The Abyss is a science fiction film that was written and directed by James Cameron in 1989. It stars Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn. The original musical score was composed by Alan Silvestri. It was released on August 9, 1989 in the United States.
Underwater scenes were filmed in the containment building of Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant an unfinished nuclear power plant near Gaffney, South Carolina, in the United States. It took seven million gallons (26.5 million liters) of water to fill the tank to a depth of , making it the largest underwater set ever. The depth and length of time spent underwater meant that the cast and crew sometimes had to go through decompression. Filming was also done at the largest underground lake in the world—a mine in Bonne Terre, Missouri, which was the background for several underwater shots. B movie maker Earl Owensby of Shelby, NC, provided facilities for set and production.
The official novelization of the same title was written by Orson Scott Card. As it was written concurrently with filming, Card's insight into the characters was often added to the script and to the actors' portrayals.
In a subplot the SEAL team is accompanied by the platform's designer, Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mastrantonio). Her estranged husband, Virgil "Bud" Brigman (Harris) is the foreman of the platform. Unbeknownst to anyone, the SEAL leader Lt. Coffey (Biehn) has developed High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, and is losing his ability to reason as he passes slowly into a paranoid state.
As the oil workers and SEAL team investigate the wreck, the workers have strange encounters with a creature they can't identify, the same being that inadvertently caused the submarine to crash. The SEAL team meanwhile recovers one of the nuclear warheads from the submarine; their mission, which they keep hidden from the oil workers, is to destroy the sub if salvage is impossible. Meanwhile, the estranged Brigmans argue a great deal. Yet underneath, they clearly have affection and respect for one another.
Tensions continue to mount as, due to the storm, the platform loses contact with the surface, and then is nearly destroyed when its umbilical tether and the associated crane lands on it and drags it close to the edge of the trench. After the crew experiences more strange encounters from what appear to be alien beings, the paranoid Coffey determines that the aliens are a threat. Strapping the warhead to the platform's Remote Operated Vehicle, he decides to send both of them down to the bottom of the trench where the aliens appear to be coming from. The Brigmans intervene and manage to kill Coffey, but are unable to stop the ROV from taking the warhead down into the trench. Trapped in a rapidly flooding submersible, Lindsey orders Bud to use the ship's sole diving suit to swim back to the platform, towing her body. While she will drown, she banks on the very cold water via the mammalian diving reflex, preserving her until she can be resuscitated in the platform. Bud complies and manages to save her life. It seems that the estranged couple is back together.
Bud then dons an experimental diving suit given to him by the remaining SEALs in which the diver breathes in a special fluid instead of air. This has the advantage of allowing the diver to descend to incredible depths without injury, as the body will not be crushed by the pressure. Bud's mission is to dive to the bottom of the trench, deeper than anyone has ever gone before, and disarm the warhead before it detonates. He succeeds in his mission, but Lindsey is distressed to learn that he does not have enough breathing fluid remaining to allow his return to the platform. He tells her, via a wristpad that he always knew it was a one-way trip, but that he had to go to save both the platform crew and the aliens. He transmits a final message saying that he loves her and still considers her to be his wife, and she tells him how much she loves him.
The aliens find Bud as his oxygen runs out and bring him onto their ship. They provide him with air to breathe at his normal pressure, and then return him and the platform to the surface, unharmed and with no need to decompress.
In the director's cut, the aliens are upset at man's warlike tendencies, showing Bud news footage that displays man's violence, particularly evident as U.S.-Soviet tensions have reached a crisis level as a result of the sunken nuclear submarine. The aliens create enormous megatsunami-level standing waves along all of the world's coastlines. Then, having shown the world of what they are capable, and sending a message that humans are headed for destruction, they relent, and show Bud his last communication to his wife, in which Bud explained that he had sacrificed his own life to save the aliens. The aliens and their underwater city surface in the middle of the naval armada, with the platform and the divers.
I was dive-certified at the age of seventeen and since then have always wanted to do something that incorporated filming and diving—I wanted to do the definitive diving movie. But what do you do? Show the beauties of the coral reef or the perils of killer sharks? Those films have already been done. What I wanted was to go into the realm that had always excited me the most because of its extremes and its absoluteness—I wanted to go deep into the ocean. In high school, I participated in a weekly science seminar where different speakers were brought in to talk about everything from childbirth to the latest advances in physics. One of those speakers happened to be a commercial diver who had participated in an experiment in which he had breathed with a liquid in both lungs for something like forty-five minutes. That really blew my mind. Here was a guy who had used his lungs as a gill mechanism. From that seminar came the idea for a story I wrote about some scientists in a research installation on a cliff overlooking the Cayman Trough. Using liquid breathing suits, they began making forays into the deepest depths of the ocean—but no one who goes down the cliff comes back again.
What I originally wrote was a very, very crude and simple story dealing with the idea of being in the very deep ocean and doing fluid breathing and making a descent to the bottom from a staging submersible laboratory that was on the edge. Being on the brink of the bottomless pit, and the title, and the psychological ramifications of returning to the womb, breathing a liquid and falling to your death while simultaneously going back to your birth, much of that symbology is inherent in that first story. That was taken and layered upon and expanded.
The release of the Special Edition in 1993 garnered much praise. Each giving it thumbs up, Siskel remarked, "The Abyss has been improved," and Ebert added, "it makes the film seem more well rounded." The book Reel Views 2 comments, "James Cameron's The Abyss may be the most extreme example of an available movie that demonstrates how the vision of a director, once fully realized on screen, can transform a good motion picture into a great one."
The movie review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives The Abyss a "Certified Fresh" rating of 82%. However, it should be noted that the reviews cited are a mix of ones covering either the theatrical release or the Special Edition, and one negative review appears to have been counted twice.
The Abyss was nominated for many other awards, such as by Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films and the American Society of Cinematographers. It ended up winning a total of three other awards from these organizations.
What emerges in the winnowing process is only the best stuff. And I think the overall caliber of the film is improved by that. I cut only two minutes of Terminator. On Aliens, we took out much more. I even reconstituted some of that in a special (TV) release version. The sense of something being missing on Aliens was greater for me than on The Abyss, where the film just got consistently better as the cut got along. The film must function as a dramatic, organic whole. When I cut the film together, things that read well on paper, on a conceptual level, didn't necessarily translate to the screen as well. I felt I was losing something by breaking my focus. Breaking the story's focus and coming off the main characters was a far greater detriment to the film than what was gained. The film keeps the same message intact at a thematic level, not at a really overt level, by working in a symbolic way.
Cameron elected to remove the sequences along with other shorter scenes elsewhere in the film, reducing the running time from roughly two hours and fifty minutes down to two hours and twenty minutes and diminishing his signature themes of nuclear peril and disarmament. Subsequent test audience screenings drew substantially better reactions.
Star Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio publicly expressed regret about some of the scenes selected for removal from the film's theatrical cut.
There were some beautiful scenes that were taken out. I just wish we hadn't shot so much that isn't in the film.
Shortly after the film's theatrical premiere, Cameron and video editor Ed Marsh created a longer video cut of The Abyss for their own use using dailies; it was not released. With the tremendous success of Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1992, Lightstorm Entertainment secured a five year, USD$500 million financing deal with 20th Century Fox for films produced, directed or written by Cameron. Within this contract, roughly $500,000 was allocated to complete The Abyss. ILM was commissioned to finish the work they had started three years earlier, with many of the same people who had worked on it originally. The computer-generated imagery tools developed for Terminator 2 allowed ILM to complete one new shot and correct flaws in their original work. New dialogue, sound effects and foley were recorded when it was discovered that original production sound recordings had been lost. Alan Silvestri was not available to compose new music for the restored scenes. Robert Garrett, who had composed temp music for the film's initial cutting in 1989, was chosen to create new music. The project was completed in December 1992, saw a limited theatrical release in New York City and Los Angeles starting on February 26, 1993 and ventured to points beyond on the revival circuit. The laserdisc release was the first officially THX-certified laser disc and was a best-seller for months.