Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Abyss (Special Edition)


I saw a documentary of the making of this movie, and I was enough to give me the willies. There was more underwater shooting than in any previous movie, and it was dangerous, tedious (as all movie-making is, but this was more), and most of all, uncomfortable. Much of it was shot in a gigantic tank that was deep enough that some decompression time was needed if you were going to come out, and to avoid that, James Cameron and some of the others learned to sleep in their wetsuits and helmets. I can’t imagine that, but then I have a phobia of getting my head underwater, which is why at age 65 I can’t swim.

The sets were massive, the models were huge, and the interiors on sound stages were cramped and hard to shoot in. I kept wondering why, if someone was building this big underwater habitat, they would make all the ceilings about five feet eight inches high. (Naturally I would wonder that, since I’m six foot five. I would take two steps in any direction and knock myself senseless.) But I understand it was for cinematic purposes, to make the environment claustrophobic.

The special effects and mechanicals are all you would expect from a movie by James Cameron, who has made a multi-billion-dollar career from SFX movies. It includes an early example of CGI, which was still in its infancy in 1989. But most of it was plain old-fashioned big stuff, and camera opticals.

So the production is fabulous in every way. The story, a bit less so. We saw the DVD special edition, which added about thirty minutes to come in at almost three hours. I think it worked a little better than the original, but there was still a conflict that I don’t think is resolvable. There are really three stories here, and they don’t all fit comfortably with each other.

There is the tale of a crew of blue-collar oil workers getting into big trouble trying to investigate the destruction of a nuclear sub. There is the story of a Navy Seal who is going crazy from pressure sickness, determined to set off a nuke, which would start World War III. (There is actually another related story that takes place almost entirely off-screen, of rising world tensions.) And there is the story of alien creatures from a high-pressure planet who have been living undetected in a deep trench for some time.

The aliens are introduced, though not seen, quite early, and in fact are the inadvertent cause of the sub disaster. And I know precisely what Cameron was going for here: He wanted a Steven Spielberg moment. You know, like in E.T., or even more in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We meet aliens, and they are not hostile, and we are awed. Not only awed, but we approach them with shit-eating grins on our faces. We reach out to touch something, like the ape and the spaceman in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is essentially a religious moment, like being baptized in the river or born again, or re-born, or whatever Christians believe in. All these scenes are here, as well as the ethereal creatures composed mostly of over-exposed light, sometimes almost slavishly reproduced. It felt like I had already seen it all before. Several times. Now, this is not an awful flaw, but I never felt the stories really come together. Part of it was a rip-roaring adventure tale, full of perils you never even thought of, and including startling ideas like intentionally letting a woman drown so you could tow her to safety and then revive her, or going to the depths of the ocean breathing an oxygenated liquid (which I still don’t know if it’s just a pipe dream, or has really been done). I loved all that. And then the aliens provide a deus ex machina and save everybody’s bacon, after first giving us an awesome and terrifying display of their power with mile-high tsunamis made to order and then called back. So it’s all great to watch, but it left me feeling strangely empty.