The Abyss (1989)

Directed by James Cameron

Despite a movie like Titanic, James Cameron is essentially a director of old school science fiction. When I say “old school science fiction” I don’t mean science fiction movies of the 1950’s or early 60’s. I mean old school science fiction books, like a Robert A. Heinlein for instance or the John W. Campbell Astounding Stories kind. His movies, like The Abyss, have all the strengths and weaknesses of those kinds of stories.

Of course, being movies they can’t get into the detailed scientific explanations of those stories but he certainly jumps through every hoop putting his ideas on screen visually.

He has a fascination with technology. He has a passion for science fiction’s, “what if …?”

But like those old science fiction stories, while he slam dunks the technological aspects of his stories, he falls short on the human aspects of them. His characters tend to be caricatures who muddle through a variety of worn clichés.

One of Cameron’s fascinations is with water – oceans, to be more specific and the mysteries of them. Before Titanic, there was The Abyss, a movie that is a marvel to watch despite a forgettable storyline.

In terms of feel, The Abyss is something like Independence Day though a muted version. The similarity has to do with the action-adventure aspect of the film and the kinds of characters it employs (caricatures). But unlike Independence Day, Cameron’s The Abyss is obsessed with the credibility of its scenes. He doesn’t give you images simply for their visual value. He insists on their being believable extrapolations of something that is scientifically true. (This is the root of real science fiction, as opposed to something like space fantasy.)

The story: an American nuclear submarine encounters something unexplained and as a result sinks to an almost impossible depth. In order to recover it, or at least discover an explanation for the sinking and to secure its nuclear weapons, an experimental underwater oil rig (and crew) capable of going to unheard of depths is enlisted by the government (the military). Above water, a crisis is developing as the Soviet government is believed to be behind the sinking though there is no clear evidence of this and the Russians deny involvement.

With some tagalong Navy Seals, the crew goes after the sub. While at a great depth, they discover the mysterious “something.” It proves to be non-terrestrial beings (NTIs – non-terrestrial intelligence). They exist at the deepest parts of the ocean because, it is believed, this most resembles the pressure and other conditions of the planet from which they come.

There are numerous complications, of course, as the vast majority of the film transpires underwater and the film moves to its resolution. There are good guys and bad guys and a troubled relationship between the lead characters who love each other and yet can’t stand one another.

Though the special edition version of the film is long (171 minutes) it really doesn’t drag too often. The film is visually stunning and a tremendous testament to determination and tenacity.

In the end, we come away with a sense of, “Wow, that was neat!” We also feel we’ve had a tremendous action-adventure experience. But the film also feels like a confection, something that doesn’t linger.

On another note, it’s interesting to see the treatment of the aliens in The Abyss. It shares the period look of the aliens Steven Spielberg introduced in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: the Extra-terrestrial – the elongated, thin body frame and numerous lights (the diffused, soft-focus look). The look aside, what is really worth noting is the film’s attitude toward aliens. Similar to those other films of the period, they are seen as friendly and probably more advanced than we are, not just technically but morally as well. They have a wisdom the human race lacks.

Compare this to the contemporary attitude seen in such films as Alien or the Rick Berman version of Star Trek (i.e., the latest offering, Enterprise or movies like Nemesis) where the aliens are warlike, aggressive and either gooey (like Alien) or bumpy with outrageous acne (like Star Trek). It’s the difference between being optimistic about the future and being pessimistic. The 1960’s and 1970’s future epitomized by people like Gene Roddenberry is clearly kaput today.

Of course, that is just Hollywood’s take and Hollywood has never been a credible source for anything.

DVD note:

Released in 2000 I believe, The Abyss – Special Edition was and remains a fabulous DVD. As a two-disc package, at the time it was a standard setting presentation given all the material it included: the special edition version of the film (171 minutes), the theatrical version, text commentary of sorts, and a second disc of documentaries, script, storyboards and heaven knows what else. It is jam packed with material.

Much of the special material is focused on the technical aspects of making the movie which reflects where Cameron’s interests really lie. Also note that while the film is letter-boxed, it is a non-anamorphic presentation. The film’s look is generally clean though it is not quite a pristine transfer.

1 Response

  1. says:

    And I was just woniderng about that too!

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