I’ve been patiently waiting for The Abyss (1989) to make itself available to me. I’ve known very little about it beyond the ground-break special effects that are mentioned in dozens of articles, it’s hard not to know of it’s milestone. Part of the long development that sees the special effects heavy films today. Bringing us to the point of the uncanny valley in more recent films. Audiences are beginning to question more and more what they are seeing. I was questioning just what was real and carefully constructed yet quite simplistic effects shots in tonight’s film. They may have dated slightly but still have the power to leave you in complete awe. It’s not all about the special effects, or even the build up to the water mimicking scene that made little sense out of context of the whole film. They do play a pivotal role in bringing the world alive but we see very little of the special effects wizardry until the final act. The pay off is more than worth it, even when the film is close to 30 years old.
Anyways enough of all that and onto the film itself. We are still in the midst of the cold war. The Berlin Wall is still very much in tact, but as history tells us, cracks are beginning to show. A nuclear submarine in an undisclosed ocean is tracking an unknown large mass that is closing in on them. The audience knows it’s not a Russian sub closing in on range, the fact we can’t see what is coming we know it’s far bigger than has ever been imagined. Our expectations are being set up for the unimaginable. The explained mass does enough damage that it brings the sub to its demise, giving us a reason to explore, wonder and be drawn into something we have never even imagined.
The team that are dragged it to mount a search and rescue mission remind me of the working crew on board the space merchant vessel in Alien (1979). Working class men and women who just want to do their job and get paid without any hidden surprises. Could this be James Cameron ‘s take on the sci-fi horror he made a sequel to which blows the other out of the water. The mining crew maybe still on earth, however surrounded by water, space in liquid form, just as cold and deadly. The first act borrows heavily from Ridley Scott’s Alien as the crew leave to investigate (after dragging the under-water drilling base with them. Led by a small team of navy seals who bring them the “iron b****” Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who we learn is the estranged wife (in the process of divorcing) base leader Virgil (Ed Harris) who would rather she not be anywhere near him. She brings with tension, not sexual but friction that a warring couple who despise each other. You can see why they need to separate. Add to that she’s not the girl to fall in love, instead she bring power in the form of knowledge, she designed this monstrosity where men and women live and work away from the rest of the world. It’s refreshing to see a strong woman in a lead role, even if she starts off as being feared, she gels with the team.
The underwater world that’s created (as Cameron explains) is a brave move, filmed in water tanks, a very complex and brave move for any filmmaker. You really believe that are hundreds of metres below the water making the whole world more believable. He’s an accomplished world builder (even if he’s now got major tunnel vision) he creates and deliver’s big, there are no half measures with this guy. The structure that the crew live and work on, you never fully see it on-screen, always from an angle to suggest it’s far larger than the design department could have ever achieved. You have to remember this is nearly a decade before Titanic (1997) where a full-scale replica was built, just to play with in his film and sink again. Combined with special effects, far more advanced than The Abyss we can see the lengths he really goes to, if only his budget would allow.
I have to return to the special effects that are slowly dangled in front of us when we first glimpse the alien life form, even just as light, there’s something else going on. We’re being teased all the time. Even the guy who first witnesses them is brought back in a seizure induced coma just to keep us wanting more. It’s only when Lindsey herself discovers the jellyfish like creature who acts like a probe for the larger vessel that’s related those found in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Perfectly suited aliens in the watery depths, the design engineer reaches out in innocent friendship and wonder, wanting to connect peacefully to the unknown presence before her. Whilst Navy seal leader Lt Coffey (Michael Biehn) has no intentions of meeting with the outer-space jellyfish, wanting to using a trident missile to destroy the wreck. Not caring for the implications. Even after we are all given a lesson in these nuclear deterrents that to this day circle the British Isles – apparently 5 times as powerful as the bomb dropped in Hiroshima. The image of potential danger is too dangerous to even imagine.
Beginning not a cold but civil war between the teams that joined up in hopes of retrieving and investigating, start not to trust one another. As the Seals – Coffey doesn’t want to accept the evidence of something being out there. He’s to carry out his one man mission of destruction. A seal that’s gone AWOL that has to be stopped at all costs, leading to a tense underwater chase in subversive’s, easily replacing cars or even space shuttles. He’s the rogue element in what was supposed to be a domestic search and rescue. We get close to this potential only to be rewarded with great spectacle that heavily references 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) what director can’t help but indulge in a homage, all be it underwater, relying more on a computer that for Kubrick never even existed. Only to think that this was the height of the spectacle we are blown literally out of the water, wondering again, just how does Cameron do it, by the end he’s just showing off saying, this is what we can do now, or this is what I can do, I’ll let you decide that.
The Abyss really blew me out of the water (pardon the pun), whatever expectations I had for the special effects – which do make this film work. Without them it couldn’t happen. As much as the director is clearly showing off, he speculates and dreams all the time. From the aliens that looks like gentle jellyfish to the amniotic fluid that allows you to dive deeper than was humanly possible. All set against a Cold War world that’s beginning to thaw. The infighting doesn’t pull them apart, instead it brings them closer together. All I want to know now it how the hell he achieved all this.