Before you take a deep dive into this love letter to The Abyss (1989) it’s imperative that I disclose a conflict of interest. I was born and raised in Niagara Falls, Canada, where James Cameron first found his teenage love for all things science-fiction, saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a dozen times at the now closed Seneca Theatre on Queen’s Street and first dreamt of metal skeletons and alien landscapes while in class as a student at Stamford Collegiate High School. As a movie geek, growing up in the “Home of James Cameron,” was euphoric in that Hollywood seemed so close to home. Needless to say, I was obsessed with his blockbusters from a very young age and still find myself fully immersed in his exploratory stories that are often about the intersection between technology and humanity.
Looking back to my teenage self, imagine if the character of Dawson Leery from the CW teen drama Dawson’s Creek was from the same town as his idol Steven Spielberg. If you get the reference then you can appreciate my level of adoration for all-things James Cameron.
Now known for his love of aquatic adventure, James Cameron’s first big-screen immersion into the depths of the ocean took place in 1989 with The Abyss. Released 33 years ago, The Abyss remains a taunt screening with the ground-breaking special effects that have become the norm for a James Cameron movie.
In fact, The Abyss is necessary viewing prior to seeing Avatar: Way of the Water (now in theatres) as it provides the groundwork for the environmental discourse that is at the centre of Cameron’s Pandora universe.
Before visiting Pandora, enter The Abyss.
Cameron and Science Fiction:
“Science fiction has always asked the great and profound questions: What is it to be human? What is the place in the grand scheme of things? Are we alone in the vastness or part of a great community? What does it all mean? What will happen next? Are we doomed, or destined for greatness? It’s a genre that’s not afraid of the deepest philosophical abyss.”
— James Cameron from James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction
Steeped within the folklore of James Cameron is his unadulterated love for all things science fiction. As shared throughout his AMC mini-series titled James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction and the book of the same title, it was from an early age that Cameron sought to ask big questions about the world around him.
From the science fiction works of Ray Radbury to the cinema of the fantastic broadcasted on late night television, a teenage James Cameron spent much of his time dreaming, writing and drawing worlds of science fiction that highlighted his understanding of the genre’s rich cultural discourse. Cameron understands fully that science fiction is not merely about space, time travel and other worlds. Rather, science fiction is about big ideas. As such, true science fiction film is not merely concerned with the fantastical but rather the culturally rich discourse that shapes humanity.
Profound questions are explored within the depths of The Abyss. Squarely grounded within the politics of the Cold Water and the fear of nuclear disaster, The Abyss tells the story of a U.S. search and recovery team, on a mission to locate a sunken U.S. nuclear submarine before it is discovered by the Russians.
Loosely inspired by H.G Wells’ 1879 story In the Abyss, Cameron’s story highlights a world where technological evolution creates a constant threat and where nature is fully alive. As water shaping alien sea creatures magically come to life on the big screen (technology that would make Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park possible), both the film’s characters and audience are challenged to explore their own understanding of life and humanity’s relationship with the environment. This connection is further explored in Cameron’s Avatar films and reinforces the engrossing canvas science-fiction enables in in examining real world issues. Often for Cameron, the intersectionality of technology and humanity is at the centre of his cinematic stories and The Abyss is no different.
Cameron’s Visual World:
Cameron’s cinematic body of work ranks amongst the groundbreaking achievements of film giants including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Like George Lucas who built Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in order to make Star Wars (1977), James Cameron often finds himself in the midst of technological innovation in service of story. Leveraging his experience on the ground floor of the Roger Corman film factory of New World Pictures as an art director, matte painter and special effects coordinator among many other roles, Cameron has a tradition of changing the tide of movie effects with each film he makes.
From Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Corman’s low-budget and yet ambitious take on Star Wars to Galaxy of Terror (1981), an Alien inspired b-movie romp, Cameron’s experience as a multifaceted and skilled taskmaster helped propel him to the ranks of blockbuster behemoths. In fact, it was the Academy Award Winning special effects of computer generated sea-creatures in The Abyss that evolved into the liquid morphing spectacle of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and the evolution of CGI that has led Cameron to Avatar (2009).
Although, designed by the creative minds at ILM, Cameron, unlike other filmmakers who may stand at the sidelines of such creative design, was intrinsically entrenched within the behind-the-scenes development of the technology used in making movie magic.
However, when it comes to The Abyss, CGI rendered sea creatures pale in comparison to the complicated nature of the practical effects that the film required. Whereas James Cameron was heralded for his deep ocean dives in order to capture the opening segment of the real Titanic for his 1997 cultural phenomenon, The Abyss was very much his prototype for underwater cinematography. Placing actors within real submarines and shooting underwater segments in an abandoned power station, which was converted into the world’s largest fresh-water filtered tank, (check out this behind-the-scenes video) Cameron pushed the elevelop both in terms of computer generated imagery and practical in camera and on-set effects.
140 Minutes of Movie Magic:
Ambitious and brilliant, The Abyss still remains one of the best science fiction films ever made. The antithesis to the rapid speed of the Star Wars films, The Abyss is a slow dive into the depths of the ocean all while building claustrophobic tension that still resonants over 30 years later.
So, if you’re snowed-in this Christmas weekend and can’t make it to the theatre to see Avatar: Way of the Water, make sure to add The Abyss to your watch list.