The Abyss (1989): The greatest Blu-Ray never made?

Recently director James Cameron stated that, now that preparation of the new Avatar movies is well under way and he has completed the scripts, he would have more time to concentrate on other things including the long awaited Blu-Ray release of True Lies and The Abyss. 

I have been a fan of Cameron’s work since my early teens. He was one of those directors that made the eighties so special – Lucas, Spielberg, Scott, McBride, McTiernan, Carpenter and many more. They were directors who kindled my imagination, they sowed the seeds of my cinephilia, men (for they all seemed to be men back in the ’80s) who made me excited about the flickering images on a large screen and made me want to know more about this most wonderful of art-forms. 

I first saw The Terminator when I was really too young to see it and to fully understand it but I loved the action, loved the stone faced bad guy who later became known to me as Arnold Schwarzenegger, had a secret crush on Linda Hamilton who was far too old for me (which may have been part of the attraction). In later years I re-watched it and enjoyed it even more – loving the use of time travel and I probably crapped myself thinking that such a thing could happen. The Terminator was 2001’s HAL dialed up to 11 and people still discuss the possibilities of it happening today – Stephen Hawking has recently raised the specter of Artificial Intelligence taking over the world and destroying humanity.

Around about the same time I saw Cameron’s sequel to the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien. Aliens became one of my favourite films and still is.

Aliens taught me what to expect from a modern action film, lessons which I continue to judge other films by over 30 years later. The secret is simple – introduce the story through characters and not just through exposition. In fact, Cameron seemed to think that character and exposition are the same thing. The tension was cranked up slowly but not leisurely. There was so much going on, wonderful characters to meet, technology to explore, emotions to feel, before we even get sight of an Alien. And when we did – wow! The action is supreme and what sets it apart from so many other films is that when one of the characters is killed by an Alien we feel it personally. We have spent time with these people and we really like them so, when they meet their end we, as an audience lose something too. 

This is also true of the first James Cameron film I saw in the cinema – The Abyss, released in 1989. I was seventeen when I witnessed the breathtaking spectacle of The Abyss. Although I don’t think it was marketed particularly well, its campaign concentrating more on the difficulty of making the film than on the film itself, I was excited from day one. Firstly, I would watch James Cameron film a game of tiddlywinks and secondly, it looked spectacular.

The story was great and, at the time, very pertinent. A nuclear submarine crashes near the Mariana Trench after coming into contact with an unidentified underwater object and a group of workers on an underwater oil drilling platform, The Benthic Explorer, are commandeered into helping the SEALs with the rescue mission. Like Aliens, this motley crew is made up of real, believable and, despite their faults, likable characters. We even end up liking the ‘queen bitch of the universe’ Lindsey, perfectly played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Her relationship with her ex-husband Bud (Ed Harris) may not be the most original, but it feels real. There is both love and resentment there. In fact, the characters are so well drawn out that, in one memorable scene, we even have empathy with a rat!

When the aliens turn up the film takes us in completely the opposite direction to Aliens. They are beautiful and you can’t help but gasp at them. They are not violent, they are NTIs (Non Terrestrial Intelligences) which want to share this planet with us and are threatened by us. In this respect the film mirrors one of my favourite Sci-Fi films, The Day the Earth Stood Still.  

The tension in The Abyss does not however stem from the encounters with Aliens. Instead it comes from the characters themselves. The leader of the SEALs, Lt. Coffey, soon develops symptoms of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, a neurological and physiological disorder that can sometimes affect divers who descend below 500 feet. This, coupled with the pressure of his job and the possibility that the unidentified object which caused the submarine crash may be Russian (this was the height of the cold war after all), fills him with paranoia. He receives orders from his superiors topside to take one of the nuclear warheads off the stricken submarine and take it on board the Benthic Explorer. This is revealed to the crew by the aliens themselves.  Coffey becomes increasingly paranoid and  stressed, the pressure on the crew becomes more urgent. This is coupled with a fearsome storm and worsening political crisis topside making the whole adventure a matter of live and death, not just for those under the sea, but for the whole planet. 

The special effects in The Abyss are indeed special. This was a time when CGI was in its very infancy and here we were presented with its true potential for the first time. It had been used previously in films such as Willow and Young Sherlock Holmes, but I think this is the first time it was used in a way that was completely new and revelatory. As the column of water rises from the pool and makes its way through the explorer, we are seeing CGI as a character for the very first time and it gives us a glimpse of the awe we will feel four years later in Jurassic Park. 

The ending of the original released version didn’t make a lot of sense. It seemed abrupt, as if something was missing. In 1992 we were given another version, almost 30 minutes longer. It fleshed out the characters further, added a few small scenes throughout and transformed the ending. All of a sudden it didn’t just make more sense, it was an overwhelming experience.

The performances are outstanding with one scene above all showcasing the superiority of the writing and the skill of the actors. Lindsey has drowned, Bud carries her onto the rig, the situation is lost. Bud’s emotions swing from determination to resignation to downright hostility at the possibility of death. ‘Goddammit, you bitch! You never backed away from anything in your life. Now fight!’. It is a stellar performance especially considering that, when he was saying these lines, they were delivered directly into the camera and not to a fellow actor.  

Apparently Cameron was particularly hard on Mastrantonio, making her do take after take for this scene, lying on a cold hard floor for hours, her breasts exposed to the world, until finally, having been told that the camera was broke and she would have to redo her takes, she had enough and stormed off the set. I would never condone this treatment of actors but it must be said that Mastrantonio’s performance is brilliant. 

The film was beset with problems; issues with the water tanks, the tarp that kept the tank in darkness ripped which meant filming had to be done throughout the night to ensure no ambient light lit up the water, the main tank wasn’t ready on the first day of filming leading to delays from day one and, at one point, Ed Harris panicked whilst doing a solo swim without any oxygen. Apparently he later punched Cameron and has refused to speak of the film since with the exception of the film’s feature length making of documentary, aptly titled Under Pressure: Making The Abyss in which he breaks down when recounting the arduous shoot. And these just touch the surface (pun intended) of what went wrong. 

In the end The Abyss was not a success. Having cost a then whopping $65 million to make, its worldwide gross was only $90 million, but it has accumulated a very loyal following over the last 28 years. The fact that people are still aware of it after so many years is testament to the power of cinephiles around the world. Just like Blade Runner which was also a flop on its initial release but has since become a classic (and has spawned a sequel), Cinephiles have kept the flame burning.  

So why is there no HD version of The Abyss?  

Rumours have been circling for many years now and multiple dates have been mooted, but as of yet, nothing. There is an appetite for it. We want to see it, to experience it in a format that The Abyss would look perfect in. There are many films that get an HD release without it adding a great deal to the viewing experience but this would not be the case with The Abyss. The film was made for HD. We want the commentary track, the extras, the behind the scenes stuff, the artwork, the Special Edition cut. We want to see Mikael Salomon’s cinematography in all its glory. If there was ever a film that Blu-Ray special editions were made for, it’s this. 

There has been no official confirmation yet, just an answer to a question, but it is the most solid indication we have had for years. 

There is no doubt that The Abyss is deserving of the very best home video release possible. I have seen it twice in the cinema, first in the original cut, then the director’s cut. Both reveal an extraordinary talent from one of the greatest visionaries cinema has ever known. Please Mr Cameron, don’t keep us waiting any longer!