Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Cameron Watch: The Abyss - Director's Cut (1989)

Watched:  08/28/2021
Format:  DVD I bought on ebay
Viewing:  Unknown
Decade:  1980's
Director:  James Cameron

I would have been about 14 when The Abyss (1989) hit, and it arrived as a sort of prestige sci-fi film.  I remember seeing it in a packed house on a Saturday within the first week or two it was out (with my pals), and it was a*very big deal*.  

It became a staple of our rotation, but one you had to make time for.  The thing was 2.5 hours long.  It felt smart and somewhat relevant.  A Cold War story and not so displaced from our own time and technology, an underwater oil platform made sense - especially as run by roughnecks and fairly blue-collar technical crew.  

But even at 2.5 hours, the film felt weirdly incomplete.  It was a whole lot of build up, and then just when you're opening the Christmas present and see what it is, the thing ends.  Satisfying enough.  Your imagination could fill in the blanks.

Eventually a "Director's Cut" made it's way to home video, and added in scenes that fleshed out the story quite a bit more.  Honestly, I haven't seen anything *but* the director's cut in decades, so I can't really remember what, in the first two hours, wasn't in the theatrical cut.  

Finding The Abyss is weird.  There's a version on Amazon Prime, but it's the theatrical but it seems like it's still scanned for DVD.  It sure isn't 4K.  There's no 4K scanned BluRay or BluRay at all that I could find, and I wound up buying a DVD on ebay for $7 to see the director's cut.  Maybe Cameron has such control over it, he doesn't want anyone mucking with it til he has time.  But given his schedule on Avatar 2...  

Let's be honest.  The three hour cut is a slog and not all of the inserted footage of the tidal waves and whatnot looks great.  It also makes you realize how much there are two movies going on here, and neither needs the other, but here we are.  We could have had a movie about roughnecks finding aliens, or we could have had a movie about roughnecks dealing with being conscripted into a military exercise, and the way you remember it - that it's all one - is correct.  It's just that Cameron wants to tell the full story of what happens with the military guys and he also wants to tell a relationship story about two people who figure it out when things are tough and the model of their love will save the planet from goofy water aliens (mostly the director's cut).

By T2, I'd learn of Cameron's particular taste in women - there's a reason Sarah Connor is toting machineguns and taking no shit in the Terminator sequel.  And this movie is wild when it comes to language around gender and what it wants to show on screen when it comes to women - of which there are two, and one is definitely relegated to "she's a pal!" status which seems unlikely on a mission lasting months.  

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays our lead  - an engineer who has designed the incredible underwater platform (which.  No.  No one human would do this.  This would be a massive project with dozens of designers, let alone the hundreds needed to build such a thing.  And the movie says it's been four years of investment, which... ha ha ha... No.).  But she's referred to as "Queen Bitch of the Universe" upon her first appearance, and if ever there was an example of behavior admired in men being frowned upon in women, I'd turn to this movie.  

Except, clearly, Cameron thinks this is GREAT.  Ed Harris plays "Bud", her ex-husband and captain of the platform - and we're to see Lindsey through his eyes.  And he is deeply not over his soon-to-be ex.  Unfortunately the script keeps insisting Lindsey "talks too much", and is too bossy, etc... But it never feels this way on screen.  And I do wonder if that's an artifact of being very used to seeing different portrayals of women on screen over the last thirty-odd years, or if the part just never was *that* bossy.  

But, yeah, the language around women is very, very of the time.  I don't know what to tell you.  It's also really clunky, but I wouldn't say it's inaccurate in its time, necessarily.  YYMV regarding whether Cameron successfully subverts those expectations. 

For as much as I want to kind of say the movie hasn't aged well, or doesn't work as a Director's Cut as well as I recall, there are still some amazing scenes between MEM and Ed Harris.  Both were A-Class talent, and they were given plenty to do here.   I still hold my breath during the CPR sequence.*

Technically, the thing is still a marvel.  I won't get into how infamous the shoot was - there's plenty online about all that.  I'm equally impressed with what Cameron does here and what Disney did decades before with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which was open water), but he does manage to absolutely build a world in which the audience both instantly understands and believes, despite its alien nature.  Because it's so many practical effects, it's mostly aged terrifically well.  I think there's maybe one stop-motion shot of a mechanical device that doesn't quite work.  And even the muppety aliens are... you know aliens.  Who knows what they'd look like?

Cameron is kind of a funny guy.  He has certain things he's clearly obsessed with, and they're all here.  The military is reckless, a hammer in which every problem is a nail.  Humanity needs to be rescued from it's self-destructive urges.  Women should probably be in charge.  But I don't know if that's what people think of when they think of Cameron.  He's also the hardware-porn guy, and features lots of explosions, so he tends to get lumped in with other action film makers.   

But I'd argue he tends to show a lot of the stuff we take for granted in other action movies as *failing*.  

Anyhoo, it's The Abyss, you've all seen it, I guess. 

*even if it's dumb they don't have MEM cough up lungs full of water and then puke, which would be pretty standard  


Rick said...

FYI, Martin-Decker, where I worked at the time (1984-1990), supplied the drilling instrument panel for this movie - gratis. When the shooting wrapped up the producers(?) sponsored a shindig for all involved at the "Dallas" tv show ranch east of Dallas. Your mom and I went and enjoyed the evening.


The League said...

If Ed Harris was there and you and Mom didn't take me, we're having words.