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From Under A Rock: The Abyss

April 8, 2017 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: The Abyss  


Not every film we pick here is a “favorite”, but it’s always something we respect or enjoy. As a direct response to Aaron picking 2001: A Space Odyssey, I wanted to pick this week’s film because there’s actually a few things that I found similar between them, visually speaking. BUT, in watching it, I rediscovered how much I liked it to begin with.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Aaron chose 2001: A Space Odyssey. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock to show him The Abyss (Special Edition).

The Abyss (Special Edition)
Released: August 9th, 1989
Directed by: James Cameron
Written by: James Cameron
Ed Harris as Virgil “Bud” Brigman
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Lindsey Brigman
Michael Biehn as US Navy SEAL Lieutenant Hiram Coffey
J.C. Quinn as Arliss “Sonny” Dawson

Michael Ornelas: So the specific thing that reminded me of 2001 was the part where Ed Harris is led by the alien to its ship, and we see the lights reflecting off his helmet. It’s a clear homage, but there’s a lot more to the comparison that probably won’t be discussed here. Just a cool little detail about it. Anyways, I’m rambling. Let’s get into the meat of discussion because I actually felt that this movie was incredible. It’s also worth noting that we watched the extended special director’s cut edition at the insistence of our commenters last week!

Aaron Hubbard: And man did it feel extended. I think I’m still watching it… but that’s okay, because I liked this movie quite a bit and it ranks pretty high for me among James Cameron’s work. Maybe at the top? I guess I’ll know for sure when we review T2.
Hey Technology: Keep Up!
Michael: I’m not the world’s biggest James Cameron fan, but no one can deny the greatness of his special effects use. He has pushed the limits of what we’re physically capable of with almost every movie he’s ever made since he broke out as a director. We saw it with Avatar, where he redefined what 3D can be in a film. We saw it with Titanic with the physical aspects of his sets. And the digital effects here in The Abyss are stunning for 1989. The anthropomorphized water was a make-or-break visual, depending on how well-realized it was, and it was knocked out of the park. I’m still wracking my brain over the scene where the rat was submerged underwater and managed to adapt and learn to breathe. The implosion of Lieutenant Coffey was one of the most satisfying moments in the movie and would not have been nearly as effective if it didn’t look as real as possible. Everything about this movie made the most of available technology and, in my opinion, showed those who saw it what we’re capable of doing in the movies.

Aaron: When I saw the water monster, I was really impressed for what I thought was a mid 1990’s CGI effect. When I realized this came out in 1989, I was floored. This effect is older than I am and still holds up as a cool effect, if not really believable. I can easily see how this paved the way for the effects in Terminator 2. I was also really impressed with the production design; the ships, the suits… there’s an impressive attention to detail. I also liked the design of the aliens; they stand out in the genre and were really cool to me.

Michael: Well the reason for the production design is because this movie largely shot below the surface of the water. James Cameron details the process in his autobiography, but the actors were miserable after months of working on a project that was 2 atmospheres deep. The pressure was genuinely causing them to become sick and apparently people would change “The Abyss” on the production board to say “The Abuse”. Also James Cameron almost drowned during filming. But this again harkens back to Cameron’s demands that technology be able to keep up with his filmmaking demands because he’s a perfectionist with a Kubrickian level of ambition.
Drowning at the Box Office
Aaron: The Abyss has a reputation for underperforming at the box office. Made on a roughly $70 million budget (inflated to approx. $135.5 in 2016), it only made about $54 million domestically ($104.5 in 2016). While its worldwide gross was about $90 million, that doesn’t add up to much, since films usually need to double their production budget to turn a profit. As I was watching the film, I enjoyed it, but I also couldn’t help thinking “I get why this fell flat.” It’s decidedly slow-moving and low key for a film with its budget. For a film that feels like it’s trying to be Arrival, James Cameron may have gone overboard. I certainly won’t say no to smart, thoughtful sci-fi, but the audience is a lot smaller than the blockbuster crowd.

Michael: I’m the type of person who feels that the movies I like should be the movies that everyone likes, because I have good tastes (at least, I certainly think so). So when a brilliant movie like this underperforms, while I “get it”, I really don’t. I understand what attracts audiences to theaters and that it’s constantly changing with the times, but this movie deserved more. I think, weirdly enough, this movie would have benefitted from a release during a period of war for our country. It’s anti-war message is almost falling on deaf ears if the message isn’t echoing a widespread, motivated opinion at the time (and I know we’ve always had military operations happening in our country, but there wasn’t really anything major in 1989).

Aaron: I’m on the fence about it. I certainly think The Abyss deserved more, but I think that it may actually fare better as an underappreciated gem. One of the most frustrating things for me as a critic is when people who really don’t have the attention span for these sort of movies go see it and then call them “boring”. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but it doesn’t instill me with confidence in the average filmgoer. I think Cameron certainly noticed, since his next film was T2 and the next big movie about a ship in water had a love story that would pull in the teenage girl and middle-aged couple demographics. So, yeah, in a way, I think we can blame this failure for some of Cameron’s worst tendencies.
Pulling No Punches
Michael: One of my biggest pet peeves in movies is when the drama feels manufactured or heightened in a contrived way. The Abyss takes the natural threat of war and uses it as a backdrop for all the movie’s themes and conflicts. War between nations, war between “the government” and civilians, emotional war between spouses, etc. War is filled with heartbreak and damaging, sometimes even devastating moments. This movie gave us those moments regularly. When Bud has to watch his crew members die through a window as they’re unable to cut the cord that will open the airlock, it’s devastating, but also brilliant filmmaking because it’s telling the audience that there is a way around this obstacle so that Bud can get himself freed from a similar situation moments later. When Bud and Lindsey only have gear for one of them to survive a swim back to the main ship, and Lindsey suggests letting her drown and reviving her on the other side…it’s extreme but she’s right in saying that there’s no other way. As a result, we’re forced to watch a riveting, yet heartbreaking scene as their revival seems to be unsuccessful for the longest time. This moment earns every high point it gives us as makes it so much more satisfying.

Aaron: The human moments really worked for me, which I didn’t really expect out of James Cameron. He can do effective human drama, but it often feels inauthentic and over the top. (Looking at you, Titanic.) But for most of the movie, I think he tows the line well. That said, the ending really fell flat for me and comes off as both preachy and saccharine. This is a situation where I think I would have preferred a downer ending.

Michael: It’s definitely hamfisted, but I didn’t mind the ending because it was a perfect resolution to the themes of the film. It could have been more subtle, but the result should have been the same. It’s the same thing with the portrayal of the Navy — it was definitely over-the-top as they were hyperaggressive, but it served the movie’s themes and I’m much more forgiving when that’s the case (hell, it’s why I enjoy Prometheus despite what appears (on the surface) to be an abundance of plotholes). I respect Cameron’s commitment to the story he was telling.

Aaron: I have mixed feelings on this; James Cameron has never done as much for me as he does for others. I think he is very good at coming up with a big idea and presenting a polished work, but either dumbs it down intentionally for a broad audience or just doesn’t know how to be subtle. That’s not the worst thing though. The Abyss is a highly effective thriller with a well-intentioned message and groundbreaking effects, and deserves more attention than it gets.


Michael: I didn’t expect this to hold up as well as it did from the first time I saw it, but this film is something special. James Cameron marries high technology with effective thematic human drama to create what very well may a contender for my favorite movie in his catalogue. Everyone knows that I’m in Camp Alien over Aliens, so this may just barely nudge that latter out. Don’t hold me to that though. The visuals, the characters, and the ambition in this movie holds it high in my opinion. I hope Cameron can get back to making something like this again instead of spending the rest of his career on blue aliens.


Aaron: I don’t even want to think about the Avatar sequels. That’s going to be a tough sell for me.

Michael: I have no clue how they’re going to succeed, but I’ll be watching closely to see what happens.

What movie has your favorite use of special effects?

Next week:

Aaron: Oh man. Guys, next week we are covering what just might be my favorite movie of all-time. I can’t wait.
Michael: This will actually be my first Kurosawa film, and I’m excited because the reputation of this movie already has me salivating at the thought of watching it. Hopefully I find it to be the masterpiece that so many others do.

Aaron: I’m actually a bit nervous to revisit this. It’s been about ten months since I first watched it, but it made such a huge impression on me.

Have you seen any of Akira Kurosawa’s films? What are your favorites?

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Aaron Has Another Column!
This week I took a look at Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the best movies ever made. Check it out here!

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Check me out here to see my star ratings for over 800 films. Recent reviews include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Evil Dead.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
The Abyss is a smart thriller with good human drama, big ideas, and incredible special effects. James Cameron pushes the boundaries of what can be filmed, and the production is as good as you can get in 1989. It's quieter and more thoughtful than his more recent work and worth diving into.