Review: The Abyss (1989)(Special Edition released 1993)
Remember way back years ago there used to be this film director James Cameron? He was truly a master of all trades. Genius. A brilliant writer, he would make movies with effortlessly smart, not convoluted or irritating pseudo-intellectual, storylines. He was a pioneer of visual effects. I don’t mean he employed an army of computer boffins to heave CGI vomit and diarrhea all over the screen. Sure he used computer effects, but also practical effects, miniatures, make up effects, smoke and mirrors, stunts, puppeteering. Christ the guy knew every trick in the book. And when there wasn’t a trick to employ he’d invent a new one. He never took short cuts or cut corners. Cool, talented actors like Michael Biehn used to be in his films. And they’d play characters you actually cared about. No, he never made super hero films. No, I don’t think he ever cast Robert Downey Junior or Jai Courtney in anything. And if he was making films today I don’t think you’d see The Rock or Vin Diesel in them either. Yes he made Arnold Schwarzenegger The Terminator but that was 1984, when Schwarzenegger still knew his place. Who knows how successful the big man’s film career would’ve been without that launchpad, and the subsequent boost he got from T2 in the early 90s. Look at his recent choices.
I was a James Cameron fan before I even knew how films came into existence. As a little kid I had no idea how the stories and images I loved had been rendered onto the screen, and didn’t particularly care. But even back then, when it said on the front of the video cassette case ‘From the producers of Aliens and The Terminator’ I thought, oh this will be good. I miss those days. Now I guess it would say ‘From the creator of Titanic and Avatar.’
I pretty much regard James Cameron as having died. Or at least retired. Hell, I wish he had retired. It would be better if he had retired. There would be some dignity in that at least. Instead of occasionally coming out of isolation to promote shit Terminator sequels, that he knows are shit. Maybe he needs the money to pour into his bloody Avatar project. You know, the thing with the blue guy. I know we’re all chomping at the bit to see the next, what is it now, five of those?
Before his effectual death as a film maker and in between gifting audiences the masterpieces that were Aliens and Terminator 2, Cameron made The Abyss. As a youngster I found this one hard to sit through. It is a long film, even the original theatrical cut. The extended version clocks up about three hours. There were a number of things that stopped me enjoying it as a kid, apart from the length and somewhat slow pace of the story telling. There was the female character ‘One Night’ who wears denim dungarees and a cowboy hat. The fuck would someone dress like that? She is still annoying. Also, we all know Michael Beihn is Hicks, the heroic colonial marine from Aliens, so what the fuck is he doing playing the bad guy all of a sudden? That didn’t sit well with me when I was a youngster. Of course, now, I recognize that Biehn’s portrayal of the unhinged Navy SEAL is one of the key ingredients and one of the best parts of the movie. The guy fucking kills it. He’s superb. His fight with Ed Harris is brilliant. Biehn should’ve got an OSCAR for that, as sure as Bill Paxton should’ve got one for his portrayal of Private W. Hudson. Whatever happened to Michael Biehn? I think he was too good to be generally recognised by the dumb masses as the great film star that he is. He’s not Robert Downey Junior after all.
Ed Harris is good as the dependable, working class hero. You get the feeling he wasn’t acting, that he was just being himself all the way through the film. His career went from strength to strength after this. I always thought the guy with the pet rat should’ve been played by Bill Paxton and I wonder why Cameron didn’t cast him instead. That’s not to say Todd Graff who took the part wasn’t good. The fact that the guy had this rat that he carried around in a polythene bag was a fun quirk of character, as well as allowing the audience to get a demonstration of how the liquid oxygen worked.
Cameron is well known for having strong female characters, and on this occasion he gave us Lindsay Brigman, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Whilst not quite an Ellen Ripley or a Sarah Conor, she isn’t bad at all. And she’s strong and smart in her own right without trying to out-man the men. Thank God it was Ed Harris and not her that undertook the virtual suicide mission to descend into the abyss and disarm the bomb in the end.
The Abyss is like a H G Wells science fiction story told through the medium of a no-bullshit, straight up, technically superior, manly movie, shot by a legend of the genre at the peak of his career. In the field of manly movies, Cameron, for me, is second perhaps only to John McTiernan. We didn’t know how good we had it in the 80s and early 90s, did we. Speaking of McTiernan, the great manly movie composer Alan Silvestri scored The Abyss and it shows. The soundtrack is reminiscent of his score from Predator, it also sounds a bit like James Horner’s Aliens score as well at times. Perfect.
Is The Abyss worth another look today? Most definitely. Is the extended version worth the time? Again, yes. They added a whole new dimension to the ending. I agree with the general consensus out there that the extra footage lifts the movie from the level of ‘good’ to ‘great.’ One of the things with the original cut was that nothing particularly climactic really happened at the end, or so I always thought. The restoration of the original ending fixes that problem. And while it’s not like The Terminator or Aliens in that it isn’t a film that you can watch a couple of times a year and still thoroughly enjoy, it is worth watching again every few years, or at least every decade. Let’s put it this way, The Abyss deserves to be seen by every generation, it’s a shame that more people don’t talk about it. It doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. When the next Avatar movie comes out, watch The Abyss instead, if you haven’t already re-watched it by then.
Perhaps another way to start this would have been to say… remember when the 20th Century Fox logo meant you were probably going to get something good? Just check out this old VHS trailer.