James Cameron is an unusual director, in many ways, and The Abyss underscores this quite keenly. Despite the fact Cameron has made some of the biggest motion pictures of the last almost four decades, you consistently still feel the pull of his Roger Corman-training, his B-picture origins on movies such as Pirahna after spending years as a Corman student, helping put together his beloved but schlocky contributions to cinematic history.
Cameron took plenty of those lessons, those touchstones, and threw them into his movies across the 1980’s & 1990’s with such arrogant bravura, such relentless chutzpah, that he crafted movies which by all accounts probably shouldn’t have been as critically successful as they were. The Terminator in 1984 is a B-movie with the style, smarts and cutting wit to rise above its origins, while Aliens saw Cameron perhaps at his egotistical directorial best, remarkably for only his third picture. The Abyss feels like his first attempt to make a film which can’t be defined, clearly, as a James Cameron movie, and it’s probably why it’s amongst the worst of his efforts.
What makes a James Cameron movie? Granted, many of his films have existed in different decades and in completely different and unique worlds; the washed out, fatalism of the first two Terminator films, the dark and cynical future he presented in Aliens, through to the tragic romance and austere glamour of Titanic. All of those films share common themes and cinematic styles, nonetheless. Every single one has a sense of scale and import unique to a filmmaker like Cameron, a director who builds his pictures around some level of grandeur and spectacle – he wants you to feel like you’ve had an experience in the cinema, that you’ve encountered a visceral, often alien (using the term broadly) world he has constructed, from design through to visuals.
Not only that, Cameron is keenly obsessed with the culture clash of blue-collar workers and the corporate ‘man’. It’s all over his work. Ripley and her crew being stymied by Paul Reiser’s futuristic Weyland-Yutani suit in Aliens, which on some level he repeats when entering the future once more in Avatar, making a military-industrial complex the source of villainy; Sarah Connor was a waitress in The Terminator and time-travelling Kyle Reese looked every inch the vagrant, and by the sequel Judgment Day, Sarah fights back against Miles Dyson and the corporate arrogance of Cyberdine. You even find these class gaps in Titanic, with impoverished painter Jack falling for society belle Rose, with a central ‘status’ conflict raging as the ship goes down.
There we have another recurring Cameron trope – an apocalyptic world view. Cameron is very worried we’re going to destroy ourselves, and the environment. Whether it’s the xenomorph being exploited by corporate hands in Aliens, or the people of Pandora in Avatar being pillaged, right down to the arrogance and short-sightedness which brings on our own devastation in T2 & Titanic, Cameron worries enormously that we’re going to sow the seeds of our own destruction. He’s panicked about that, but his panic emerges through his own level of creative arrogance; many have suggested he’s an egomaniac, difficult to work with in the extreme, but in almost all of his pictures, Cameron leaves you at some point breathless thanks to the combination of these elements.
The Abyss doesn’t. The Abyss lacks the confluence of those winning factors, despite the fact it *does* have more than a few of those recurring tropes and styles Cameron frequently uses. We have, for a start, the blue-collar workers in Bud (Ed Harris) and his deep sea, oil drilling crew, recruited to help the Navy SEAL team to find and recover a lost American nuclear submarine. These are smart, resourceful people but they’re not educated, academics such as Lindsay (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio – another lost 1980’s/1990’s leading lady), who provides that level of class conflict inherent in Cameron’s work. It’s less pronounced in The Abyss as Cameron instead chooses to root Bud & Lindsay’s conflict in their broken marriage rather than a deep-seated divide between academia and working men.
Cameron would get a marriage conflict right later in True Lies, mainly because it proved to be the central lynchpin of the story in that James Bond-spy inversion, plus its played far more for comedy. In The Abyss, it’s grating in places and feels, to some degree, forced. Perhaps it was Cameron’s way of working through his own difficult marriage to producer Gale Ann Hurd at the time (they would be divorced soon after the picture was completed) but equally you wonder if this is Cameron experimenting with the style The Abyss feels often trying to ape, that of another filmmaker known for spectacle and fusing high concept science-fiction with real characters: Steven Spielberg.
You only have to look at the ending of The Abyss to see most directly the Spielbergian influences. Not only are Bud & Lindsay reconciled, having rediscovered their love in the face of a deadly underwater threat, but Bud is saved from sacrificing his life to stop a nuclear explosion by the mysterious alien lifeforms in their crashed vessel. Much like often when Spielberg has dealt with alien life, Cameron chooses to ultimately not make them the enemy or existential threat in The Abyss, rather a source of wonder and understanding. It’s a choice that doesn’t seem to suit Cameron’s doom-laden style or caustic sensibilities, sensibilities his contemporary Spielberg doesn’t tend to share.
Presentation of the alien life here could be key. Cameron toys often with alien beings in different contexts but they’re rarely benign. SkyNet and the Terminators in The Terminator and sequels, for example, might as well be alien life-forms, but they are ruthless and deadly to the characters in Cameron’s story. You of course have the primal, biological, body horror threat of the xenomorph in Aliens, the film Cameron made before The Abyss. Interestingly, even before he created The Terminator, Cameron had dreamed up the idea of The Abyss, a film which would kickstart his career fascination with water and filming in extreme conditions – later he would follow through on this with Titanic and his documentarian efforts that would consume most of his time before Avatar, a film where the aliens are the heroes. Perhaps The Abyss was the beginning of a journey he had been on all along.
What backs this up could be how The Abyss is loyal to Cameron’s own anxiety about man’s inhumanity to man and the environment. The nuclear submarine may be felled by a crashed alien vessel, but the threat comes from Michael Biehn’s crazed SEAL Coffey, consumed by paranoia and determined to destroy the alien (or NTI – Non-Terrestrial Intelligence) threat before it can destroy us. Aliens sees a greedy corporation looking to exploit a biological force that bites back at them, Avatar has a military corporation ‘raping’ an indigenous people and land, and The Terminator has misguided scientists create an AI which destroys us all. Cameron believes men are the greatest threat to human civilisation, not the monsters we create or exploit, and this is as keenly felt in The Abyss as his other pictures.
Coffey’s own paranoia also feels like one of the last breaths in cinema about the fear of ‘the bomb’. Filmed in 1988, just three years before the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end after almost fifty years, Cameron crafted this film in an age of glasnost, detente and Americans no longer truly afraid Communists were going to destroy their civilisation in nuclear fire. Coffey’s level of delusion, looking to destroy a threat which isn’t really there with the most powerful weapon imaginable, feels analogous to the dying embers of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), a world where Reagan’s government were still planning the Strategic Defence Initiative (or ‘Star Wars’). Cameron doesn’t believe the threat lies anywhere other than our own self-important, aggressive delusion, and the fact blue-collar workers unite with academia to stop an over-zealous American military officer from ‘dropping the bomb’ says it all. America has changed, and the Cold War coming to an end would soon bear Cameron out.
While The Abyss does contain many of these elements Cameron would layer into many of his films, and plenty of timely commentary rippling under the surface, the picture is sank by a script which lacks the same level of punch Cameron often delivers with his other movies, or indeed characters which stay with you and resound beyond the movie. The Abyss has no T-800, no Ripley or Bishop, no Harry Tasker or Sarah Connor. That’s not to say every Cameron movie needs those breakout characters but his films, and his writing, are always immeasurably better when they do. Cameron’s skill and brilliance has always been on the technical, imaginative side rather than dialogue – he can cook up great stories, but his writing can leave plenty to be desired in places, and The Abyss’ story and script frequently plods along without enough pace.
To some degree, the legacy of The Abyss feels more important than The Abyss itself. Cameron first toys with computer-generated effects from Industrial Light & Magic in creating the NTI, technology which may look slightly dated here but was undoubtedly revolutionary, helping to usher in the jaw-dropping effects people would be exposed to in Terminator 2: Judgment Day with the T-1000, effects which would become commonplace into the 1990’s and beyond, built on by successive films and franchises. The Abyss deserves mention for its place as an early pioneer of ILM’s groundbreaking technical achievements, and Cameron’s too.
Cameron would use his experiences making The Abyss, a hellish shoot in which camera equipment was specially invented to film underwater in the giant tanks Cameron had created on sound-stages to replicate deep-sea trenches (something else never attempted before), to realise films such as Titanic, with its stunning take on the worst civilian maritime disaster in history, and later fusing these sensibilities with CGI and 3D effects for Avatar – that film may suffer from Cameron’s weak writing (weaker than The Abyss, indeed) but it will for sure go down in the annals of cinema as a groundbreaking moment. Without The Abyss, none of these achievements may have happened, nor would the inspiration for movies such as Michael Bay’s Armageddon, which takes blue collar oil workers out into space rather than under the water. Though a world without Armageddon may not have been such a bad thing…
At any rate, while The Abyss feels too much like Cameron trying to doff his cap at Spielberg as he pushes the boundaries of what he can technically achieve, and the result isn’t the most enthralling narrative or visual experience, we should be grateful it exists simply for the fact James Cameron continued through it developing his unique blend of spectacle, all-American, working man humour and visual fantasia to bring us films which far exceeded what The Abyss could do. It wouldn’t, however, be essential Cameron viewing, at least not for me.