The Abyss is an Underrated Masterpiece and James Cameron’s Best Film

Structurally perfect, philosophically inspiring and visually brilliant, The Abyss (J. Cameron, 1989; DP M. Salomon) arguably owes its existence to the major box office success enjoyed by James Cameron’s previous two films, The Terminator and Aliens.

While The Terminator and Aliens were richly infused with Cameron’s characteristic cinematic genius, The Abyss had additional significance for Cameron: in the DVD extras he stated that his purpose was to make the oceanic equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey – a standard that he met and arguably exceeded. With its combination of James Cameron’s three great passions – filmmaking, underwater exploration and science/engineering – The Abyss is perhaps the most Cameronian of his films.

Structurally perfect

The Abyss is a structurally perfect film. The setup could scarcely be more compelling: a charismatic, estranged couple find themselves trapped in an underwater facility at the bottom of the ocean a few yards away from the edge of an abyssal trench while unidentified creatures make sorties in the vicinity and a Navy SEAL in the thrall of high-pressure nervous syndrome commandeers a nuclear weapon. It all amounts to an exquisitely tense premise that leads to the conclusion with a sense of satisfying inevitability.

The subsequent plot development and escalation of jeopardy that takes us to the climactic scene is classic James Cameron and the combination of love story, action, thriller and sci-fi narrative elements makes this film particularly rich and epic in scope.

The original director’s cut included a hefty subplot in which the aliens create a gigantic tidal wave capable of destroying civilization. The rather sanctimonious idea underlying this threat is that, since the human race has both the capability and propensity to perpetrate mass destruction, the aliens have the moral authority to wipe us out and save us the trouble. It’s not terribly persuasive, but more importantly for the structural integrity of the film, the subplot constituted a major narrative incongruity that disrupted the film’s tonal consistency, because it repeatedly took us away from the deep dark ocean and back to dry land, breaking the sense of tense claustrophobia and impeccable pacing that Cameron so masterfully crafted in the first half of the film. The tsunami subplot is a cumbersome, uninteresting and counter-productive distraction; its removal was a sound decision.

Visually convincing

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Lindsey Brigman in James Cameron's The Abyss
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Lindsey Brigman in James Cameron’s Abyss. Note the blue-pink-yellow colour palette.

James Cameron cut no corners in the production of The Abyss. The film is set underwater, and underwater it was filmed, in a nuclear reactor filled with 7.5 million gallons of water and topped with black plastic beads to simulate the darkness of the deep ocean. Specially designed fully working helmets were developed for the film, enabling the filming of synchronised dialogue underwater for the first time in history.

The cast and crew spent many exhausting hours underwater, and Cameron himself nearly lost his life when he ran out of oxygen at the bottom of the main tank, forcing him to ditch his gear and swim 35 vertical feet back to the surface without fins. His ascent was further complicated by a rescue diver who grabbed Cameron and attempted to force him to breathe from a spare regulator that, unbeknownst to him, was broken and offered water instead of air. As one of the characters says in the film, “I give this a sphincter factor of 9.5.”

By all accounts it was a gruelling shoot — perhaps the most difficult shoot in filmmaking history — but the exceptional effort entailed by the underwater filming yielded an exceedingly convincing look that could never have been mimicked with special effects.

Effective use of CGI

Pseudopod (water tentacle) scene from James Cameron's The Abyss
Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) in the pseudopod (water tentacle) scene.

The one conspicuous instance of CGI in The Abyss is the pseudopod (water tentacle) scene. This was ground-breaking CGI at the time and I have always appreciated the limited and effective use of computer-generated images in this film. There are plenty of special visual effects in The Abyss and it even won the Academy Award in that category, but they are always unobtrusive and seamlessly blended with the live action. By contrast, Hollywood’s current offering is so congested with sterile CGI that it looks more like a videogame than cinema. On the topic of Academy Awards, I find it scandalous that James Cameron wasn’t given the Best Director award for his visionary direction of The Abyss.

James Cameron’s best love story

The Abyss is at least as much a love story as it is a sci-fi / action film. At the beginning of the film Bud and Lindsey are estranged — always a very compelling premise for onscreen couples — but it soon becomes clear that, despite the difficulties, they are still very much in love. The ordeal of the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves rekindles their relationship and the happy ending feels hard-earned and convincing rather than trite. The chemistry between Bud and Lindsey makes a major contribution to the film’s narrative fabric and all in all, they are one of the most convincing couples in film history and by far James Cameron’s best romantic pairing.

Endearing, plausible undersea aliens

Bud Brigman with an NTI in James Cameron's The Abyss
Bud is taken to the alien ark by an NTI.

The NTIs (non-terrestrial intelligence) in The Abyss are morphologically convincing and really rather beautiful. A key ingredient of James Cameron’s success is his ability to blend seamlessly the sci-fi elements of his stories with real science in such a way that the viewer cannot quite tell where the science ends and sci-fi begins. This principle was applied to the design of the aliens in The Abyss: they are clearly extraterrestrial creatures, but their bioluminescence exists on Earth and their biomechanics are plausible enough to induce the requisite suspension of disbelief. They are cute and their colour joins with the deep blue of the ocean to form an inspiring and narratively appropriate colour scheme.

Adorable crew

One Night, the submersible pilot in James Cameron's The Abyss
Kimberly Scott as Lisa “One Night” Standing.

As with Aliens, Cameron enriched The Abyss with a diverse cast of characters with whom we feel some measure of connection. There is Bud Brigman, in charge of the oil rig crew and a natural leader; his wife Lindsey, the committed engineer who designed the undersea oil rig; Hippy, the paranoid techie who keeps a rat as a pet; Catfish, whose “hammer” fist comes in handy in a confrontation; One Night, the skilled submersible pilot who won’t take any nonsense; and Lt. Coffey, the Navy SEAL who succumbs to pressure-induced psychosis. Cameron clearly couldn’t resist slipping in some nominative determinism when he decided to call the rig leader Brigman and the psychotic officer Coffey.

Mesmerising cinematography

Lindsey turns and sees the NTIs. Note how the helmet design makes for a dramatic revelation of her face as she turns.

The cinematography in The Abyss is truly superb. The colour palette is dominated by an austere blue, which is entirely consistent with what you would see with artificial lights in the total darkness 2000 feet below sea level.  The underwater scenes were filmed with 35mm cameras encased in specially designed housing, which made the underwater scenes utterly convincing and immersive. Some contemporary rip-off productions shot their underwater scenes in a studio and used smoke to mimic the underwater look, resulting in a far less convincing underwater setting.

The Abyss is the One

Bud Brigman about to dive into the Cayman Trench in James Cameron's The Abyss
Bud is about to dive into the abyssal trench in an act of sublime altruism — arguably the most poignant shot in the film.

Cameron succeeded in making a film that is by turns thrilling, visually arresting, emotionally poignant and thought-provoking, all of which combines to engender a powerful sense of wonder that has helped the film age very well indeed. Picking a favourite film is an arduous task often compared to choosing a favourite child from one’s brood. If I had to decamp to a desert island with just one movie in my survival bag, The Abyss would be the one.

3 Replies to “The Abyss is an Underrated Masterpiece and James Cameron’s Best Film”

  1. I agree that The Abyss is an underrated masterpiece. It has a little of everything: location, extreme tension, romance, aliens, military, raging storms, psychosis, and even a nuclear bomb. And a good measure of wonder. (I LOVE films with wonder.) But it all holds together so beautifully and ultimately satisfies. The Lindsey drowning scene is unforgettable.

    I can’t resist mentioning another film that has “a little bit of everything” but also is very satisfying: The Fifth Element, one of my favorites, mostly for its humor, something that makes only a rare appearance in The Abyss.

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