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
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.
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-destroying 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!