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The Abyss
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After the unexpected and unprecedented success of James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd's first two features—the runaway indie hit The Terminator (1984) and arguably the third greatest sequel ever made, Aliens (1986)—the team delivered their first creative and box office disappointment with this incredibly ambitious but not entirely successful underwater sci-fi action-adventure about first contact, world peace, and marital strife. Cameron’s story centers on underwater oil-rig workers who must host a group of Navy SEALS sent down to locate a missing Russian sub. Amidst nuclear tensions, rough seas, corporate and interpersonal friction, the crew of the Deep Core drilling station accidentally discover non-terrestrial intelligence (NTIs) residing beneath a 2.5 mile deep cliff on the ocean floor. Ed Harris stars as Bud Brigman, the foreman of the Deep Core rig. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays his estranged wife Lindsey, the engineer who designed the Deep Core and refuses to let the SEAL team take it over without her there to supervise. Michael Biehn (who played such memorably heroic characters in The Terminator and Aliens) is terrific in the villainous role of Lieutenant Coffey, the paranoid SEAL commander. The rest of the cast is filled out with solid actors who embody their roughneck characters beautifully. Though Cameron's dialogue is a bit more obvious here than in his previous screenplays, the film is solidly plotted, suspenseful, and emotionally engaging (at least for the first 130 minutes). The plot machinations are logical and exciting; building tension via all sorts of ticking clocks. The technology and geography are expertly established, enabling the viewer to understand how everything functions and where we are at all times despite the monotonous setting. The verbal jousting between the soon-to-be-ex-spouses is both funny in the grand tradition of bickering Hollywood screen couples and has the ring of authenticity—Cameron and Hurd ended their extremely productive four-year marriage as soon as the picture was released and one can’t help but draw parallels between the two of them and Lindsey and Bud. But Cameron's ending never worked, on paper or on screen. As evidenced when he released an extended version of the film (just as he had with Aliens) the big-budget, longwinded deus ex machina finale he originally envisioned is both preachy, simpleminded, and silly. No studio would have ever approved the ending of this screenplay had Cameron and Hurd not proved wrong every single doubting executive they'd encountered on their previous productions. Many cuts were made to focus The Abyss more on the relationship story and less on the story of nuclear brinksmanship, but while these trims made the ending less laughably absurd, they didn’t really make it more satisfying. Still, while the final few minutes undermine much of what comes before, there’s no denying the fact that The Abyss is a highly entertaining movie, a technical triumph, and, at the very least, a fascinating failure.  

The Abyss was not a fun picture to make. Initially budgeted at $41 million it ran wildly over-budget, which was a huge set back for the amazing track record of Gale Anne Hurd, who was building a reputation as a producer who could make $7 million look like $50 million, and $30 million look like $80 million. Coming up through the Roger Corman school of low-budget exploitation pictures, Hurt and Cameron knew how to bring their films in on time and under budget regardless of any and all production hardships. But The Abyss was too much even for them. Realizing Cameron’s vision required the creation or enhancement of many state-of-the-art technologies. Most of the story takes place underwater and Cameron wanted to avoid all the artificiality and confusion of prior deep-sea adventure pictures by actually shooting the whole film underwater. Looking for the kind of absolute control never available to filmmakers when shooting in the ocean, Cameron and Hurd constructed their sets in the containment building of an unfinished nuclear power plant in South Carolina and used its two huge tanks to hold 10 million gallons of water with little plastic black beads floating on the top to block any natural light from coming in. The abandoned plant's primary reactor containment vessel became, at the time, the largest fresh-water filtered tank in the world. Since CGI was in its infancy, Cameron and his team had to invent real-world, working prototypes of all the equipment he described in the script. To avoid the typical underwater movie problem of viewers not being able to differentiate characters who are encased in wetsuits, SCUBA gear, and masks, Cameron designed fully functional underwater helmets with clear faceplates so that his cameras could easily see which character was which (and also showcase that it was the real actors in the suits not underwater doubles). A special system was built into these helmets so that the actors could both breathe and speak without any gear obstructing their faces. This complex communications system enabled all the dialogue spoken by the actors underwater to be recorded live on set for the first time in film history. It also enabled the director to speak underwater to his actors and crew rather than having to resort to communicating via hand signals and chalkboards. Special watertight housings were designed for the cameras, some for shooting at depths and some for shots that transitioned from above-water dialogue to below-water dialogue. 

The cast and crew ventured into the cold, dark, 55 foot depths six days a week for six months, painstakingly photographing the underwater sequences shot by shot. A staggering forty percent of this movie takes place outside the rig underwater, including dangerous sequences in which the characters have run out of oxygen and must hold their breath and swim from one breathable area to another. As the weeks wore on, blooming algae began to reduce visibility to 20 feet requiring constant clearing, and over-chlorination led to divers' skin burning and their hair turning white or falling out. The shoot ran 140 days and at least $4 million over budget, and many cast members frequently suffered emotional breakdowns. Harris was so upset by the unprecedented demands of this production and by Cameron's tyrannical directing style that he publicly disowned the film and refused to ever speak about it or its director—a vow he pretty much kept for over 20 years. Neither Harris nor Mastrantonio did much promotion for the movie, which, coupled with all the reports about the troubled production, and the uneven word of mouth from initial preview screenings helped sink the picture’s chances to recoup its massive costs. At the time this was one of the most expensive productions in history, and it was also hobbled by the fact that many other underwater thrillers (made very inexpensively) were released the same year, some performing rather well. Rip-off maestro Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) developed and shot his underwater monster movie Deepstar Six with the express intent of beating the slate of submerged thrillers he saw going into production (he achieved his goal of being the first one in theaters, for whatever that's worth). Two months later, George P. Cosmatos (director of Rambo: First Blood Part II, for which Cameron wrote the first draft screenplay) released a more modestly budgeted Dino De Laurentiis production called Leviathana shameless but entertaining Alien rip-off set underwater with a decent enough cast. Those two pictures were followed by Evil Below, Lords of the Deep, and The Rift, which collectively stole the thunder of The Abyss (released in August) and made even the most hardcore genre audiences weary of movies about blue-collar workers running around in underwater gear trying to kill monsters. Of course, The Abyss wasn’t about monsters at all, but that fact was lost on many potential ticket buyers, as was all the amazing innovation on display in the film. 

One cinematic revolution that most people did see—because it was featured in all trailers and behind-the-scenes promotional materials—was the now-famous water tentacle. A landmark in the computer generated effects revolution, this sequence involves the NTIs manipulating water into a pseudopod that stretches from the vehicle launching pool through the Deep Core station to make contact with the crew. When it encounters Lindsey and Bud it morphs itself to mimic their faces and expressions. This was the movie's biggest technical advance, pushing CGI to a new paradigm, and spawning the eye-popping effects in Cameron’s next effort Terminator II: Judgment Day, which was released two years later and made so much money that everyone forgot about the box office disappointment of The Abyss. But while T2 is clearly a more successful picture than The Abyss in pretty much every way, it's essentially just an amped up retread of its predecessor. The Abyss, while derivative of many movies—from Kubrick's 2001 to Cameron's own Aliens—it is a daringly original picture in both its production and its content, featuring several incredible sequences never seen on film before or since. 

Twitter Capsule:
Cameron and Hurd's ambitious deepwater thriller about first contact, Cold War tensions, and marital strife doesn't succeed on all levels, but it's still a gripping and inventive thriller with sequences never seen before or since.

Directed by James Cameron
Produced by Gale Anne Hurd and Van Ling

Written by James Cameron

With: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, John Bedford Lloyd, J.C. Quinn, Kimberly Scott, Chris Elliott, and Michael Beach

Cinematography: Mikael Salomon
Editing: Conrad Buff IV, Howard E. Smith, Joel Goodman, and Steven Quale
Music: Alan Silvestri

Runtime: 139 min
Release Date: 09 August 1989
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1