The Abyss (1989)

*. I’ve written before (or at least I think I have) about the myth of the “director’s cut.” These became very popular with the advent of DVDs, leading to a host of “special” or “restored” editions of movies that had (so the story went) been butchered by heartless or brainless studio executives on their theatrical release.
*. I call it the myth of the director’s cut because I think it’s a fiction that these restored versions are always better than what audiences saw in theatres. Not every bit of trimming was the equivalent of the desecration of The Magnificent Ambersons or Touch of Evil. Nevertheless, that was what some directors wanted you to believe when the director’s cut came out on DVD.
*. I guess the most salient example of when the director had a real case to make came with Blade Runner, whose release truly was bungled and which now exists in several different versions. But Blade Runner was an exception to the general rule, which is that most of what gets cut from a movie before it’s final release is cut for a reason. How many “deleted scenes” have you seen that you thought should have been kept? In my experience there have been very few. Was Apocalypse Now Redux really Redux? Not in my opinion.
*. Anyway, to bring this discussion around to the present case, James Cameron is a director with a healthy ego (I mean that in a positive way) who has availed himself of the myth of the director’s cut on several occasions, most notably with the special editions of Aliens (1986) and The Abyss.
*. I am surprised at how many people think Aliens was improved with the added material, but that’s a case that seems to have been absorbed into the Blade Runner narrative now pretty firmly. The Abyss is a bit different. The special edition adds about 30 minutes of material that Cameron was apparently happy to cut at the time and which audiences didn’t mind losing either. Nevertheless, given that DVDs were invented to give us more, we now have more.
*. I saw The Abyss in 1989 when it came out and I thought it too long then. Instead of adding 30 minutes they should have cut the same. Mainly what has been added is the business at the end where the luminiscent sea monkeys threaten major coastal cities with tidal waves. Are they doing this in protest of man’s pollution of the oceans, industrial whaling and fisheries, or the outrage of the Great Pacific garbage patch? No. They are concerned about our species’ propensity for violence. I don’t know why. I would have thought they’d be happy to have us kill ourselves off.
*. All kidding aside, I applaud the earnestness of Cameron’s anti-nuclear message, which also featured prominently in Terminator 2. I just think it’s a poor fit with this film and the fact that this entire climactic sequence was cut on release without leaving a sense of anything missing gives some idea of what a bag of yarn The Abyss is in terms of narrative.
*. Another thing Cameron deserves a lot of credit for is his ability to handle mega-projects like this. The Abyss was an absolute nightmare to make. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the 1993 documentary Under Pressure: Making The Abyss. Apparently this was one of the most difficult film shoots ever, and one can believe it.
*. Was it worth all the trouble? That will depend on how you view the results, but I’d just point out that 1989 was the year of the underwater adventure film and the other two big titles — Leviathan and DeepStar Six — actually didn’t do much underwater photography. They just shot the film in such a way that you thought the actors were underwater. I don’t think that hurt either film, so the authenticity of The Abyss came at quite a price.
*. I do appreciate the underwater stuff and think it looks terrific. When it won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, however, it was for the CGI and animation done by Industrial Light & Magic. This is far less impressive. The liquid pseudopod effect took six months to create, and was cutting edge at the time but doesn’t look like anything special today. Meanwhile, the sea creatures and their glowing pink city just look silly and frankly rather crude. The CGI can be excused for being very early CGI, but there had been better animation before this. Cameron wanted to do for the bottom of the ocean what 2001 did for space, but the star gate sequence in 2001 was more impressive than the pink jellyfish castle and its slightly robotic-looking butterflies.
*. You might have thought Michael Biehn would get to be the hero again (he played the all-too-human Reese in The Terminator), but . . . he’s sporting a moustache. That’s a sure sign that’s he’s gone over to the dark side. So, no. Sorry Magnum.
*. I wonder what Cameron’s thing is for battlebots and fighting machines. The Terminator(s). Ripley strapped into the cargo-loader contraption at the end of Aliens, which we get again in Avatar‘s climactic battle. Here it’s dueling submersibles. I’d read something into all this, but I think he’s just a mechanically inclined person.
*. Part of being a popular artist (in any medium) is having an uncomplicated or conventional sensibility that translates as authenticity. I mentioned the earnestness of Cameron’s anti-nuclear message but his sentimentality is another more obvious example. This is a guy who really believes in the power of love and he’s not afraid to play it up. In Titanic I think this worked, for the most part, but in this movie I thought all the business with Lindsey telling Bud how much she’s always loved him while he descends into the bone-crushing depths got kind of corny. Does that make me cynical? Hard-hearted? I don’t think so. I’ll cry at a good romance. I just thought that in this movie it was mush.
*. At the box office it barely broke even, which was a pretty big disappointment given the budget and Cameron’s track record at the time. Since then, and with the release of the special edition, it has gained some fans and is occasionally even referred to as a cult film. This surprises me.
*. It surprises me, at least in part, because, as noted, I don’t think the material they put back in helps it a bit. But more than that, I just don’t think it has aged that well.
*. Some popular artists last, others don’t. I have doubts about Cameron’s staying power. He has a well-deserved reputation as king of the blockbusters: from setting the standard with action franchises (Terminator, T2 and Aliens) to stand-alone megahits like Titanic and Avatar. I really liked all of these movies (except Avatar) when they came out, but today . . . not so much. I even came away from a recent re-viewing of Aliens feeling let down, which surprised me.
*. The Abyss was, as I began by saying, not a movie I liked in 1989 and I think even less of it now. Some of the underwater work is truly amazing, but aside from that it’s overwrought and clunky, lurching from one crisis to another before whisking us off to its fantasy ending. I actually enjoy the silly monster movies Leviathan and DeepStar Six more, if only for being trimmer. There may be a moral in there somewhere about the nature of what lasts. It’s not always what was biggest at the time.

2 thoughts on “The Abyss (1989)

  1. nscovell

    I love The Abyss and still love watching it today. I always thought the pacing was excellent however and still think it holds up today. Especially in the underwater effects realm. Something about the story and the hero story of Bud just sticks out to me for some reason. Bud is the reason I got a titanium wedding ring! You never know when an industrial submarine door might be closing and the only thing that can stop it is a wedding ring!


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