Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||James Cameron|
|Produced by||Gale Anne Hurd|
|Written by||James Cameron|
|Music by||Alan Silvestri|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Budget||$43-47 million[nb 1]|
|Box office||$90 million|
The Abyss is a 1989 American science fiction film written and directed by James Cameron and starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn. When an American submarine sinks in the Caribbean, the U.S. search and recovery team works with an oil platform crew, racing against Soviet vessels to recover the boat. Deep in the ocean, they encounter something unexpected. The film was released on August 9, 1989, receiving generally positive reviews and grossed $89.8 million. It won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for three more Academy awards.
In January 1994, the U.S. Ohio-class submarine USS Montana has an encounter with an unidentified submerged object and sinks near the Cayman Trough. With Soviet ships moving in to try to salvage the sub and a hurricane moving over the area, the U.S. government sends a SEAL team to Deep Core, a privately owned experimental underwater drilling platform near the Cayman Trough to use as a base of operations. The platform's designer, Dr. Lindsey Brigman, insists on going along with the SEAL team, despite her estranged husband Virgil "Bud" Brigman being the current foreman.
During initial investigation of the Montana, a power cut in the team's submersibles leads to Lindsey seeing a strange light circling the sub, which she later calls a "non-terrestrial intelligence" or "NTI". Lt. Hiram Coffey, the SEAL team leader, is ordered to accelerate their mission and takes one of the mini-subs without Deep Cores permission to recover a Trident missile warhead from the Montana just as the storm hits above, leaving the crew unable to disconnect from their surface support ship in time. The cable crane is torn from the ship and falls into the trench, dragging the Deep Core to the edge before it stops. The rig is partially flooded, killing several crew members and damaging its power systems.
The crew wait out the storm so they can restore communications and be rescued. As they struggle against the cold, they find the NTIs have formed an animated column of water that is exploring the rig. Though they treat it with curiosity, Coffey is agitated and cuts it in half by closing a pressure bulkhead on it, causing it to retreat. Realizing that Coffey is suffering paranoia from high-pressure nervous syndrome, the crew spies on him through a remote operated vehicle, finding him and another SEAL arming the warhead to attack the NTIs. To try and stop him, Bud fights Coffey but Coffey escapes in a mini-sub with the primed warhead; Bud and Lindsey give chase in the other sub, damaging both. Coffey is able to launch the warhead into the trench, but his sub drifts over the edge, crushing him when it implodes. Bud's mini-sub is inoperable and taking on water; with only one functional diving suit, Lindsey opts to enter deep hypothermia when the ocean's cold water engulfs her. Bud swims back to the platform with her body; there, he and the crew administer CPR and revive her.
One SEAL, Ensign Monk, helps Bud use an experimental diving suit equipped with a liquid breathing apparatus to survive to that depth, though he will only be able to communicate through a keypad on the suit. Bud begins his dive, assisted by Lindsey's voice to keep him coherent against the effects of the mounting pressure, and reaches the warhead. Monk guides him in successfully disarming it. With little oxygen left in the system, Bud explains he knew it was a one-way trip, and tells Lindsey he loves her. As he waits for death, an NTI approaches Bud, takes his hand, and guides him to an alien city deep in the trench. Inside the city, the NTIs create an atmospheric pocket for Bud, allowing him to breathe normally. The NTIs then play back Bud's message to his wife and they look at each other with understanding.
On Deep Core the crew is waiting for rescue when they see a message from Bud that he met some friends and warns them to hold on. The base shakes and lights from the trench bring the arrival of the alien ship. It rises to the ocean's surface, with Deep Core and several of the surface ships run aground on its hull. The crew of Deep Core exit the platform, surprised they are not suffering from decompression sickness. They see Bud walking out of the alien ship and Lindsey races to hug him.
In the extended version, the events in the film are played against a backdrop of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the potential for all-out war; the sinking of the Montana additionally fuels the aggression. There is more conflict between Bud and Lindsey in regard to their former relationship. The primary addition is the ending: when Bud is taken to the alien ship, they start by showing him images of war and aggression from news sources around the globe. The aliens then create massive megatsunamis that threaten the world's coasts, but stop them short before they hit. Bud asks why they spared the humans and they show Bud his message to Lindsey.
H. G. Wells was the first to introduce the notion of a sea alien in his 1897 short story "In the Abyss". The idea for The Abyss came to James Cameron when, at age 17 and in high school, he attended a science lecture about deep sea diving by a man, Francis J. Falejczyk, who was the first human to breathe fluid through his lungs in experiments conducted by Johannes A. Kylstra. He subsequently wrote a short story that focused on a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean. The basic idea did not change, but many of the details were modified over the years. Once Cameron arrived in Hollywood, he quickly realized that a group of scientists was not that commercial and changed it to a group of blue-collar workers. While making Aliens, Cameron saw a National Geographic film about remote operated vehicles operating deep in the North Atlantic Ocean. These images reminded him of his short story. He and producer Gale Anne Hurd decided that The Abyss would be their next film. Cameron wrote a treatment combined with elements of a shooting script, which generated a lot of interest in Hollywood. He then wrote the script, basing the character of Lindsey on Hurd and finished it by the end of 1987. Cameron and Hurd were married before The Abyss, separated during pre-production, and divorced in February 1989, two months after principal photography.
The cast and crew trained for underwater diving for one week in the Cayman Islands. This was necessary because 40% of all live-action principal photography took place underwater. Furthermore, Cameron's production company had to design and build experimental equipment and develop a state-of-the-art communications system that allowed the director to talk underwater to the actors and dialogue to be recorded directly onto tape for the first time.
Cameron had originally planned to shoot on location in the Bahamas where the story was set but quickly realized that he needed to have a completely controlled environment because of the stunts and special visual effects involved. He considered shooting the film in Malta, which had the largest unfiltered tank of water, but it was not adequate for Cameron's needs. Underwater sequences for the film were shot at a unit of the Gaffney Studios, situated south of Cherokee Falls, outside Gaffney, South Carolina, which had been abandoned by Duke Power officials after previously spending $700 million constructing the Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant, along Owensby Street, Gaffney, South Carolina.
Two specially constructed tanks were used. The first one, based on the abandoned plant's primary reactor containment vessel, held 7.5 million US gallons (28,000 m3) of water, was 55 feet (18 m) deep and 209 feet (70 m) across. At the time, it was the largest fresh-water filtered tank in the world. Additional scenes were shot in the second tank, an unused turbine pit, which held 2.5 million US gallons (9,500 m3) of water. As the production crew rushed to finish painting the main tank, millions of gallons of water poured in and took five days to fill. The Deepcore rig was anchored to a 90-ton concrete column at the bottom of the large tank. It consisted of six partial and complete modules that took over half a year to plan and build from scratch.
Can-Dive Services Ltd., a Canadian commercial diving company that specialized in saturation diving systems and underwater technology, specially manufactured the two working craft (Flatbed and Cab One) for the film. Two million dollars was spent on set construction.
The main tank was not ready in time for the first day of principal photography. Cameron delayed filming for a week and pushed the smaller tank's schedule forward, demanding that it be ready weeks ahead of schedule. Filming eventually began on August 15, 1988, but there were still problems. On the first day of shooting in the main water tank, it sprang a leak and 150,000 US gallons (570 m3) of water a minute rushed out. The studio brought in dam-repair experts to seal it. In addition, enormous pipes with elbow fittings had been improperly installed. There was so much water pressure in them that the elbows blew off.
Cameron's cinematographer, Mikael Salomon, used three cameras in watertight housings that were specially designed. Another special housing was designed for scenes that went from above-water dialogue to below-water dialogue. The filmmakers had to figure out how to keep the water clear enough to shoot and dark enough to look realistic at 2,000 feet (700 m), which was achieved by floating a thick layer of plastic beads in the water and covering the top of the tank with an enormous tarpaulin. Cameron wanted to see the actors' faces and hear their dialogue, and thus hired Western Space and Marine to engineer helmets which would remain optically clear underwater and installed state-of-the-art aircraft quality microphones into each helmet. Safety conditions were also a major factor with the installation of a decompression chamber on site, along with a diving bell and a safety diver for each actor.
The breathing fluid used in the film actually exists but has only been thoroughly investigated in animals. Over the previous 20 years it had been tested on several animals, who survived. The rat shown in the film was actually breathing fluid and survived unharmed.
Ed Harris did not actually breathe the fluid. He held his breath inside a helmet full of liquid while being towed 30 feet (10 m) below the surface of the large tank. He recalled that the worst moments were being towed with fluid rushing up his nose and his eyes swelling up. Actors played their scenes at 33 feet (11 m), too shallow a depth for them to need decompression, and rarely stayed down for more than an hour at a time. Cameron and the 26-person underwater diving crew sank to 50 feet (17 m) and stayed down for five hours at a time. To avoid decompression sickness, they would have to hang from hoses halfway up the tank for as long as two hours, breathing pure oxygen.
The cast and crew endured over six months of grueling six-day, 70-hour weeks on an isolated set. At one point, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a physical and emotional breakdown on the set and on another occasion, Ed Harris burst into spontaneous sobbing while driving home. Cameron himself admitted, "I knew this was going to be a hard shoot, but even I had no idea just how hard. I don't ever want to go through this again". For example, for the scene where portions of the rig are flooded with water, he realized that he initially did not know how to minimize the sequence's inherent danger. It took him more than four hours to set up the shot safely. Actor Leo Burmester said, "Shooting The Abyss has been the hardest thing I've ever done. Jim Cameron is the type of director who pushes you to the edge, but he doesn't make you do anything he wouldn't do himself." A lightning storm caused a 200-foot (65 m) tear in the black tarpaulin covering the main tank. Repairing it would have taken too much time, so the production began shooting at night. In addition, blooming algae often reduced visibility to 20 feet (6 m) within hours. Over-chlorination led to divers' skin burning and exposed hair being stripped off or turning white.
As production went on, the slow pace and daily mental and physical strain of filming began to wear on the cast and crew. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio remembered, "We never started and finished any one scene in any one day". At one point, Cameron told the actors to relieve themselves in their wetsuits to save time between takes. While filming one of many takes of Mastrantonio's character's resuscitation scene--in which she was soaking wet, topless and repeatedly being slapped and pounded on the chest--the camera ran out of film, prompting Mastrantonio to storm off the set yelling, "We are not animals!" For some shots in the scene that focus on Ed Harris, he was yelling at thin air because Mastrantonio refused to film the scene again. Michael Biehn also grew frustrated by the waiting. He claimed that he was in South Carolina for five months and only acted for three to four weeks. He remembered one day being ten meters underwater and "suddenly the lights went out. It was so black I couldn't see my hand. I couldn't surface. I realized I might not get out of there." Harris recalled: "One day we were all in our dressing rooms and people began throwing couches out the windows and smashing the walls. We just had to get our frustrations out." Cameron responded to these complaints, saying, "For every hour they spent trying to figure out what magazine to read, we spent an hour at the bottom of the tank breathing compressed air." After 140 days and $4 million over budget, filming finally wrapped on December 8, 1988. Before the film's release, there were reports from South Carolina that Ed Harris was so upset by the physical demands of the film and Cameron's dictatorial directing style that he said he would refuse to help promote the motion picture. Harris later denied this rumor and helped promote the film. However, after its release and initial promotion, Harris publicly disowned the film, saying "I'm never talking about it and never will." Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio also disowned the film, saying, "The Abyss was a lot of things. Fun to make is not one of them."
To create the alien water tentacle, Cameron initially considered cel animation or a tentacle sculpted in clay and then animated via stop-motion techniques with water reflections projected onto it. Phil Tippett suggested Cameron contact Industrial Light & Magic. The special visual effects work was divided up among seven FX divisions with motion control work by Dream Quest Images and computer graphics and opticals by ILM. ILM designed a program to produce surface waves of differing sizes and kinetic properties for the pseudopod. For the moment where it mimics Bud and Lindsey's faces, Ed Harris had eight of his facial expressions scanned while twelve of Mastrantonio's were scanned via software used to create computer-generated sculptures. The set was photographed from every angle and digitally recreated so that the pseudopod could be accurately composited into the live-action footage. The company spent six months to create 75 seconds of computer graphics needed for the creature. The film was to have opened on July 4, 1989, but its release was delayed for more than a month by production and special effects problems. The animated sequences were supervised by ILM animation director Wes Takahashi. The technology they used for the CGI was SGI and Apple.
Studio executives were nervous about the film's commercial prospects when preview audiences laughed at scenes of serious intent. Industry insiders said that the release delay was because nervous executives ordered the film's ending completely re-shot. There was also the question of the size of the film's budget: 20th Century Fox stated that the budget was $43 million, a figure Cameron himself has reiterated. However, estimates put the figure higher with The New York Times estimating the cost at $45 million and one executive claiming it cost $47 million, while box office revenue tracker website The Numbers lists the production budget at $70 million.
The Abyss was released on August 9, 1989, in 1,533 theaters, where it grossed $9.3 million on its opening weekend and ranked #2 at the box office. It went on to make $54.2 million in North America and $35.5 million throughout the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $89.8 million.
On Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, The Abyss has an 89% approval rating based on 45 reviews and an average rating of 7.19/10. The critical consensus states: "The utterly gorgeous special effects frequently overshadow the fact that The Abyss is also a totally gripping, claustrophobic thriller, complete with an interesting crew of characters." On Metacritic, the film has an average score of 62 out of 100, based on 14 critics indicating "generally favorable reviews". The reviews tallied therein are for both the theatrical release and the Special Edition.
David Ansen of Newsweek, summarizing the theatrical release, wrote, "The payoff to The Abyss is pretty damn silly -- a portentous deus ex machina that leaves too many questions unanswered and evokes too many other films." In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James claimed that the film had "at least four endings," and "by the time the last ending of this two-and-a-quarter-hour film comes along, the effect is like getting off a demon roller coaster that has kept racing several laps after you were ready to get off." Chris Dafoe, in his review for The Globe and Mail, wrote, "At its best, The Abyss offers a harrowing, thrilling journey through inky waters and high tension. In the end, however, this torpedo turns out to be a dud--it swerves at the last minute, missing its target and exploding ineffectually in a flash of fantasy and fairy-tale schtick."
While praising the film's first two hours as "compelling", the Toronto Star remarked, "But when Cameron takes the adventure to the next step, deep into the heart of fantasy, it all becomes one great big deja boo. If we are to believe what Cameron finds way down there, E.T. didn't really phone home, he went surfing and fell off his board."USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "Most of this underwater blockbuster is 'good,' and at least two action set pieces are great. But the dopey wrap-up sinks the rest 20,000 leagues." In her review for The Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote that the film "asks us to believe that the drowned return to life, that the comatose come to the rescue, that driven women become doting wives, that Neptune cares about landlubbers. I'd sooner believe that Moby Dick could swim up the drainpipe."Halliwell's Film Guide claimed the film was, "despite some clever special effects, a tedious, overlong fantasy that is more excited by machinery than people." Conversely, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone enthused, "[The Abyss is] the greatest underwater adventure ever filmed, the most consistently enthralling of the summer blockbusters...one of the best pictures of the year."
The release of the Special Edition in 1993 garnered much praise. Each giving it thumbs up, Siskel remarked, "The Abyss has been improved," and Ebert added, "It makes the film seem more well rounded." In the book Reel Views 2, James Berardinelli comments, "James Cameron's The Abyss may be the most extreme example of an available movie that demonstrates how the vision of a director, once fully realized on screen, can transform a good motion picture into a great one."
Many other film organizations, such as the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, and the American Society of Cinematographers, also nominated The Abyss. The film ended up winning a total of three other awards from these organizations.
The soundtrack to The Abyss was written by Alan Silvestri and released by Varèse Sarabande on August 22, 1989. In 2014, they issued a limited-edition (3,000 copies), two-disc album featuring the complete score minus the end credits medley, which is absent from both releases.
Even as the film was in the first weeks of its 1989 theatrical release, rumors were circulating of a wave sequence missing from the film's end. As chronicled in the 1993 LaserDisc Special Edition release and later in the 2000 DVD, the pressure to cut the film's running time stemmed from both distribution concerns and Industrial Light & Magic's then-inability to complete the required sequences. From the distributor's perspective, the looming three-hour length limited the number of times the film could be shown each day, assuming that audiences would be willing to sit through the entire film, though 1990's Dances with Wolves would shatter both industry-held notions. Further, test audience screenings revealed a surprisingly mixed reaction to the sequences as they appeared in their unfinished form; in post-screening surveys, they dominated both the "Scenes I liked most" and "Scenes I liked least" fields. Contrary to speculation, studio meddling was not the cause of the shortened length; Cameron held final cut as long as the film met a running time of roughly two hours and 15 minutes. He later noted, "Ironically, the studio brass were horrified when I said I was cutting the wave."
What emerges in the winnowing process is only the best stuff. And I think the overall caliber of the film is improved by that. I cut only two minutes of Terminator. On Aliens, we took out much more. I even reconstituted some of that in a special (TV) release version. The sense of something being missing on Aliens was greater for me than on The Abyss, where the film just got consistently better as the cut got along. The film must function as a dramatic, organic whole. When I cut the film together, things that read well on paper, on a conceptual level, didn't necessarily translate to the screen as well. I felt I was losing something by breaking my focus. Breaking the story's focus and coming off the main characters was a far greater detriment to the film than what was gained. The film keeps the same message intact at a thematic level, not at a really overt level, by working in a symbolic way.
Cameron elected to remove the sequences along with other, shorter scenes elsewhere in the film, reducing the running time from roughly two hours and 50 minutes to two hours and 20 minutes and diminishing his signature themes of nuclear peril and disarmament. Subsequent test audience screenings drew substantially better reactions.
Star Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio publicly expressed regret about some of the scenes selected for removal from the film's theatrical cut: "There were some beautiful scenes that were taken out. I just wish we hadn't shot so much that isn't in the film."
Shortly after the film's premiere, Cameron and video editor Ed Marsh created a longer video cut of The Abyss for their own use that incorporated dailies. With the tremendous success of Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, Lightstorm Entertainment secured a five-year, $500 million financing deal with 20th Century Fox for films produced, directed or written by Cameron. The contract allocated roughly $500,000 of the amount to complete The Abyss. ILM was commissioned to finish the work they had started three years earlier, with many of the same people who had worked on it originally.
The tidal wave sequence had originally been designed by ILM as a physical effect, using a plastic wave, but Cameron was dissatisfied with the end result, and the sequence was scrapped. By the time Cameron was ready to revisit The Abyss, ILM's CGI prowess had finally progressed to an appropriate level, and the wave was rendered as a CGI effect. Terminator 2: Judgment Day screenwriter and frequent Cameron collaborator William Wisher had a cameo in the scene as a reporter in Santa Monica who catches the first tidal wave on camera.
When it was discovered that original production sound recordings had been lost, new dialogue and foley were recorded, but since Kidd Brewer had died before he could return to re-loop his dialog, producers and editors had to lift his original dialogue tracks from the remaining optical-sound prints of the dailies. The Special Edition was therefore dedicated to his memory as a result.
As Alan Silvestri was not available to compose new music for the restored scenes, Robert Garrett, who had composed temporary music for the film's initial cutting in 1989, was chosen to create new music. The Special Edition was completed in December 1992, with 28 minutes added to the film, and saw a limited theatrical release in New York City and Los Angeles on February 26, 1993, and expanded to key cities nationwide in the following weeks. Both versions of the film continue to receive public exhibitions, including a screening of an original 35mm print of the theatrical cut on August 20, 2019, in New York City.
The first THX-certified LaserDisc title of the Special Edition Box Set was released in May 1993, in both Widescreen and Full Screen formats, and was a best-seller for the rest of the year. The Special Edition was released on VHS in 1996 as a part of Fox Video's Widescreen Series with a seven-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with footage that did not appear in the Under Pressure: The Making of The Abyss documentary that was included on the Laserdisc and DVD releases. The Special Edition's first DVD release in 2000 was on two discs and featured animated menus, both the theatrical and Special Edition versions of the film via seamless branching along with the Laserdisc's extensive text, artwork and photographic documentation of the film's production, a ten-minute featurette and the sixty minute documentary Under Pressure: The Making of The Abyss. The Special Edition is also available in a bare-bones Full Screen version on DVD. All available DVDs are non-anamorphic with the exception of the Chinese DVD produced for Region 6 by Excel Media.
In 2014 the pay cable channels Cinemax and HBO began broadcasting both versions of the film in 1080p.Netflix's UK service began offering the theatrical version in 1080p in 2017. At an October, 2014 event James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd were asked about a future Blu-ray release for the film. Cameron gestured to the head of Fox Home Entertainment, implying the decision lay with the studio. Five months later another article suggested a spat between Cameron and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment was responsible for the delay. While promoting the upcoming 30th-anniversary Blu-ray release of Aliens at Comic-Con in San Diego July 2016 James Cameron confirmed that he was working on a remastered 4K transfer of The Abyss and that it would be released on Blu-ray for the first time in early 2017. Cameron added, "We've done a wet-gate 4K scan of the original negative, and it's going to look insanely good. We're going to do an authoring pass in the DI for Blu-ray and HDR at the same time."
In March 2019 digital intermediate colourist Skip Kimball posted a photo to his Instagram suggesting that he was working on the film. In November 2018 Cameron told Empire magazine that a Blu-ray transfer was "complete for my review" and he hoped it would be ready before 2019. this was however before Disney's acquisition of Fox, so as of 2020, there has been no information about the blu-ray release.
Science-fiction author Orson Scott Card was hired to write a novelization of the film based on the screenplay and discussions with Cameron. He wrote back-stories for Bud, Lindsey, and Coffey as a means not only of helping the actors define their roles, but also to justify some of their behavior and mannerisms in the film. Card also wrote the aliens as a colonizing species which preferentially sought high-pressure deep-water worlds to build their ships as they traveled further into the galaxy (their mothership was in orbit on the far side of the moon). The NTIs' knowledge of neuroanatomy and nanoscale manipulation of biochemistry was responsible for many of the deus ex machina aspects of the film.
A licensed interactive fiction video game based on the script was being developed for Infocom by Bob Bates, but was cancelled when Infocom was shut down by its then-parent company Activision.Sound Source Interactive later created an action video game entitled The Abyss: Incident at Europa. The game takes place a few years after the film, where the player must find a cure for a deadly virus.