ballsy in its sentimentality, and Cameron just keeps going and going-this is one of the most interesting, schizophrenic summer movies in years.

    The Director's Cut-if I recall-is less ambiguous but that's probably a good thing. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL's influence is far more apparent, and that enriches the film's pop pulse.

  19. Love the enthusiasm, Chuck - and the spoilers, haha. Doesn't matter, like I say the suspense somehow makes it through repeated viewings. That scene you mention, and the water-breathing scene, and the Ed Harris "wide zoom out as he's falling in the dark holding the flare" scene are my favorites. That last one especially - haunting and beautiful.

    I'm totally serious about petitioning for a 20th anniversary limited release next summer. Better this than Rush Hour 4 or whatever else is probably on the way.

    Thanks for adding some great insight.

  20. Oops. My first comment was rather spoilery-sorry guys!

  21. I'm over it, Chuck. If people knew what was good for them they would have stopped reading this post long ago and just watched the movie! Sometimes you only find spoilers if you're looking for them...

  22. You are right. They would use a lot of cgi BS for the underwater scenes instead of actually filming underwater.

    The drama between the people and the special effects are the best parts of the film. The back story and interaction between the spouses was great in the film, how they knew each other.

    The director's cut is the best version by far. More exposition. "WHAT?!" The ending to that version could have used some tweaking though.

    Long live queen bitch of the galaxy.

  23. Thanks, Film-Book, and yeah, I still need to see The Director's Cut - not just of this movie but all of Cameron's movies (yep, even Titanic, if there is one).

    I'd say we have about 5-10 years before some hack Hollywood studio executives decide to remake The Abyss, and when the it's all fakey-looking blue screen and green screen effects, well then maybe this movie will receive its due respect. Plus, no doubt it will be some young and beautiful CW actors making up the new crew.

    If you can't tell, I'm not too happy about Terminator Salvation...

  24. I do not think there is one for Titantic. There is a director's cut for T2. Interesting footage, some of it.

    'I'd say we have about 5-10 years before some hack Hollywood studio executives decide to remake The Abyss, and when the it's all fakey-looking blue screen and green screen effects"


    Boy I am glad I did not see Salvation. I saw The Girlfriend Experience though.

  25. Interesting that there isn't one for Titanic. The biggest movie production of a generation and they're OK with just letting it fade away. I had some thoughts on the 10 year anniversary post featured as a related story here.

    It sounds to me like many of the people who saw Salvation are actually only minor fans, if fans at all, of the first two. If you've seen the director's cut of T2 I'd guess that your disappointment in Salvation would be amplified.


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