The “lost” James Cameron movie in some respects, The Abyss has seemingly been forgotten about in comparison to the first two Terminator movies, Aliens, Titanic and Avatar, although it probably does rank just that little bit above True Lies, itself being truly worth watching for a great performance from the late, great Bill Paxton.
In many ways the closest Cameron has come to emulating his beloved 2001:A Space Odyssey, instead of being a claustrophobic tale of alien encounter beyond the stars, Cameron instead looked beneath the sea, the film becoming a truly cinematic journey thousands of feet below our waves, building up to a deeply intense finale that has more in common with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind than Kubrick’s “proverbial good science fiction movie”.
It’s one of those movies I recall watching at a very young age, somewhat traumatized, but also engrossed, by the film’s now famous resuscitation scene; very well-known for being the most intense sequence in the film, but also somewhat infamous for it summing up the film’s increasingly fraught production when, during an incredibly intense bout of filming, the camera ran out of film prompting Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio to storm off the set, angry at the constant takes from perfectionist Cameron, as well as being physically exposed and laying in the freezing cold.
The first of Cameron’s now famous over budgeted movies, coming of the back of the lower budgeted Terminator and medium budgeted Aliens (which looked remarkably more expensive than it really was), The Abyss cost an estimated $70 million, but only grossed back $90 million worldwide, the only Cameron film not to turn in a profit. It was also the first time Cameron would mount an epic and challenging production that would prove physically taxing on many who worked on it, a trait it would share with Titanic.
A tale of alien encounter in a very Cold War setting, the film deals with many themes that one would expect from a Cameron film, but does so in nearly they’re most purest forms; a nuclear weapon plays a pivotal part; its has a fascination with extra terrestrial life and the ocean; a love story is at the centre of it; Michael Biehn is there.
It is forever a shame the film has seemingly been forgotten about in comparison to its more commercially successful cousins, for The Abyss feels like pure-James Cameron and the peak of his early period, the perfect summation of his collaborations with ex-wife Gale Anne Hurd and their exploration of emotionally driven, gritty science fiction stories.
It may very well be his masterpiece, and remains so whatever version you watch it in. The theatrical version had to omit a wave sequence that was reinstated for the near three-hour director’s cut, but it’s the scenes between Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio that are truly worth watching the extended version for.
It could be so easy to see the breakdown in Cameron and Hurd’s marriage and witness it portrayed somewhat in Bud and Lindsey’s throughout The Abyss, but away from that, the scenes between our leads work so well because they are beautifully played in both versions, but then fully expanded in the extended cut. Cameron has frequently joked about his works being love stories, but of course they actually are, a fact that would reach its zenith with Titanic, but in The Abyss he gives us the mirror image to his most famous “doomed young lovers” story by making his couple here just that little bit older and mature, showing their estrangement and their eventual reconciliation, brought about by one of the most intense drowning sequences ever captured on film.
They spend the first half of the film being either somewhat spiteful to each other, feeling their way along before truly finding each other again but only after they nearly lose each other forever. The drowning sequence almost feels more like the peak of the movie than Bud’s eventual trip to the bottom of the ocean, a deep sea-set equivalent to Dave Bowman’s trip through the Star-Gate at the end of 2001, but whereas Kubrick’s film leaves us with questions, Cameron, whose previous movies prior to this had a lot of dark and gritty qualities, albeit still with hopeful conclusions, takes a leaf out of Spielberg and goes more in a Close Encounters direction. It still works, although the shift from claustrophobic thriller to a work of light and hope feels more earned and natural in the longer version.
All of it still works. It’s a mature masterpiece that has aged like the finest of wines, and even if it has been somewhat neglected (the DVD is non-anamorphic and a 4K HD conversion has been long rumoured but never released), it’s still this reviewer’s favourite Cameron film along with the “boat movie”, The Abyss is the one that made me a fan, the one that I returned to again and again in my youth. Titanic and Avatar may have made the big bucks, and T2 the one that people remember the most with fondness, but The Abyss is also very much a masterpiece that is forever ripe for rediscovery.