Before we dive deep into our 30th-anniversary celebration of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), it’s imperative that I disclose a conflict of interest. I was born and raised in Niagara Falls, Canada, where James Cameron first found his teenage love for all things science-fiction in the small community of Chippawa (as referenced in Titanic as the home of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson). Being born and raised in the “home of James Cameron,” his name alone was the stuff of local legends.
This especially rang true for someone like me who was obsessed with his blockbuster movies, had aspirations to study film, and who wanted to be a director. Needless to say, as James Cameron was chastised for proclaiming himself “King of the World“ after winning Best Picture for Titanic (1997) at the 1998 Academy Awards, I sat in my family’s living room in awe of his accomplishments and applauded his declaration. After all, this was the auteur behind Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and True Lies (1994). In my humble opinion, he was indeed the king of the filmmaking world and still is today, in many ways.
“[James Cameron is] a filmmaker that not only writes and directs but creates the new technology needed to tell his unique stories.”
Looking back at The Abyss today, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he remains a filmmaker in demand and one who’s “brand” is still part of the popular conversation and a pillar of blockbuster American filmmaking. Earlier this year, Avengers: Endgame (2019) dethroned James Cameron’s global blockbuster Avatar (2009) as the number 1 grossing film of all-time (not taking into account inflation year-to-year). Cameron himself publicly congratulated the Avengers team for sinking both his Titanic and Avatar global box-office records but as MCU fans applauded the defeat, I read on amused and perplexed at the notion that James Cameron’s achievements were now of lesser significance in the face of Thanos and Iron Man. After all, the 3D that helps contemporary blockbusters reach new theatrical heights (especially, globally) came to be as a result of Cameron’s Avatar and his own engineering innovativeness in the development of the technology itself. This is where Cameron differs. He not only creates for the screen but helps create the technology that allows worlds like The Avengers to exist.
As we celebrate 30 years since the release of the special effects game-changing The Abyss, cinephiles around the world should be reminded that Cameron’s accomplishments are not grounded in established intellectual properties such as the Marvel catalogue or Michael Crichton novels. Instead, his are original (if not inspired) stories shaped by a rich understanding of genre and innovativeness behind the camera. He’s a filmmaker that not only writes and directs but creates the new technology needed to tell his unique stories. This is at the precedence of his career and the importance of The Abyss so many years later.
Steeped within the folklore of James Cameron is his unadulterated love for all things science fiction. As shared throughout his AMC mini-series James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction and the book of the same title, it was from an early age that Cameron sought to move from a place of input to output. From the science fiction works of Ray Radbury to the cinema of the fantastic broadcasted on late night television, teenage James Cameron spent much of his time (both in and out of the classroom at Stamford Collegiate) dreaming, writing and drawing worlds of science fiction that highlighted his understanding of the genre’s rich cultural discourse. Importantly, science fiction is not merely about space, time travel, and other worlds, but rather the relationship between technology, philosophy, society, and self. As such, true science fiction film is not merely concerned with special effects but rather a rich discourse of cultural ideas that speak to the present and future. Often shaped as warnings or critical reflections, the genre in its purest form is speculative – provoking its audience to hold and engage in topical conversations.
It’s science-fiction that Cameron mastered for the movie screens in the 1980s with The Abyss reaching deep within the philosophical space of the genre. Squarely grounded within B-movie roots of the Cold War and the ideological rhetoric between the United States and Russia, the film tells the tale of a U.S. search-and-recovery team, who must locate a sunken U.S. nuclear submarine before it is located by the Russians. Loosely inspired by H.G Wells’ 1879 story In the Abyss, Cameron’s film creates a world of conflict between ideas of militarization and the discovery of alternate life. As water-shaping alien sea creatures magically come to life on the big screen, both the film’s characters and audience are challenged to explore their own beliefs of extraterrestrial life all within the larger scope of the global dangers of nuclear warfare and its impact on the human soul and earth’s ecology. Like Steven Spielberg with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cameron reminds us: story first – technology and special effects second.
Speaking specifically to those story-enabling special effects, Cameron’s cinematic body of work ranks along with the groundbreaking achievements of film giants George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Like George Lucas, who built ILM throughout the production of the original Star Wars (1977), James Cameron worked closely with movie magicians like Stan Winston to create the effects of the original Terminator. Furthermore, leveraging his experience on the ground floor of the Roger Corman film factory of New World Pictures as an art director, matte painter and special effects coordinator among many other roles, Cameron has a tradition of changing the tide of movie effects with each film he makes. From Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Corman’s low-budget and yet ambitious take on Star Wars to Galaxy of Terror (1981) an Alien inspired B-movie romp, Cameron’s experience as a multi-handed and skilled taskmaster helped propel him to the ranks of blockbuster behemoths and provided him with the technical foundation to kickstart Academy Award winning special effects company Digital Domain in the early 1990s.
In fact, it was early Academy Award-Winning Special Effects of computer-generated sea creatures in The Abyss that led to the liquid morphing spectacle of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Although designed by the creative minds at Industrial Light and Magic, Cameron was intrinsically entrenched within the behind-the-scenes development of the technology which he uses to make movie magic. From The Abyss, to Titanic and Avatar, he immerses himself into the development of the tools needed to shape his films.
However, when it comes to The Abyss, CGI rendered sea creatures paled in comparison to the complicated nature of the practical effects that the film required. Whereas James Cameron was heralded for his deep ocean dives in order to capture the opening segment of the real Titanic for his 1997 cultural phenomenon, The Abyss was very much his prototype for underwater cinematography.
Placing actors within real submarines and shooting underwater segments in an abandoned power station, which was converted into the world’s largest fresh-water filtered tank, (check out this behind-the-scenes video) Cameron pushed the envelope both in terms of computer-generated imagery and practical in-camera effects. His endless output created new digital possibilities that would make landmarks films like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park possible. The scope of such a production stands mountains above that of a Marvel film, where digital technology is so readily available and used every day.
“The Abyss arrived in theatres not only as a science-fiction epic concerned with the fatalism of humanity and its potential but with the promise of what movie magic could be in the future.”
Looking back 30 years ago, before special effects could be produced at home with Adobe After Effects or on a smartphone using mobile apps, The Abyss arrived in theatres not only as a science-fiction epic concerned with the fatalism of humanity and its potential but with the promise of what movie magic could be in the future. With this, James Cameron, is still very much the king of the world.