James Cameron is, arguably, the greatest cinematic export Canada has ever produced. To those dismayed at my previous statement, I say this from a purely cumulative perspective, as it becomes all the more difficult to dispute when one considers his significant contributions to the field of cinema, numerous Academy Awards and nominations, as well as writing, directing and producing the two highest grossing films of all time.
As such, it can be easy to forget a Cameron film like The Abyss, which failed to smash the box office, or feature a murderous time-travelling cyborg. Yet, by no means should it be missed. Putting aside its inconsistencies, that are more gaping than the usual James Cameron feature, it is also a well-made, thought-provoking science fiction film that generates as much tension as it does spectacle.
The story begins with the inexplicable crash of a US nuclear submarine, which leads to the military enlisting a group of oil rig workers, led by Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris), who must use their underwater facility, developed by Bud’s estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), to take a group of Navy Seals to the place of the crash. While inspecting the site, the crew encounter a totally unexpected phenomenon.
The Abyss can be considered a culmination of Cameron’s entire filmography, even entries that have succeeded it in the years since. There is the science fiction element of The Terminator, mixed with the metallic claustrophobia of Aliens, a dash of True Lies’ blatantly incredulous set-pieces, and a light pinch of Avatar’s humanitarian subtext. Hell, there is even a compelling romance, a la Titanic, thrown in for good dramatic measure. What all these films have in common though, The Abyss included, is that they all bear Cameron’s trademark for high concept blockbuster cinema and envelope-pushing special effects.
In fact, 5 of Cameron’s 8 feature films have won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, with the The Abyss being one of them. And it is easy to see why.
Even by today’s standards, The Abyss is a spectacle to behold. When its digital effects might feel inevitably outdated (while still being ahead of its time), its set design and practical effects are still executed to jaw-dropping effect. Awe then gives way to a tremendous sense of wonder, as it is near impossible to conceive how Cameron even managed to capture such footage…and just how much of a nightmare it must have been to execute.
It is a shame, then, that some of The Abyss’ secondary characters are neither as fully-realised as its special effects, nor as deep as the ocean in which they become trapped. One such character named Catfish (because, of course), is a Vietnam veteran who calls his fist “the Hammer,” for obvious reasons. Yet, aside from an unwavering loyalty to Bud and a charismatic performance from actor Leo Burmester, the greatest insight Cameron offers into Catfish’s character is proving that his fist lives up to its name.
If that wasn’t enough, you have the pessimistic conspiracy theorist nicknamed “Hippy,” the submersible pilot named Lisa “One Night” Standing, and…well, you get the picture. Thankfully, there is considerable menace to be found in Lieutenant Coffey, whose villainous framing by Cameron is enriched by a surprisingly unhinged turn from the filmmaker’s usual go-to good guy, Michael Biehn.
In spite of my inability to fully empathise with the supporting cast, Cameron’s mastery of mood and tension is enough to compensate for this particular shortcoming, as he can still make my hands clammy with effective cinematography and pacing. Of course, another reason for this is because the only two characters put in any sort of credible danger are Bud and Lindsey, proving that even Cameron is aware that they are the only people who he really makes us care about.
There is a caveat with the more suspenseful moments too though, as The Abyss brings new meaning to the term ‘suspension of disbelief,’ even for your average Cameron feature.
One could usually forgive the lapses in logic and all-round common sense, as we tend to do with blockbuster cinema, except Cameron insists on inserting what appears to be real-world science, until the filmmaker cavalierly brushes off these established structures, opting to prioritise high concept vision over rudimentary consistency. But again, the visuals are so striking that this is nothing more than a minor distraction from the intense action at hand, eluding that damning sense of disconnect that would otherwise hamper a lesser filmmaker.
Thus, while this is very much the same fare we have come to expect from James Cameron over the years, The Abyss allows greater logical concessions than is typical in his pursuit of pure cinematics, even when compared to True Lies. Although, The Abyss is still a better film because of its substance, rooted in the tumultuously affective relationship between its lead characters, and an optimistic rendering of humanity’s first encounter with another intelligent species. It is another firm reminder that Cameron’s films are far from bombastic in nature, and that the blockbuster need not be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, for they can signify so much more.