Following the success The Terminator and Aliens, Director James Cameron wrote and directed the 1989 movie ‘The Abyss’, starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn. When an American submarine sinks in the Caribbean, the U.S. search and recovery team works with an oil platform crew, racing against Russian vessels to recover the boat. Deep in the ocean, they encounter something unexpected.
The underwater science-fiction epic actually shares many similarities with Cameron’s third film, Aliens. A team with ultimately ulterior motives is sent to a claustrophobic and isolated environment, set to investigate missing groups, and just happen to stumble upon aliens. The deep-sea submarine ‘Benthic Explorer’ is commandeered into helping the SEALs with the rescue mission and like Aliens, this motley crew is made up of real, believable, and, despite/because of their faults, likable characters.
The reviews at the time praised the usual Cameron panache and visual scale (most of The Abyss was filmed in the largest fresh-water filtered tank in the world at the time). The film presents an about as bright and optimistic portrayal of extraterrestrial life as you can find in the cinema. The aliens are basically giant underwater benevolent angels concerned for some unknown reason with human safety and enlightenment.
James Cameron has been touting Avatar as a movie that redefined filmmaking, Cameron has in fact been an important force in the movie industry from a technological standpoint in particular. A force that spurs on the development of computer-generated graphics, as his films have always seemed to push the limits of special effects. And let’s be honest, his fascination with technical developments has been extremely successful, in fact, pretty much every movie he makes redefines ‘most expensive’ and ‘money-making movie’, ever made. Cameron has written and directed some of the largest blockbuster movies of the last 20 years, including The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Titanic, and Avatar.
Cameron has contributed greatly to new techniques, among those underwater filming, remote vehicle technology, motion capture technology, and 3D. When filming the Abyss, Cameron pulled out all the stops, with a movie set at the bottom of the ocean, his production converted an unfinished nuclear plant into a giant aquarium to make the world’s largest submerged set. The actors spent at least 11 to 12 hours each day on set, 40 feet underwater in an abandoned nuclear reactor in South Carolina.
The special effects in The Abyss are indeed special, the movie was made at a time when CGI was in its very infancy and we were presented with its true potential for the first time. In particular the specific scene at the end of the movie, when a column of water rises from the pool and makes its way through the Benthic Explorer, we get to see CGI as a character for the very first time.
This seemingly simple shot of the alien had a great impact on the film industry. Even though there was only just over a minute of CGI in the film, the meticulous methods used to create those shots soon became a Hollywood standard. Industrial Light and Magic spent over six months to create the 75 seconds of computer graphics needed for the alien creature.
The scene showed the audience what this kind of hyper-realistic yet fantastical CGI is capable of and Cameron’s simple water tentacle paved the way for the CGI wonders of Terminator 2 (the T–1000 constructed of liquid metal), Jurassic Park, The Matrix and everything else that followed after.
The Abyss won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects and is probably remembered particularly for the then-cutting-edge CG water tentacle.