The Abyss ★★★★

Clearly Cameron’s attempt to make a Spielberg film (Face-reaction shots; Close Encounters similarities about in the mise-en-scene, alien design, and that finale), but also distinctly a Cameron film.* Opening submarine sequence is hardened, masculine, filled with specialty military lingo that he perfectly communicates through the shots, and the director’s bravado specialty of creating an intense physical reality—that rushing water looks truly authentic in a way CGI could never pull off. Those guys actually look like they are getting smacked around before plummeting to a watery grave. Also a perfect Cameron entrance shot: an army platoon empties out of a helicopter with the shot focused on each of their boots until a pair of high heels emerges revealing Mary Mastrantonio (totally implausible, but delightfully so). Though I think rightly compared to Howard Hawks hangout films, the film is briskly plotted, each sequence naturally leading into what follows next—so maybe it is closer to Rio Bravo in that way.

The film’s strength comes in the details of slowness: no one can move quickly in water, so everything sort of glides awkwardly and each crash and bump is felt. It’s also a film deeply invested in creating a legible architecture, especially for a space surrounded in almost pitch black—Cameron’s opening sequences in the cavernous oil rig slowly connect the dots of A to B, and use the numerous windows to point out the relationship of the outside area to each inside. The result is not something that one could draw out on paper per say, but it makes this feel like an authentic whole—an extension of the crew and fitting for their work. Each sequence simply uses the physical environment to its surroundings—the highlight clearly the knife fight between Ed Harris and Michael Biehn’s renegade army captain. The swinging lamp gives both a rhythm and a sense of surprise when it breaks that rhythm.

The military aspect is always a strange part of Cameron—he both fetishizes their tech, though he essentially escapes condemnation through Beihn’s deep sea-pressure hysteria (slowly, and quite naturally set up). Not necessarily a bad thing, nor is Cameron’s strange relationship with women sometime: what other film features a woman finally resuscitating from death by smacking her around and calling her a bitch? This was my first viewing of the theatrical cut, whose ending doesn’t work at all – the awkward 2001 journey through the ship feels like a very different movie, and it’s not that the CGI is outdated, but feels all too overwhelming and jerky compared to the simplicity that it presented earlier. The rise to the top has no motivation, leaving the film in a truly awkward place; certainly makes more sense in the thematically coherent nuclear missile plea/giant wave of water director’s cut, even if that has its own issues.

*And now for better or worse, clearly the inspiration for Michael Bay’s Armageddon. And De Palma’s clearly used the water breathing oxygen material for the finale of Mission To Mars