In the realm of blockbuster cinema James Cameron is an institution. A groundbreaking, uncompromising auteur who’s reached unequaled levels of success. While his once relatively consistent output has slowed to a pace that could only be described as “glacial” in the most generous terms, the impact of his classic films is still felt today.
With 1986’s Aliens, Cameron took on the unenviable task of following up Ridley Scott’s genre-redefining 1979 classic, Alien. He eschewed Scott’s meticulously creeping space horror for an all-out nuclear assault, bombarding audiences with an addictive, quotable, toyetic maelstrom of sci-fi action that spawned an enduring franchise and was ludicrously profitable. In the process, he also proved that a movie rife with military bravado and the attendant firepower could also bear an emotional core and characters any audience would be hard-pressed not to be truly endeared to.
In 1991, he created what was at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or T2 as it was frequently advertised, was not only remarkably profitable in spite of its enormous budget, but it spawned a cottage industry unto itself. As theaters filled with awestruck moviegoers, the world filled with T2 toys, video games, lunch boxes, coloring books, comics, and practically all other manner of imaginable ancillary merchandise. Stray bits of star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dialogue became cultural beacons through the rest of the decade and Schwarzenegger was propelled from his already lofty Hollywood perch to the highest conceivable level of global superstardom. It broke box office records, audience expectations, and technological ground in filmmaking with its boundary-shattering visual effects.
Both of these sci-fi action classics achieved the nearly impossible and the immortal, making the leap from films to cultural touchstones and unkillable transmedia juggernauts. But it seems to be either ignored or forgotten that in between these two monoliths, Cameron made another movie, which is quietly one of his best: 1989’s The Abyss.
The Abyss concerns the crew of an underwater oil drilling platform that find themselves embroiled in an extraterrestrial encounter that coincides with a rapidly escalating nuclear threat, all during a hurricane, at the bottom of the ocean, with a group of Navy SEALs led by a pressure sickness-crazed, mustache-sporting Michael Biehn. It’s mostly notable for its special effects and its insane, embattled production, which involved building a set in an abandoned nuclear reactor and then filling it with 7 million gallons of water, a few working submersibles, and a handful of only recently dive-certified actors.
It’s like Armageddon if Michael Bay actually filmed it on the surface of an asteroid and Bruce Willis was so scarred by the experience it he refused to talk about it.
It marries Cameron’s fascination with the ocean’s crushing depths with the rag-tag, shitkicking Space Marine camaraderie of Aliens, the technological barrier shattering of T2, and a series of terrifying undersea disaster setpieces that would make Irwin Allen dry heave. It’s got an outstanding ensemble cast, a soaring, ethereal score by Alan Silvestri, and some of the most singularly ambitious filmmaking in cinematic history. So why is it so often overshadowed by its filmographic siblings?
Perhaps it’s because despite being technically profitable, The Abyss is a relative flop when compared to the rest of Cameron’s catalog and was considered a disappointment by 20th Century Fox. Opening at #2 between Parenthood and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child isn’t necessarily a box office showing that cries “legacy marketing”.
Maybe it could be due to the disavowal-adjacent attitude towards the film by some of the participants. The shoot was so grueling and dangerous that it prompted multiple reported breakdowns from cast and crew and took such a toll that star Ed Harris has refused to speak about it publicly since its initial promotional efforts. According to his co-star Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, “The Abyss was a lot of things. Fun to make is not one of them.”
Despite its extraordinary results, it would seem filming in a dark, 7 million-gallon tank of water for 70 hours a week is not an experience many are keen to relive. Though it’s worth noting that Harris and Mastrantonio answered the unthinkable pressure of making The Abyss with performances that are among the very best of each of their careers, which is a considerable commendation.
Public opinion could also be divided because of the two versions of the film currently in circulation. The Special Edition, released on laserdisc in 1993 and on DVD in 2000, brings the film up to a runtime of 2 hours and 50 minutes. Thanks to the success of T2, Cameron secured a financing deal with 20th Century Fox that allowed him to complete sequences previously left out due to budgetary and technological constraints and in doing so, fleshed out a considerable amount of the plot absent from the original theatrical cut.
While any opinion on which is the superior cut of The Abyss is subject to individual opinion, many maintain that the Special Edition elevates what’s an already engaging submersible thriller to something much more, showing the global impact of the film’s events as the United States and Russia reach the brink of mutually assured nuclear destruction and the benevolent alien force at the bottom of the ocean threatens the world with a series of stunning tidal waves.
Perhaps it’s this pseudo-peacenik message that drives The Abyss from audiences’s minds. It’s an uncommon tact for an action movie to carry a moral message, but it doesn’t bog down the film and might actually be a key component to its continued relevance. After all, war is still a constant threat and the human race is still using the ocean like a chemical toilet with seeming impunity.
Even taking all of these considerations into account, The Abyss is a stone-cold classic. Particularly for fans of Cameron’s better-known films, it’s well worth revisiting. You’ll find tissue from Aliens and T2 connecting in the kind of irresponsibly ambitious, ultra-high stakes action film that’s been rendered hopelessly obsolete by the very technology it helped develop. Lost in a liminal void between two arguably flawless movies, it's not possessed of the kind of nerd nostalgia manna that impels perma-infants to build copyright-flouting Esty mini-empires around it, but that's almost all the more reason it deserves to be remembered.
In an era when "event" pictures are often rendered inert by studio-homogenized computer effects and focus grouped to have the enduring appeal and unique spirit of a Big Bang Theory rerun, it's increasingly imperative to recognize riskier, harder to categorize filmic endeavors.
It’s also just a great, wildly entertaining movie, so if it’s been awhile, give it a whirl.
If nothing else, it can serve as a useful test for one's inner vitality.
If a nuclear submarine chase at the bottom of the ocean led by a wild-eyed, sweaty-‘stached Michael Biehn isn’t something that causes immediate waves of warm euphoria to emanate from your soul, it’s possible that like our oceans, you may be beyond saving.