The Abyss

Rewatching the original Star Wars trilogy seems to have made me nostalgic for the 80s.  And when the latest Star Wars instalment recently sailed past Avatar and Titanic to become the highest grossing movie ever in North America, I couldn’t help but think of James Cameron’s other work, the stuff that he made before appointing himself the king of the world.

Aliens, Terminator and Terminator 2 are all wonderful and all high on my list of movies to make Jay watch (a list that has shrunk considerably in the last few weeks), but the first James Cameron movie that comes to my mind is The Abyss.  To me, that’s the true precursor to Avatar and Titanic, the movie that hinted at what James Cameron was capable of (both good and bad).

The Abyss is near and dear to me, mainly because it provided one of the first signs that I was destined to become an Asshole Watching Movies.  In the early 90s I became really obsessed with letterboxed movies even though we had a 30 inch (at best) tube television.  This was before DVDs so my options

LDDVDComparison-mod

LaserDisc on the left, DVD on the right.  I have enough trouble finding shelf space for my DVDs, thank you very much.

were either letterboxed
VHS (few-and-far-between) or LaserDisc (too-expensive-for-an-unemployed-teenager).  But my parents, seeing my interest, indulged me by renting a LaserDisc player on a few occasions, and The Abyss was the first movie I ever watched on that strange format (on two 12″ discs!).

 

 

As for the movie itself, The Abyss is an underwater odyssey that is a bit of a mess, both on screen and behind the scenes.  Again, it seems obvious in hindsight given James Cameron’s later works, but at the time it seems to have been a surprise that The Abyss’s production went way over time and way over budget.  Filming consisted of 15-18 hour days and lasted 140 days total.  Total cost: a reported $70 million, which if accurate would make it the most expensive movie ever at the time (surpassed by Terminator 2, which was surpassed by True Lies, which was surpassed by Waterworld, which was surpassed by Titanic).  It is not a coincidence that all but one of those movies was made by James Cameron.  He clearly has a talent for spending money.abyss13

When you watch the Abyss, though, you can see where the money went.  All the diving scenes are practical effects and the movie looks amazing for it.  The underwater scenes were shot 30 feet deep for up to five hours at a time in 40 pound helmets.  There were
other costs than money that resulted from this underwater mayhem.  Complaints from cast and crew were rampant.  Ed Harris refuses to ever talk about the film to this day.  James Cameron almost died when he lost track of time and ran out of air at the bottom of the 7,000,000 gallon water tank, and then on his way to the surface was given a broken emergency regulator, so when he thought he would finally get a much needed breath of air, he got a lungful of water instead.  Knowing all that makes me wonder whether the end product, as beautiful as it is, was worth the trouble.  Watch it and tell me what you think.  In my view, the climactic visit to the “aliens” is a bit of a letdown and the ending seems rushed (which is particularly problematic for a movie that’s this long).

The original theatrical cut (which I have never seen) was released in 1989 and was 145 minutes long.  The Abyss is one of the first forays into CG but the technology was not quite there yet so a climactic scene had to be cut because Industrial Light & Magic just couldn’t get the world-The-Abyss-Water-Facedestroying waves to look right.  Technology had advanced significantly by 1993, and so a special edition was released with 25 minutes more footage, including the ending as it was originally conceived.  The CG effects hint at what is to come from Cameron and ILM (or, by the time the special edition was released, what had already come).  The tentacle water effects in particular are very close relatives of the T-1000’s liquid metal goodness in T2 and they seem to hold up a lot better than most early CG (maybe because CG is used so sparsely in The Abyss).

Interestingly, we’ve kind of come full circle, moving away from CG in favour of practical effects (Mad Max: Fury Road being a prime example).  Kwame Opum of The Verge calls practical effects, “vinyl for cinema”, and as someone with a large record collection, that comparison feels right.  It makes me wonder where James Cameron, formerly a practical effects adherent, stands on the issue today since Avatar was so CG-heavy.  Perhaps we’ll get a sense of that if Avatar 2 ever gets made, but that’s a long way off as it’s been delayed again and will not come out until 2018 at the earliest.

In the meantime, dust off your LaserDisc copy of The Abyss and enjoy!

 

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25 thoughts on “The Abyss

  1. Jay

    I don’t know what letterboxed movies are.
    I also can’t believe Laser Discs!
    I’ve heard of them but had no idea they were so big and bulky. No wonder they didn’t catch on.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. Sean Post author

      Yes, laserdiscs were bulky, heavy, awkward, and kind of ridiculous overall. I am not nostalgic for them and I was very glad to see DVD come along.

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    2. That Other Critic

      *ahem* If I may…
      Typically when a film was sold on VHS, it was cropped, bringing it to the 4:3 (square-ish) aspect ratio of most TVs at the time. However, a few companies, letterboxed, inserting those famous black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, preserving the originally intended frame.

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  2. Christopher

    Like you I have a love/hate relationship with The Abyss. It gets so much right, especially scientifically, and Ed Harris’s descent to the bottom of the trench remains one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen. And, hey, cool cameo by Chris Elliott. But slapping Lindsey back to life and the ending just seem a little too feel-good, even though the movie would have been a serious downer if it had been more realistic.
    Oh, and thank you for the flashback to LaserDiscs. My parents rented one so my friends and I could be incredibly bored by watch 2001 and Something Wicked This Way Comes for one of my birthday parties. Now? Not compatible with my system!

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  3. Salty Popcorn

    I used to have about 300 laserdiscs – was the most amazing thing ever 🙂 LOVED THEM – cost me so much money in continual investment and ended up selling for next to nothing when DVD destroyed them. And THE ABYSS is a work of genius for me, the reason I fell in love with Cameron and that extended edition – so much love for it.

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  4. John Charet

    For me, Aliens is his greatest film (* * * * out of * * * *) and The Terminator is very good (* * * 1/2 out of * * * *). True Lies is good (* * * out of * * * *) while The Abyss and T2 are in-between for me (* * 1/2 out of * * * *). The less said about Titanic and Avatar the better 🙂 As far as action directors go, I am a huge fan of Walter Hill and Sam Peckinpah. Their are many others too, but I did not want to go into heavy detail here 🙂 Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

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    1. Sean Post author

      He’s made some great movies. It’s hard for me to put them in order but I think Aliens would be #1 for me as well. It’s a sequel to that matches, if not surpasses, a true classic wihout imitating what came before. I absolutely love that movie.

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  5. Liz A.

    My brother had a laserdisc player. (Might still have, actually.) I watched his copy of Pulp Fiction on it. With Japanese subtitles. I did see The Abyss a long time ago. Not really my kind of movie.

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  6. bp7o9

    Mm. At the risk of calling down the wrath of all the Cameron lovers, may I point out that technically he’s a LOUSY director. No director worth his salt is gonna over-film as much as Cameron does. He knows what length of film he’s shooting for, yet every damned time he’s got at LEAST an extra half of of footage he dicked around with. No. That’s just sloppy and not giving a damn if he goes over budget. Directors are supposed to figure shots out in pre-production.

    And let’s face it. Cameron’s films all have the signature Cameron look – boxy. Boxy ships, boxy rooms, boxy gadgets.

    As for The Abyss, I like it despite several scenes that are too long or blatant emotional manipulation – the resurrection of Lindsey being by far the worst. It must have been a tough shoot; water sets always are.

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  7. J.

    I mind seeing this and thinking “is that it?” Typical of Cameron, really. Well, aside from the Terminator movies. A lot like Lucas, I guess – great vision, but really sketchy when it comes to throwing things together on screen?

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  8. Allen

    Ah, Laser Discs! We had a video lesson on Laser Disc in sixth grade, and I still remember my teacher pontificating on how awesome and revolutionary the technology was. (It was almost like she was a shill for the industry, or something.) She claimed that it could melt in a car, and that if you heated it, it would bend back to its original disc shape and still be watchable. (I never tested the validity of that controversial theory.)

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  9. Birgit

    I have seen parts of this movie but not all of it…that’s Ok with me because I can’t stand James Cameron. He is so full of his own ego, I am surprised that he doesn’t lift in the air when he farts. I didn’t know about all the crap on the set-I wonder if Ed Harris would like to punch Cameron.

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  10. In My Cluttered Attic

    The thing I liked about this movie was the acting. It is believable. Particularly the scene with Harris and Mastrantonio on having to decide who is going to take the risk of drowning. A heartbreaking and very realistic scene.

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  12. Pingback: Strange Days | ASSHOLES WATCHING MOVIES

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