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The Abyss- Special Edition


‘…a plea for tolerance and mutual understanding, just what we need in 2020…’

James Cameron’s follow-up to his celebrated Aliens/Terminator success wasn’t the game-changer hoped for back in 1989; over 30 years later, the underwater adventure film has all but vanished. Like another aquatic beastie, the Loch Ness Monster, rumours of The Abyss popping up for a week on Film 4, Netflix UK or Microsoft in Australia are all unconfirmed; it doesn’t seem to be on Apple tv, itunes or most of the familiar go-to sites. Why has James Cameron’s film vanished, and is it worth delving into the murky depths to salvage it?

Size, of course, matters, and the Special Edition of The Abyss is just nine minutes short of three hours long. Critics at the time derided Cameron’s film as being ‘more interested in machines than people’, but while that comment would seem right for all kinds of blockbuster films, it doesn’t apply here, with Cameron doubling down on one human story at the heart of a drama. A messy divorce is taking place between Virgil Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) and his wife Lindsay (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio); when his work on the Deep Core drilling platform is interrupted by the intervention of a group of navy seals led by Coffey (Michael Biehn), she comes along for the ride; as the platform’s designer, she knows all the tricks. And she’ll need them; a wild storm is brewing, the world is on the edge of a nuclear war, and the SEAL team have orders to retrieve a missing trident nuclear warhead that was on board a stricken submarine. But what caused the submarine disaster, and is there something nasty waiting in the Cayman Trough? Virgil and Lindsay have a mountain of obstacles to overcome if they’re going to save the world before Coffey’s high-pressure nervous syndrome drives him to murder…

The Abyss has a notoriously long and difficult shooting schedule that actors and crew remember without enthusiasm, but arduous shoots can make for great movies. Audiences at the time expected Cameron to create another action shoot-em up in the vein of Aliens or Terminator 2. The Abyss’s mix of 2001 mysticism and The Day The Earth Stood Still eco-messaging weren’t on message with the last years of Reagan-ite thinking, yet Cameron’s heart certainly seems to be in the right place. The Abyss’s message is not just anti nuclear, but specifically a plea for tolerance and mutual understanding, just what we need in 2020. Politically, it feels like a film ahead of its time, and worth reviving if only for the striking attention to detail. To seal the deal, Chris Elliott, the slovenly mayor from Schitt’s Creek has an unexpected cameo as a bonus too.

The Abyss looks simply stunning these days; while there are plenty of not-great effects shots in Aliens and Terminator, The Abyss is remarkably consistent, and the deleted tidal wave sequence in the climax looks pretty dramatic. The tech is, as you’d expect from Cameron, spot on, but it’s the relationship between Virgil and Lindsey that really seal the deal. She castigates him for still wearing their wedding ring, but early on, the ring saves his life when his hand gets caught in a closing door. As the narrative hurdles are cleared, the balance of power shifts between the couple, leading to extended sequences where he fights to revive her from a drowning, and she talks him through a dangerous depressurised descent. All of this pays off as part of the climax when it’s Virgil and Lindsay’s revived passion that proves key to the solution; like Titanic, the love story is the key to the action, and stops the film tipping into Boys Own Adventure territory.

The takeaway; given that half the world is sitting at home, given that Cameron has an extended, largely unseen cut of a pretty fabulous, on message feature that’s just right for 2020, why not re-release The Abyss: Special Edition to streaming? I mean, what do we have to lose? It’s a big action film that’s been almost entirely neglected, and we now have the big-ass tvs and sound systems to finally do it justice. Perhaps Cameron’s divorce from producer Gale Anne Hurd makes it a sore point for the director, but there’s a bigger cause to think about here. In a year where blockbuster films are in short supply, reviving The Abyss would give us all a fix of something cinematic to enjoy…


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  1. Why The Abyss and True Lies haven’t seen a Bluray release yet, is beyond me. They sure have released the rest of Cameron’s catalogue countless times; T2 comes to mind.

    • Good question. Both films would be popular, one assumes that Cameron is holding them back, but I can’t see why…

  2. i know I saw this film. I saw it at least 2 times. Back in the day my family owned a copy of it. I had a soft spot for Mastrantonio and I can’t recall a bit of this film. Not a damned tiddle of it. Is there a beast? I seem to remember some sort of glowing water creature . . . but frankly there’s nothing for my memory to hang recognition on.

    • Oh, yes, I had an old VHS, but wasn’t entirely satisfied with the story. The Special edition is essential viewing, because the full story makes sense…and yes, we’re talking glowing undersea aliens, plus a brand new todal wave sequence in the full version that’s reason enough to seek this out! And yes, Mastrantonio is phenomenal in this film! See it again if you can!

  3. “ it doesn’t seem to be on Apple tv, itunes or most of the familiar go-to sites”…So true. It’s nuts this film can’t be found anywhere. It will probably not come as a huge surprise that I absolutely love this film and have it on dvd. It’s one of those movies that makes you wonder why this didn’t do better at the time, despite audience as you say expecting another shoot em up. Ed and Mary both had terrific performances, and I loved Ed’s scene where he is trying to revive her and screams at her for to fight! As usual Biehn is incredible here as well, and if you talk about an underrated actor, it’s him.
    I loved this post for one of my favorite all time films. I’m still trying to decide which movies to watch for sci-fi month, but you can be sure it will at least include one classic. It might even be this one 😊😊

    • I couldn’t cast the three leads better, and it makes a difference having proper actors in a blockbuster. I know you’ve got a graoning backlog of films to review, but would love to hear how this one worked for you! Sounds like we’re both fans…but who would have thought a James Cameron film could end up so hard to find?

      • Well, groaning backlog or not, it’s definitely one I wouldn’t mind revisiting, but there does lie a small problem. I have a huge number of my dvds packed up at the moment, and thus they have become unreachable for now. Even though I know this film very well, I always want to watch something again before I write about it. But eh, I will see what I can do to unearth it from one of the boxes🤔😊
        That said, it really is nuts that this film is so crazy hard to find. I think even Piranha part 2 is an easier find! 😂😂😂

        • You’ve been looking for Piranha 2? Hmm…I’ve have a look in your boxes, the ones under the bed are covered in dust!

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this (surprise!) and from what you write here, doesn’t sound like I’ll ever get around to watching it. If I’ve got a 3hr block of time to be dedicated to staring at a screen, I suspect that will be the Lord of the Rings re-watch I keep promising myself I’ll do some day….

    • Shocker! I don’t like any of the LOTR films, and much prefer Cameron’s brand of action adventure! Your loss!

            • I’d thought it might seem like trolling, but maybe I should air my controversial views. I find them undisiplined, over-cooked, tiresome and rather silly, and unable to solve the narrative problems in putting the books on-screen. And don’t even get me started on The Hobbit 1 2 and 3…

              • I’m with you on the Hobbit trilogy. I prefer to pretend they don’t exist.

                Do you have reviews for the LotR movies? I can check those out instead of just asking question after question here.

                • To be honest, I’d not reviewed the trilogy because I lost the will to live after the first two, and never saw Fellowship. It could be that I’ve got anti-goblin prejudice, and should seek therapy, but they just don’t work for me. Have a boxed-set still in their sealed wrapper. I’ll add this to my review list, but be warned, it may feel like I’m trolling the world, beacuse I get that everyone loves them…

                  • Have you read the books? If so, do you feel the same about the books?

                    Please don’t review them if they make you lose the will to live. Let Joe Biden do that for you 😉

                    • No, I liked all the books when I was a kid, but I felt that the films didn’t match up.

                      I think Joe Biden is coming to my city, should I ask him?

                    • Now that is interesting, because I thought Jackson did a fantastic job of turning the books into movies. Obviously this is a sensitive subject for you, so I’ll well enough alone, for now. I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it at some point though.

                      I have nothing that is Christian to say to Biden.

  5. There seems to be regular promises of The Abyss and True Lies getting a blu-ray or even 4k release. Cameron has suggested the restorations are virtually complete and are just waiting for him to review the colour grading, but he’s too busy on the Avatar films. It seems they’re sitting in limbo.

    I suspect Disney might also be a factor – they own both films and nowadays they seem to be very controlling on whether and how their back-catalogue titles are released.

    I hope we get a rerelease of The Abyss someday (I’m less interested in True Lies, although it’s fun). Until then I’ll just keep hold of my special edition DVD.

    • Agreed on all points; in a global pandemic, surely Cameron must have a disrupted schedule that would give him time to make a few calls? We’re all in need of blockbuster action right now, and it seems ridiculous to have this out of action…

  6. The underwater photography was truly impressive. I don’t think the CGI has held up as well. The underwater city might be Atlantis from Aquaman. And I thought it was too long when it first came out and then they added 30 minutes to it for the director’s cut! I appreciate Cameron’s earnestness though.

    • OK, but people didn’t have too many problems with Aquaman, and the PC messaging is great now. And it tops things off perfectly for the alien forces to monitor and understand the relationship between Virgil and Lindsey, and for that to be the key plot point. We’re happy to overlook some of the poor shots in Aliens and Terminator, and there’s notably less of them here. I think it’s worth letting the people decide! It looked beyond fab when I watched it this weekend…

        • Yup and Nope! I think we’re more au fait with the kind of expansive, imaginative universe featured here than we were in 1989…

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