Has there ever been a movie that failed to stick the landing as spectacularly that James Cameron’s underwater epic, The Abyss? Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE The Abyss, it’s a vastly underrated treasure and it also set in motion the curious habit the director has of only helming films with titles that exclusively start with the letters A or T (we’ll forget Piranha 2 because Cameron sure has…), but as I said, christ… that ending.
Anyway, as an exercise in virtually impossible, herculean movie shoots, The Abyss is tough to beat (Ed Harris straight up nearly DIED making this thing). The actors are actually in those diving suits, clocking up hundreds of diving hours, filming the underwater stuff in huge tanks installed in a shut down power plant while actually delivering whole scenes of dialogue while submerged. Despite the unbelievable stress it all caused (crew members would wear t-shirts on set declaring “Life’s Abyss and then you dive”), it paid off visually as the vast majority of the film looks stunningly flawless.
When a US military submarine crashes into a yawning undersea chasm after encountering an impossibly nimble UFO (Unidentified Floating Object – my term, not their’s although Cameron DID invent the term unobtainium, soooo…) the brass contact “Bud” Brigman on his experimental underwater drilling rig to go and search for survivors. Reluctantly agreeing Bud awaits the arrival of a group of marines and his ex-wife Lindsay, who designed the rig and is wilfully opposed to the whole operation. Dubbed “queen bitch of the universe” by her peers, Lindsay is a strong, willful woman with an unbreakable outer shell and a near fatal intolerance for bullshit and while Bud and her argue back and forth the rescue gets underway but numerous huge problems are coming in with the tide.
The first is a pesky hurricane that separates the rig’s umbilical from it’s control ship on the surface and very nearly yanks the whole facility into the near bottomless trench – the second is that the marines, lead by Michael Biehn’s inscrutable moustache, have stripped the warheads from the sub and brought them on board thanks to orders and his rapidly deteriorating mental health.
Stranded at the bottom of the sea, the survivors try to figure out how in the deep blue hell they are ever going to make it out alive but unearthly forces based at the bottom of the abyss start to take a benevolent interest in the crew and various forms of contact are made (mainly through the show-stopping pseudopod, a living water tentacle that marked the maturing of photo-real CGI in a live action motion picture) which unfortunately leads the frazzled marines to freak out even further; strap a warhead to a small submersible and send it off as a nasty trojan horse to our new glowing alien friends. And so a struggle to foil this plot unfolds in which selfless acts and self sacrifice become necessary but why exactly are the aliens here in the first place, and does it come across at all in the theatrical cut?
Somewhat under heralded these days there is so much to love in The Abyss I’m amazed it really isn’t mentioned more these day. It has great lead performances by Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the feuding ex-spouses, Michael Biehn expelling pure, uncut intensity from every pore on his body, an early supporting role for Henry Cavill’s Mission: Impossible facial hair and stunning sets (which somehow manages to out-Aliens Aliens) and visuals which are nothing less that 100% believable.
The film, however, is at it’s best when dealing with the greasy and tactile nuts and bolts of the drillers trapped in their scuppered rig and having to deal with the formidable tag team of Biehn and his moustache as he goes off the deep end with a couple of nukes and even without the aliens, could play as a magnificently tense thriller in it’s own right. Yet when the extra-terrestrials show up the film is bizarrely less sure-footed, turning in a half hearted “save the world” message in it’s muddled, 2001-esque, final ten minutes, which threatens to unravel everything that came before. The ending eventually came across stronger in the subsequent director’s cut, revealing that the aliens are here to pass judgement on our self destructive ways – but not by much. “This here’s the bottomless pit, baby. Two and a half miles, straight down.” is the hyperbole spouted by a diver over the radio about the depth of the titular trench, but believe me, it sums up that ending pretty succinctly too.
But let’s get back to the other 90% of the film which throttles along just fine despite a couple of pit stops into melodrama along the way (a habit Cameron still seems to have with scripting romances).
Cameron’s near supernatural ability to make an awesome action sequence no matter what vehicle he chooses to utilize is also in effect and here we’re gifted with a crunching sequence where the major players desperately duel to the death in submersibles which duck and weave inches from the sea bed. Seriously, the guy could give us a world beating action scene with a fucking Segway and a mobility scooter and you know it…
Orginal (if slightly twee) alien designs, a rousing Alan Silvestri score and scene where a rat breathes experimental fluid (trimmed in the UK for suspected animal cruelty), The Abyss is an attempt by it’s maker to curb his peerless world building into something more down to earth (and you can’t get more down than a 2 mile aquatic butthole) and it’s a telling indicator that The Abyss also signifies the beginnings of traits that Cameron now displays in full force such as full on ecco-fables matched with deeply uncynical love stories. In fact the climatic rise from the dank, claustrophobic rig on the bottom of the ocean to standing in the sunlight on the hull of a purple neon mothership could very well symbolize Cameron’s shift from the dark, dirty futures of Terminator and Aliens to the more hopeful, luminescent leanings of Avatar and their (eventual) sequels.
Whether you agree with that shift (displayed even further in T2 with a good Terminator helping save humanity from nuclear fallout) or you still wish Cameron still made harder edged movies that deals more with nihilistic terrors than 9 foot Native American, blue, cat people, The Abyss is a fascinating footnote in the career of Hollywood’s most determined filmmaker.
The Abyss: somehow both deep and shallow at the same time…