Sunday, 13 December 2009

Reel Retrospective: The Abyss (1989): Watery Masterpiece or Soggy Mess?

Like Apocalypse Now, James Cameron's The Abyss is a film almost outshone by its notoriously troubled production. Shot in an abandoned nuclear reactor in South Carolina, stories abound about star Ed Harris almost drowning in an oxygen tank cock-up; Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio being driven to the brink by the director's endless takes; and the crew being submerged in underwater darkness for hours on end.

Cameron's notorious pursuit of technical perfection subsequently lends The Abyss a lived-in, claustrophobic feel rivalling even that of his beloved masterpieces, the two Terminators and Aliens. Yet it's perhaps the most humane of all his efforts, not to mention his most ambitious on a character-driven level. Few of the director's movies feature characters as plausible as those in The Abyss, either centering on non-human robots (the T-101) or archetypes (Aliens' colonial marines or Titanic's snobby upper class).

Integral to the film's success is the fractious central relationship between Harris' genial 'Bud' Brigman and Mastrantonio's plucky, tough talking Lindsey, separated husband and wife thrown together once again on Lindsey's underwater rig when the Navy choose to commandeer it for shady purposes. Led by Cameron regular Michael Biehn (in a stand-out performance) as twitchy Lt Coffey, the Seals claim they're investigating the crash of a nuclear sub, the Montana, and want Bud's crew to document their efforts. But of course the motives are darker than that - and the presence of what appears to be a pink, glowing, Russian submersible only complicates matters...Is the threat coming from a domestic level, or something extra-terrestrial?

The film draws unfavourably close comparisons with Steven Spielberg's ET (even down to the aliens being classed instead as 'NTI's') but more on that momentarily. For the most part, it's a lean, taut thriller benefiting from its director's stringent shooting conditions: all narrow corridors, actors performing their own stunts and intimate group dynamics. Fleshing out the varied cast are Leo Burmeister's Cat, Todd Graff's Hippy and Kimberly Scott's wiseass driver 'One Night'. True they fulfill the cliches of the stock crew (friendly giant, paranoid clutz, loveable dope etc) familiar from siege flicks like Rio Bravo and The Thing, but there's a believable quality and humour to the performances (even, occasionally, in Biehn's villain) that lends the film a more personal edge.

The astonishing practical effects also lend the film a sense of realism rivalled in few sci-fi efforts since (bar Cameron's own work) and Mikael Solomon's blue-tinged cinematography adds to the potent mystery and danger of the deep. Tension is built carefully and relentlessly for the duration, as Bud and Lindsey come into conflict with the Seals' hijack of a nuclear warhead in the close confines of the rig. There are several uncomfortably intense set-pieces (including the infamous one where Lindsey is forced to drown and be resucitated), lent credibility by Harris and Mastrantonio's physical, committed performances (even if they were under duress). Alan Silvestri's score percolates effectively under the surface, with subtle choral and synth interventions leading the film into even more fantastical territory.

And then...we arrive at that ending, as Bud, having gone into the abyss to defuse the warhead and in his death throes, meets some unexpected saviours. A bone of contention ever since the film's release, it has been dismissed as both sappy drivel and an underwater knock-off of every alien film ever made. Truthfully, this is extremely unfair: astute viewers will have noted that Cameron has melded the fantastical with the human from the onset of the story, the landmark CGI effects making a famous appearance in the Pseudopod sequence, among others. Its apparent final submergence (boom boom) into sub-ET territory is hardly unexpected but offers the redemptive resolution to the characters' travails (hamfisted as the moral is) that has been promised all along.

Corny? At odds with the earlier slow-build? Hell yeah, and Cameron's controversial 'Director's Cut' adds more cheese to the mix by fleshing out the aliens' master plan. There's no doubt he (for once) bites off more than he can chew but as Silvestri's magnificent score reaches its astonishing choral opus, it becomes apparent once more how life-affirming, as opposed to scary, the presence of little green men is: all you need to save your marriage, it seems, is some interstellar intervention. Told you it's Cameron's most humane film.

1 comment: