Why 'The Abyss' Is James Cameron's Most Flawed Masterpiece
James Cameron's most underrated movie turns 30 today, and it's just as great -- flaws and all -- as you remember.
"Life's abyss and then you die."
What the crew of The Abyss' shirt's said with a sense of irony isn't far from the reality of the infamous James Cameron production, which figuratively (and, for some, literally) drove members of the cast and crew insane. Given the subject matter and the fact that it was coming from taskmasker writer-director James Cameron, the pressures of a story set deep underwater -- on the edge of extraterrestrial discovery -- getting the better of those charged with executing it is par for the course.
There isn't a more perfect marriage of Cameron's narrative sensibilities and aquatic fascinations than The Abyss. It's arguably his most personal film, with two estranged spouses -- Bud (Ed Harris, with an all-timer performance) and Linds (an exceptional Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) -- forced to work together in a way that re-ignites the already-volatile sparks of their romance that ultimately ends saving humanity from being wiped out. It's a movie about how, despite humanity's greatest flaws and worst tendencies (the movie came out in a world still frost bitten by the Cold War), there's literally no depth we won't go to in order to preserve and fight for the one thing unique to our species that we too often take for granted: Our capacity for love. For turning a crisis into an occasion not to make us weak, but to prove how strong we really can be.
Yes, "love" saves the day/overcomes all is a hell of a melodramatic theme for one's expensive underwater blockbuster to use as the load-bearing column, but Cameron makes it work without tipping over into schmaltz (something latter Cameron struggled to do in Titanic and Avatar.)
For 30 years, fans who were onboard with The Abyss upon its initial theatrical release knew why its power resonated like a sonar ping or tuning fork in our chests -- despite the movie being Cameron's lone box office disappointment. Blame the lack of box office dollars on the marketing's struggle to get the story's action adventure elements to shake hands with the romance plot in a way that was easily digested in TV spots and trailers. The lack of success at theaters made the behind-the-scenes hell all the more of a pain point. Ed Harris all but refuses to talk about the movie to this day, which makes sense after you watch the the behind-the-scenes doc on the special edition DVD release. There, Harris recalls the time he almost drowned (with little empathy from Cameron) and the time he expressed how emotionally overwhelmed he was to his director while shooting the film's most memorable (and emotional) scene: Bud and the rest of his deep-sea rig crew struggling to resurrect a dead Linds in their bay.
The scene is very tasking on actors, and Cameron's inability to empathize with the actors tasked with carrying and delivering its emotional payload -- on top of a production plagued with invalidation from Cameron due to his drive to achieve results no matter the cost -- well, this was just a recipe for someone to blow their top. (The lesson here? Put yourself in the shoes of those helping you deliver and doing the best they can with what they have. The better you ensure folks feel seen and heard, the faster you'll see the benefits of that collaboration and understanding in the final project).
Harris' performance, despite the hardships with his director, overcomes any difficulties and gives the film its beating heart, thanks in large part to his very relatable and vulnerable dynamic with Mastrantonio. Their internal conflict, along with the external drama and action plaguing the rig's operations as a hurricane rages top side, make the first two thirds very edge-of-your-seat. Adding more tension is the small team of Navy SEALs, lead by a solider with the Bends (Michael Biehn), that threatens to detonate a nuke underwater. But the final half of the third act suffers from Bud, after barely surviving a suicide mission to the bottom of the titular locale to defuse Biehn's nuke, being reduced to a passive character. Forced to witness and literally be guided by the hand by his new alien friend (an "NTI") to some kind of imaging chamber where Bud is shown why the aliens are here and why, ultimately, they are willing to expose themselves to humanity at large following Bud and Linds' profession of their love to each other with the help of Bud's text messages. (Just watch the movie, it makes more sense.)
Everything leading up to this point is Peak Cameron. It's so good, the best compliment one could give it is that they wish they made it.
The extended cut of the film helps patch up some of the narrative gaps in the third act; we learn that the alien race is responsible for the massive hurricane on the surface. They are also responsible for a massive tidal wave threatening to wipe out humanity -- we glimpse it rising over a frightened and screaming populace of beachcombers in Santa Monica. The aliens literally freeze their wave of destruction (a seagull flutters before its churning-in-place wave crest) after interacting with their "new friend," Bud. The Abyss is one of the few extended cuts that feels more satisfying and complete than the theatrical.
But both editions of the movie are worth watching. The in-camera underwater effects and use of submarine miniatures, on top of the lengths Cameron went to film underwater, are as pioneering as they are awe-inspiring. They are a testament to Cameron's "intimate epic" approach, holding up better and more real than modern blockbusters' reliance on CG.
They also, like the movie's core theme, speak to the resilience of the movie. Why, after three decades, we're still talking about the movie long after the credits rolled.