Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Abyss


I spent the day with Norman on the set of his new film Waterworld II: The Gills Have Eyes . In order to save money, the production company will be filming in the tanks at Sea World in San Diego. Norman, as Flounder, will have most of his scenes in the Orca tank; there are, however, several important sequences for him to film in the penguin habitat and in the Sparklett's 'Dancing Waters' show. More money has been saved on the sets; the art department has welded some old Winnebagos and Airstreams together for that dystopian future look. They can be hoisted in and out of the tanks with cranes between takes, allowing the killer whales and dolphins to do their back flips on schedule for the tourists.

Norman's major costume is a polypropylene body suit which gives him fins and gills; he also has prosthetic make-up to put both eyes on the same side of his head. While he underwent final fittings, I found a quiet corner to finish up planning for the rest of the Virtually Vicki infomercial shoot which is set to resume tomorrow. I then got Norman checked into the San Diego Hilton, double padlocked the mini-bar, and returned to Chateau Maine. I do worry about him down there on his own but Angelina Jolie, who's playing the heroine, said she'd take really, really good care of him for me. She's such a sweet girl - obviously modest, clean living and completely unspoiled by Hollywood.

Putting my feet up in the home theater, my head was filled with ideas about marriage, underwater film shoots, and sets dunked by a crane. Therefore, I got out the DVD of The Abyss: Special Edition which I had gotten as a premium for four proof of purchase seals and fifteen Star-Kist tuna labels some weeks ago. The Abyss is one of my favorite guilty pleasure films. I never tire of it, despite its obvious flaws.

James Cameron, the writer/director, is one of our most talented film makers. Like Spielberg, he has a knack of reducing storytelling to brilliant visual images. His special forte is the world of machine, as he proved in such films as Aliens and The Terminator . Cameron has a knack for screenplay story structure. Say what you will about Titanic , the framing device of Old Rose as a way of seducing the audience into the story is brilliant. The Abyss is also beautifully structured. Cameron uses the metaphor of the bottomless ocean trench to explore the differences between men and women, between humans and non-humans, between military and civilian, and between 'us' and 'them' in the political arena. Unfortunately, Cameron is completely unable to string words together into coherent lines of dialog. All of his films are filled with clunky exchanges that a more talented scribe would have thrown out in an early draft. Unfortunately, Cameron's towering ego seems to prevent him from working with a collaborator who could shape his ideas into better words.

When The Abyss was originally released to theaters in 1989, a number of major effects shots had not been completed to the satisfaction of Cameron and his then wife, producer Gale Ann Hurd. This necessitated truncating the end of the film and cutting a whole political subplot that motivates most of the story flow. The film, at that time, while visually stunning, felt curiously hollow and incomplete. Several years later, Cameron returned to the film and completed the unfinished footage, restoring the subplots, creating a longer, richer narrative. This was released briefly theatrically and then on DVD as 'The Special Edition'. This version of the film is on the DVD, although there is an option which will allow you to automatically cut the new footage and create the original theatrical cut. I don't recommend this but it's an interesting exercise to see how such cuts can alter a piece.

The Abyss is the story of an underwater oil drilling crew, operating the first completely submersible drilling platform, the Deepcore, 2,000 feet below the surface of the Caribbean, near the Cayman Trench. Nearby, a US nuclear submarine notices a strange signal which they presume is a new Russian prototype. They give chase into the trench, where they crash. A hurricane is coming up, and the Navy's best bet to recover the sub before the Russians get there, is the crew of the Deepcore led by Bud Brigman (Ed Harris). The Deepcore heads for the submarine wreck, joined by a team of Navy SEALS led by Lieutenant Coffey (Michael Biehn) and Lindsay Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), Bud's soon to be ex-wife, who designed the Deepcore. The sub is totalled but something strange seems to be going on in the depths of the Cayman trench, more than 15,000 feet below them. Just then, hurricane Fred strikes, damaging their mother ship and cutting them off from above. They're running out of heat, air, and time and Lieutenant Coffey seems to be going wacko and is armed with one of the Trident warheads from the sub. There's lots of action, deep sea diving, submarine fights, unusual creatures of the depths, narrow escapes and cold water drownings still to come before the vaguely apocalyptic ending.

The visual look and effects in this film are spectacular. 1989 was the beginning of CGI effects and Cameron is always one to push the envelope, creating shimmering water creatures and effects that still set a standard. Much of the filming was done in a 7.5 million gallon tank in an abandoned nuclear plant in South Carolina and the cast and crew all had to be trained in scuba. The shoot was, according to the cast, absolutely miserable as they were required to do many of their own stunts, spending day after day in flooded sets and in diving suits for take after take until perfectionist Cameron got what he wanted.

The majority of the supporting cast, the other roustabouts and divers on the oil rig, are good New York stage actors like Todd Graff (Hippie), Kimberley Scott (One Night), Leo Burmester (Catfish) and John Bedford Lloyd (Jammer). As they are not overly familiar movie faces, they come across as real and, in the special edition, they are given enough screen time to actually develop characters, rather than just types. Both Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are fine in their roles, within the limitations of some of the dialog they're forced to deliver and they have one powerful scene where they know they must choose between life and death, that's magic. The weak link is Michael Biehn. He's just too light weight for the maniacal Coffey. He doesn't have the gravitas to be a real menace. The part calls out for someone with the intensity of the young Marlon Brando or Robert Mitchum.

The major flaws in the film are similar to the flaws in most Cameron films. The man has no idea how to create a well rounded female character. He either writes men with boobs (Ripley and the marines in Aliens , Sarah in Terminator II ) or b!tches (Mrs. Bukater in Titanic, Faith in Strange Days ). His idea of female character development is to have the latter morph into the former. This task falls to poor Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio - she pulls it off, but barely. The only other woman in the movie, Kimberley Scott's One Night, is firmly in the men with boobs category and stays there. There is a strange misogynistic thread that permeates most of Cameron’s scripts (think of Schwarzzeneger's treatment of Jamie Lee Curtis in the second act of True Lies ) and it's here in spades. For instance, Bud, trying to revive a dying Lindsay, is unable to do so until he slaps her and calls her a very unladylike name.

There are some true idiot moments in the film. Cameron has Lindsay arrive on a ship threatened by a hurricane in a smart grey twinset and come fuck me pumps - just what I would choose to take to sea. The resuscitation scene has most of the cast slopping around in sea water as they keep shocking poor Lindsay with the paddles - not very smart according to the ACLS handbook. There's some really dopey symbolism involving a wedding ring (which becomes plot later on) and a stuffed Garfield doll that a smarter writer would have taken out after the first draft.

The look of the film, with the underwater photography and the futuristic industrial sets, is magnificent. The composition of actor and miniature and process photography is near perfect. Only the denoument looks a little hokey, kind of like grandma's cherry surprise Cool Whip dessert at the church bazaar.

The DVD is chock full of interesting detail. The first disc has the film (choose your cut) which has a great color transfer and a great Dolby 5.1 / DTS soundtrack. It also contains a text commentary that's sort of like watching the film on Pop Up Video. It's illuminating to see how certain sequences were cut together and some of the snarky comments are a lot of fun.

The second disc has tons of other material including the full original story treatment, the full final screenplay, the full storyboards, in depth features on how many of the visual effects were obtained, and the obligatory behind the scenes interviews. You could spend days scrolling through all that's here. It's almost a mini-film school following the whole process from first treatment through final film.

Submarine flooding. Crane crash. House plant brandishing. Gratuitous Linda Ronstadt sing-a-long. 80s neon tubing creatures. Submarine dog fight. Liquid breathing rat. Imploding windshield. Seizing diver. Gratuitous Mikhail Gorbachev. Ed Harris in wet underwear.

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