The Abyss: An open Letter to James Cameronby
Dear James Cameron
I have been a fan of your work for as long as I can remember. I first saw The Terminator when I was too young to see it and too young to fully understand it. I loved the action, loved the stone faced bad guy who later became known as Arnold Schwarzenegger, had a secret crush on Linda Hamilton who was far too old for me at the time (which may have been part of the attraction). In later years I re-watched it and enjoyed it even more – loving the use of time travel and probably crapping myself that such a thing could happen. The simplicity of the idea is one that people still discuss today and no other than Stephen Hawking recently raised the specter of Artificial Intelligence taking over the world and destroying humanity. I, like millions of others, latched on to that iconic phrase that Schwarzenegger promises before shooting up the police station - 'I'll be back!' As catchphrases go, it's up there with 'You looking at me?', and 'May he force be with you.'
Around the same time I watched your classic sequel to Alien! Aliens became one of my favourite films of all time! Still is. Another brilliantly quotable film, especially the wonder that is Bill Paxton (who was, of course, in The Terminator) - 'Game over man, game over', 'What are we supposed to use? Harsh Language?' 'Stop your grinning and drop your linen!'
Aliens taught me so much about what to expect from a modern action film, lessons which I continue to judge other films by even today over 30 years later. The way you introduced the story through the characters and not just through exposition. In fact, in this and other films of your's, Character and Exposition are the same thing. The tension is cranked up slowly but not leisurely. There was so much going on, wonderful characters to meet, technology to explore, emotions to feel, before we even get sight of an Alien.
And when we did – wow! The action is supreme and what sets it apart from so many other films, when one of the characters died in evil hands of the Aliens, we felt it personally. We have spent time with these people and we like them so when they meet their end we, as an audience, lose something too.
The first time I saw one of your films in the cinema was in 1989. The film was The Abyss. It was the first of many I would see on the silver screen – Terminator II (how the hell did you manage to top the first one?),True Lies – a wonderfully underrated comedy spectacle, Titanic – a film that caused my sister, who I had seen the film with, to burst into tears halfway up Bute Street, Cardiff, and Avatar. This last film seems to have lost some of its aura over the years, with many people turning against it but I still love it. The planet is brilliantly realised, the characters (again) are real people, the climax is astonishing. The only issue I have with this film is – when are you going to pull your fingers out and make the next one? You do realise you could have made a number of other films in between don't you?
But this is not what I wanted to speak to you about today.
Let's go back to 1989. The Castle Cinema, Merthyr Tydfil. I was seventeen when I witnessed the breathtaking undertaking of The Abyss. I don't think it was marketed really well as it seemed to concentrate more on how hard it was to make that what the film was actually about, but I went to see it based on that fact that it was directed by you, Mr Cameron.
The story is great and, at the time, very pertinent. A nuclear submarine crashes near the Mariana Trench after coming into contact with an unidentified underwater object and a group of workers on an underwater oil drilling platform are commandeered into helping some marines with the rescue mission. Like Aliens, this motley crew is made up of real, believable and, despite their faults, likable characters. We even end up liking the 'queen bitch of the universe' Lindsey, played perfectly by the fabulous Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Her relationship with her ex-husband bud (Ed Harris) may not be the most original, but it feels real. There is both love and resentment there. In fact the characters are so well drawn out that, in one memorable scene, we even have empathy with a rat!!!!
When the Aliens turn up the film takes us in completely the opposite direction to Aliens the movie. They are beautiful and you can't help but gasp when we first see them. They are not violent, they are NTIs (Non Terrestrial Intelligences) which want to share this planet with us and are actually feeling threatened by us. In this respect the film mirrors one of my favourite Sci-Fi films of all time – The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The ending of the original released version, I admit, didn't make a lot of sense. It seemed abrupt, as if something was missing. A few years later we were given another version, almost 30 minutes longer. It fleshed out the characters further, added a few small scenes throughout and transformed the ending. All of a sudden it didn't just make more sense, it was overwhelming!
The performances are outstanding with one scene above all showcasing the superiority of the writing and the skill of the actors. Lindsey has drowned, Bud carries her onto the rig, the situation is lost. Bud's emotions swing from determination to resignation to downright hostility to the possibility of death. 'Goddammit, you bitch! You never backed away from anything in your life! Now fight!' he cries out in anguish. It is a stellar performance especially considering that, when he was saying these lines, they delivered directly into the camera, she wasn't even there! Apparently, Mr Cameron, you were particularly hard on Mastrantonio, making her do take after take for this scene, lying on a cold hard floor for hours, her breasts exposed to the world, until finally she had enough and stormed off the set.
The film was beset with problems: issues with the water tanks, the tarp that kept the tank in darkness ripped which meant filming had to be done throughout the night to ensure no ambient light lit up the water, and at one point Ed Harris panicked whilst doing a solo swim without any breathing equipment. This could have resulted in his death – something he was well aware of. And these just touch the surface (pun intended) of what went wrong.
The film was indeed arduous.
Now I understand that it wasn't the mega success you have been used to – before or since – but it has accumulated a huge following in the last 25 years. People, like myself, really love this film, yet we have been criminally forgotten. Remember, it is cinephiles like myself who spend our money on films just like this. And it works. Blade Runner was a flop that became a huge success (and has spawned a sequel) because Cinephiles have kept the flame burning. We have had multiple releases, special additions, boxsets and crucially, excellent Blu-Ray releases.
Which brings me to the point of this open letter. Why is there no HD version of The Abyss? How come we cinephiles, we fans of your work, the people who celebrate you always – not just when a film is released – have never had our wish for a Blu-Ray version of this brilliant example of Cinema come true?
There is an appetite for it. We want to see it, to experience it in a format that The Abyss would look perfect in. There are many films that get a HD release without it adding a great deal to the viewing experience but this is not the case for The Abyss. Your film was made for HD! We want the commentary, the extras, the Behind The Scenes, the artwork, the Director's cut. If there ever was a film that Blu-Ray Special Editions were made for, its this.
There have been many rumours over the years – a 4K release in 2017? Well, we are halfway through the year and still nothing.
So I ask you, I beseech you, I beg you, on behalf of cinephiles around the world, on behalf of all those people who were too young to see the film on it's initial release, please release the Blu-Ray of The Abyss.
I trust that the film will be available soon. I write this with the soundtrack playing through my earphones, with the film playing in my memory.
My trust is in you Mr Cameron.