Unless you’re Titanic, one of the first two Terminators, or Avatar, being part of James Cameron’s film catalogue leaves you in a tough old place. Released in 1989, the Abyss is one poor individual cursed to be amongst this talented Canadian director’s film credits. Typically radical and, to this day, quite startlingly inventive watch, it’s another one of those water films that Cameron seems to love and, although it’s heading for 30 years of age, it’s a gem!
Having watched this first as a kid, we’ve been quite awe-stricken by it ever since due to its rather unique setting and alien concepts. It’s essentially a film which promotes environmentalism and acts as a, rather obvious, criticism of the Cold War and the tensions between warring superpowers America and the USSR. The film also wasn’t much of a hit, barely making its money back (although it was Oscar nominated) at a point when Cameron wasn’t quite the household name. Let’s dive on in!
Okay, so the inventive plot involves an oil crew (headed by Virgil “Bud” Brigman – Ed Harris on excellent form, as always) working deep underwater who, inadvertently, end up involved in a search and recovery mission for an American submarine which has crashed nearby. An expert SEAL team is sent down to the team, who believe the Russians have gunned it down, but everyone finds something rather mysterious going on once it emerges the submarine was carrying a nuclear weapon.
James Cameron is, of course, famous for his action films and this was his follow up to the much revered Aliens from 1986. Whilst the Abyss doesn’t quite reach those heights, it’s a mighty fine effort all the same and features excellent (if not exceptional) performances all round. To shoot the Abyss, Cameron located two abandoned nuclear bunkers in California and filled them with over seven million gallons of water (preferring a controlled environment over shooting at sea, which he’d initially hoped to do), trained the cast, and then began principal photography. His thoughts below!
Cameron’s films typically feature strong female characters (Linda Hamilton from the two Terminator films, Ripley and Vasquez in Aliens, Neytiri in Avatar etc.) and the Abyss is no different. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (an actress who hit the big time in the late ’80s, but disappeared for 20 years – she’s recently made a comeback in some top Netflix shows) stars as Dr. Lindsey Brigman and is forthright, smart, and confident.
We mention this as it’s an unusual (in a good way) film in many aspects, but for the time was famous for its use of CGI (which in 1989 was pretty much unheard of) alongside the practical effects. Almost 30 years later, it stands as a distinctive high concept film which Hollywood really could do with creating more of, rather than relying on an endless series of superhero movies. Do yourselves a favour and get it watched!
The Making Of
Incidentally, the Making Of documentary (available on YouTube – the first part is above, if you’re interested) is makes for pretty riveting viewing as well. A decade after this film, another famous director, one George Lucas, set up a series of green screens and filmed the terrible Star Wars: Phantom Menace whilst slouched in his directorial chair. Infamously, he went entirely unchallenged during the production of the film and surrounded himself with Yes Men and relentless, never-ending, perpetual CGI which has since aged badly.
Cut to an exceptional film maker in 1988 and you have James Cameron, who went out and found those two nuclear bunkers, crammed them full of water, and forced everyone involved (including himself, naturally) to endure what must have been a pretty dangerous, as well as laborious, film shoot. If you check quotes from the shoot, Harris and Mastrantonio have described the experience as pretty torrid. Michael Biehn also commented on Cameron’s notoriously meticulous directing style – whilst ten metres underwater…
Suddenly the lights went out. It was so black I couldn't see my hand. I couldn't surface. I realised I might not get out of there.
Harris also recalls the cast and crew, in sheer frustration and boredom due to shooting delays, punching walls and getting rather infuriated. So it’s not all a lark being an actor then, particularly on a James Cameron shoot, but what it will do is likely land you in an iconic film which decades down the line is considered a cult classic. Worth the effort, we thinks.
Addendum: Michael Biehn
Finally, we have to mention this actor as it’s really weird what happened to him after enjoying an incredible run in the 1980s. With his good looks and excellent acting chops, lining up in the Terminator, Aliens, and then the Abyss (for which the crew lobbied hard for him to be Oscar-nominated, to no avail) you’d think he’d have gone on to star in endless other classic films.
Sadly not. Unless you research him, it’s almost as if Biehn dropped out of existence from 1989 onward. He’s actually starred in plenty of other films, such as the underrated K2 (1991) and popular Tombstone (1992). You’d think three massive star-turning performances like his Cameron roles would be enough for a steady career, but for some reason it didn’t work out for him.
It’s a big shame, as he’s terrific in the Terminator as the highly intense, agitated Kyle Reese. This was matched in Aliens, where he’s the impossibly cool and heroic Corporal Hicks. Whilst these were military roles, which he takes up again as Lieutenant Coffey in the Abyss, his uptight character’s descent into psychosis, due to high-pressure nervous syndrome, is riveting to watch.