The American submarine the U.S.S. Montana is patrolling the waters around the west Atlantic when their readings pick up something strange, an object closing in on them at increasing, and increasingly impossible, speed. They attempt to give chase but the object emits a pulse of energy that knocks out their instruments, then even worse sends them crashing into a wall of rock rising from the sea bed, and the rupture in the hull proves their undoing. On the surface, the Navy have no idea whether there are any survivors on board seeking rescue or not, but they must try, and contact the nearest available diving team, an industrial one led by Bud Brigman (Ed Harris), to assist the endeavour...
The Abyss had a minor but strange effect on science fiction movies at the end of the eighties, as with everyone expecting it to be a big hit, there were a selection of rival productions which had a go at beating it to the punch or cashing in afterwards, the irony being that director James Cameron had a major flop on his hands and all those Deepstar Six or The Rift or Leviathan efforts were shown up as exploiting a movie that nobody much wanted to see in 1989 anyway. Naturally, as is the way of these, it generated a cult following, as a Cameron work in the fantastical genres is wont to do, with some proclaiming it an unsung masterpiece, though whether that applied to the original or special edition was up for debate.
What was for sure was Cameron trying to get in touch with his sensitive side, which prior to this had been brought out in his characters' maternal feelings, but this time was concentrated on the brittle bond between a husband and wife whose marriage had seen far better days. Harris was the hubby, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was the missus, she essaying the role of Lindsay who used to work with Bud until that relationship broke down, but now having to re-establish contact as they must find out what happened to the sub. Many were able to divine some clear parallels between this pair and Cameron and his soon-to-be ex-wife Gail Anne Hurd, who was producer here and suffering similarly with their marriage.
Also suffering was pretty much everyone else involved with the shoot, as it went down in history as one of the most arduous Hollywood productions of all time, leaving, for instance, Harris unable to discuss any of his experience on the set thanks to it being simply too traumatic to recall, and Mastrantonio almost as damaged by her experiences making this. Knowing that, the message of international peace and love sounded farcical when you knew the cast would quite happily never talk to its creator ever again when he was such a tyrant, even to the extent of putting lives in danger in his drive to capture the perfection he strove for. Nevertheless, there are fans who respond to this emotional aspect as what makes movie full of wonder for them, and do not care how hollow the ordeal of its manufacture was.
The Abyss was a strange, off-balance movie, with a villain (Michael Biehn) incapacitated for much of the running time, aliens who were entirely benevolent yet still caused the sub crash which killed dozens and nearly brought about World War III (hey, it was the eighties), and a wealth of jargon in the dialogue for authenticity, but not sounding the way anybody really spoke to one another in real life. It was interesting in that the characters were professionals whose jobs led them to this situation and provided the solutions to the problems arising, rather than someone with a job that was incidental to the plot, and it did render this with a very Cameron-like atmosphere in that even the civilians came across as a military unit. The action was solid and the aliens, when we saw them, were well-realised if resembling fairy lights come to life, and there were nice touches that suggested an intelligence behind the script - the business with Bud's wedding ring, or the wires at the end - yet somehow the benevolence seemed naïve and out of character, perhaps because it was nowhere to be found when making it. Music by Alan Silvestri.
Canadian director and writer responsible for some of the most successful - and expensive - films of all time. Cameron, like many before him, began his career working for Roger Corman, for whom he made his directing debut in 1981 with the throwaway Piranha 2: Flying Killers. It was his second film, The Terminator, that revealed his talents as a director of intensely exciting action, making Arnold Schwarzenegger a movie star along the way. Aliens was that rare thing, a sequel as good as the original, while if The Abyss was an overambitious flop, then 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a superbly realised action epic featuring groundbreaking use of CGI.
Cameron teamed up with Schwarzenegger for a third time for the Bond-esque thriller True Lies, before releasing Titanic on the world in 1997, which despite a decidedly mixed critical reaction quickly became the biggest grossing film of all time. His TV venture Dark Angel wasn't wildly successful, but ever keen to push back the envelope of film technology, 2003's Ghost of the Abyss is a spectacular 3D documentary exploring the wreck of the Titanic, made for I-Max cinemas. After over a decade away from fiction, his sci-fi epic Avatar was such a success that it gave him two films in the top ten highest-grossing of all time list.