Now, the box office doesn't bear this out, and reasonable minds can differ, but if you were to ask me, James Cameron's career through the 80s and its holdover years in the 90s was one of unstoppable ascent, each picture being better than his last. But even if his fourth film didn't stay his best film (though it gives his fifth, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which did remain his best, a very serious run for its money), then, for the sheer difficulty of its achievement, The Abyss remains Cameron's most impressive work—and his most personal.
1989 (theatrical release)/1992 (the proper, finished film, as people watch it today)
Written and directed by James Cameron
Spoiler alert: severe
Of course, since one must be cautious of applying the term "most personal" to any film by the man who's spent a billion dollars in order to live inside a computer simulation of a moon in Alpha Centauri, let's say this instead: it's his most human. It's either strange or fitting, then, that he doesn't seem to care much about it anymore—infamously, The Abyss has been poised to be released on blu-ray (or, more recently, 4K) two quarters from now for the past, let's see, forty quarters, and it's obvious that Cameron is the only reason it hasn't. It's gotten to the point that you wonder if what The Abyss meant to Cameron when he was still human, rather than a collection of 1s and 0s, is the reason why he doesn't like to think about it now. If not for the fact he doesn't seem to give a shit about True Lies either—that is, even less than he seems to give a shit about all his other, non-Avatar movies—one would suspect there was something special about The Abyss that made him want to put it behind him, despite caring a great deal about it at the time; and, if that were one's hypothesis, one would have plenty of evidence with which to speculate.
For starters, The Abyss was not a pleasant thing to make. One of the legendarily grueling shoots, it was a film that helped cement the notion that blockbuster filmmaking and the logistics of water just didn't mix. (Irony being what it is, it was up to Cameron himself to undo this curse in 1997.) During its production, The Abyss occasioned multiple breakdowns, some more extreme than others, while suggesting to several members of the cast that they might well die in the process of making it; and even though Cameron freely concedes their suffering was real, he says that he and his crew had it even worse. It went overbudget, too, as such things do, up to $30,000,000 overbudget, in fact—on a nominal budget of forty, in 1989 dollars—and, when it was released into that crowded summer, it became Cameron's first film to lose money. You couldn't exactly call it a bomb, but it did oblige Cameron to make a sequel he never intended.
Moreover, though, The Abyss was primal for Cameron. He'd had the idea as a teenager, when he wrote a short story about marine scientists who discovered something else was down there with them in the deep. He kept that basic premise, but made significant additions over the next two decades, as his life went on and his preoccupations evolved: the scientists became oil workers, blue collar types patterned on his own blue collar forays as a truck driver; the inciting incident of the film became the Cold War, Cameron's fears of nuclear armageddon being a central theme of The Terminator; for villains, a team of Navy SEALs was added, reflecting Cameron's adult distrust of the military-industrial complex and everyone involved in it. Most importantly, the biggest addition was one that reflected his own life directly. By the time The Abyss was completed, Cameron and his first wife, Gale Anne Hurd, had divorced. Thus ended the collaboration between the writer-director and writer-producer which had—and presumably not by chance—coincided with the most productive and creative period of Cameron's career.
Knowing the backstory, one is incredibly curious to know what Hurd thought of her and her ex-husband's film, which—depending on which version you're watching—ends with either a separated couple being reunited by underwater aliens, or with their reunion being the basis for the same underwater aliens deciding they won't destroy human civilization. In other words, is The Abyss a grand romantic gesture, or is it just weird? (Either way, this knowledge quite possibly offers a more rewarding feeling than the impression a viewer could get from the text alone, which is, if that viewer wanted to be extremely reductive about it, "heteronormativity saves the world.")
But that brings up the fact that, like so many James Cameron films, The Abyss only wound up being perfected later: the theatrical cut of The Abyss is every frame Cameron's creation, yet one Cameron was contractually required to bring in at under 140 minutes, which he did with seconds to spare, and which he therefore relieved of nearly thirty minutes of interstitial character work as well as a giant film-spanning thematic subplot that was, apparently, the biggest reason for the film to exist in the first place. (Taken alongside his truncated theatrical version of Aliens, it's never been clear whether Cameron knew what was essential in his movies.) Cameron might have been more tempted to leave the big stuff in, however, if ILM hadn't been stymied by several very important effects shots which he wasn't sure 20th Century Fox was going to pay for regardless. Now, I've seen that theatrical cut of The Abyss, but I don't know why I'd ever want to again—not when the definitive version of the film's existed since 1992, when Cameron, in the wake of T2's success, gathered the money from Fox to complete it. This "special edition" was given its own theatrical run, though the thing that did the most to establish this Abyss as a sleeper classic was when it was presented on Laserdisc the following year, thereby becoming one of that format's signature films. It's not unanimous, but like with Aliens and T2, almost everyone agrees: The Abyss' special edition is the superior film, though in this case it's so superior that it's nearly a different entity altogether.
That entity, I should probably get around to synopsizing, is an epic adventure into the mysteries of the sea, and (I happily presume) the best live-action film about underwater anything ever made. We begin with the American SSBN Montana, on patrol near Cuba, where it has an encounter with an unidentified undersea craft whose proximity wreaks havoc with the submarine's electrical systems, causing the sub to crash into an outcropping and slide down the side of the Cayman Trough. The American authorities shall presume this bizarre vehicle was a Soviet attacker; yet from the purple and blue lights it generates (not to mention its ability to hit speeds of 130 knots), we already have some reason to believe it comes from somewhere else.
The disaster occasions the USN to press civilian resources into service, specifically the reluctant crew of the Deep Core, an experimental underwater drilling platform captained by Virgil "Bud" Brigman (Ed Harris), and populated by a plausibly-wacky collection of misfits with evocative nicknames like "Catfish" (Leo Burmester), "One Night" (Kimberly Scott), and "Hippy" (Todd Graff, the standout amongst the secondary cast, partly thanks to his rapport with Hippy's beloved pet rat). To run the rescue operation, Bud and his crew are placed under the authority of a team of SEALs led by one Lt. Coffey, who almost immediately begins to show signs of literally cracking under the pressure as he develops compression sickness (this would be Michael Biehn, bugging out magnificently as his particular talent dictates). And with them comes, at the behest of the Deep Core's owners, Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the engineer who designed it and, as the surname implies, Bud's almost-but-not-quite-ex-wife—which pleases neither. Soon a monstrous hurricane cuts them off from surface support (and almost destroys the still-attached rig), and, as the evidence of those "non-terrestrial intelligences" piles up—and as Coffey grows ever-crazier, bringing one of the Montana's nukes back to the rig with the intention of using it—it becomes a battle for control between the regular folk, led by Bud and Lindsey, and the force of reactionary self-destruction that Coffey has become.
That also might be a theme thing.
There's certainly an argument that The Abyss would manage to be a perfectly great thriller without any undersea aliens, and, for the most part, they're not actually that prominent an aspect of the film (which is how it wasn't impossible for Cameron to cut around seven minutes' worth of material involving the specifics of their first contact with humanity). I tend to register this as a strength rather than a weakness, with Cameron interested in making a film that works first as a disaster movie rather than a heady sci-fi film (or, if you'd prefer, an action film that's half disaster movie parts—not merely the focus on the sheer, almost wrathful hostility of the elements, nor the extreme, Allenesque runtime, but also the manner in which it follows its would-be-victims along without them being able to actually change or deflect virtually any of the torments the movie inflicts on them, as well as the high romantic melodrama right at the heart of it).
Damned if The Abyss doesn't work incredibly well as that, from the first spooky visit to the flooded, wrecked submarine to the little masterpiece-within-a-masterpiece that is the arrival of the hurricane above, which tears a crane off the Deep Core's surface support vessel, that misses the undersea rig by what amounts to inches... and then, since it's still tethered to the crane, when it falls off the edge of the ocean bed takes the Deep Core with it anyway. It's one of my favorite sequences in Cameron's filmography, with terrifically strong cross-cutting between pregnant moments of expectancy that raise the suspense to a fever pitch, right up until it releases its tension with false relief and doubles down on frenzied animal terror. This is where people start dying in terrifying ways, nobody able to save anybody and Bud surviving almost solely thanks to the fact he still loves his wife and Cameron has chosen to symbolically reward him for his fidelity. (Meanwhile, in the special edition, it comes in sequence with a montage of news footage depicting the rapidly rising tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Thus it serves as a secondary metaphor for the other thing The Abyss is about: as TV guys-on-the-street profess their inability to comprehend what's befallen them, our guys at the bottom of the sea await their fate with the same utter powerlessness. The Abyss is, above all, a film about powerlessness, and what to do with it.)
It's contained within some of the most persuasive filmmaking imaginable, and The Abyss that was hell to make and The Abyss that's an experiential masterpiece are essentially inseparable things. It feels real because it basically is real, shot in an abandoned nuclear reactor housing filled with millions of gallons of water, with sets that were life-sized facsimiles of the real thing, and "props" that were real submersibles. (The only caveat to The Abyss' literally-immersive realism is that the deep sea of the film is strikingly sterile; the only time we see anything that isn't human or an NTI is a crab, though, admittedly, when that crab crawls out of a corpse's mouth, it's one of the great creepy-crawly moments.) It's a gorgeous film, and a technical showcase for cinematographer Mikael Saloman, art director Leslie Dilley and set decorator Anne Kuljian (all of whom were deservedly Oscar-nominated for their efforts here). It's a technological showcase, too, and one of the most beguiling qualities of the film is Cameron's gee-whiz excitement at being able to use all his cool underwater ideas, not least some solid early CGI, but especially the idea that he'd nurtured since a lecture he attended as a kid, about the possibility of a breathable fluid; famously, The Abyss' science fiction is, in this regard, almost science fact (and the only thing I don't like about The Abyss is what they did to that poor rat, while the only error I perceive in The Abyss is that, if Cameron was willing to terrorize the rat by dunking it in a highly oxygenated liquid emulsion, he ought to have at least shown it in a single shot so it doesn't look like they're just drowning several different rats in several individual takes).
Well, cruelty to humans and animals aside, few films present themselves as being born of more outsized passion, and we all know that Cameron really, really loves that undersea realm, which is the reason why his movie exists, and why he's the only director I know of to have done a submersible chase, and while I'm sure there's another one somewhere, I'm going to assume Cameron's is the best, ending with one of his customarily perfect grace notes: Coffey's been a hissable villain ever since we met him, but we are often reminded it's not entirely his fault; and so, when our designated bastard meets his end, it's as tragic as it is triumphant, his hand reaching out in supplication to his opponent, as if asking forgiveness, with Lindsey's own hand instinctively reaching out for his despite their being separated by two panes of glass and a full meter of freezing water, right before his sub sinks below its limits and implodes in one startlingly convincing effects shot.
But The Abyss has been a film of abiding humanism all along. It's not a subtle or nuanced thing, of course (it's James Cameron), but absolutely well-done, starting with a basic foundation of empathy that allows us to care about Bud's crew as a group, even if we don't always care about them individually. Cameron gives us little humanizing moments and a sense of their camaraderie, clearly suggesting the Deep Core team as a family, which (almost explicitly) makes Bud their dad, and Harris is a basically perfect lead in this respect, starting with his natural looks (realistically handsome, unashamedly balding), and emphasizing all the things that make Bud's authority different from that imposed by the violent, hierarchical Navy men: occurring often enough that it's practically the film's central motif, when Bud is confronted with weakness or failure, his first instinct is to say, "It's okay." It's one of the small but crucial things separating The Abyss from other action fare, especially of its era: an emblem of masculinity whose power comes entirely from being kind and comprehending. (Cameron being clearly of the "do as I say, not as I do" school of moral instruction.) It also makes for a nice contrast with the one person with whom he does let his anger get the better of him, his estranged wife. Bud's an actual jerk to Lindsey, and a surprising, gratifying amount of The Abyss (at least its special edition) is devoted to letting us get inside their dysfunction and tender, bruised feelings, before providing all the external catalysts necessary for them to solve their marital troubles through death-defying paranormal adventure.
Well, as much of a cliche as it is, The Abyss uses it better than almost anything before or since, firstly by treating their human problems with seriousness, and then presenting their defiance of death with the kind of gravity that reaches through the screen and shakes you by the neck, culminating in the film's best and most famous scene, where emergency medicine and unreasoning grief shade into something more resembling six full minutes of corpse desecration as Bud tries to revive his drowned wife. (The clever part is that it was her idea: The Abyss is resolved that Lindsey is smarter than Bud, and Mastrantonio is every bit as good as Harris ever is, in that panicked moment inside the flooding submersible where Lindsey realizes belatedly that she's elected to swallow ice cold water into her lungs on the basis of a long-shot chance at resuscitation.) This is The Abyss' centerpiece, stretched out as long as it could possibly take, presented with almost documentary objectivity and devastatingly raw emotion, just Harris weeping and screaming hatefully at the prospect of the woman he loves leaving him truly alone; the difference between this and reality being that in The Abyss it worked, and, like I said, I really do wonder what Gale Anne Hurd thought of this bizarro autobiography she helped make. (Well, one of her more well-known quotes is "I embrace being a bitch.")
Also, I guess you could find Harris' big "no" when Lindsey dies unintentionally funny, but it's not technically part of this scene.
In a sense, this brings the plot of The Abyss to a close. It's also where the two cuts of the film diverge wildly, so it's worth mentioning that it's only the 1992 special edition that concerns us now. The standard critical line on the film—that it's Cameron trying to do 2001—is the standard one for a reason, with The Abyss even following the Kubrick film's structure rather closely. Now that Coffey/HAL is dead, it's time to go beyond the infinite; this is exactly what Bud does, on a new mission to save the NTIs from Coffey's wayward nuke. It winds up bearing at least as much resemblance to Spielberg's reinterpretation of 2001 as pure yearning, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It's definitely calculated to evoke the same sense of wonder, and does—to my eye, moreso. But what it really is, at rock bottom, is The Day the Earth Stood Still, and of all the films that have used aliens to fulfill the religious hope that there must be someone out there capable of judging us fairly, then saving us anyway, The Abyss is the greatest. It ends, therefore, on moments of majesty and awe and oddly dark humor: Bud descending further than any human has ever gone, to sacrifice himself for what's right; thousand foot high waves effected by the aliens' hydromancy, crashing toward human cities on every continent until they stop, frozen in the air; the warning that humanity will survive or perish by its own choice, and that they should behave better, as nations and as people, but "of course, it's only a suggestion." The thing that has always made Cameron great was, like Spielberg, his ability to infuse a certain holiness into his films, alongside their adrenal intensity; an overwhelming sensation that made them impossible not to be moved by. The Abyss does this more, and more often, than any of them. It's not the best Cameron film, but it is a near-run thing, and while I'm not sure The Abyss was ever the best film of 1989, I'm confident it was the best film of 1992.