Saturday, August 09, 2014

Plunging into 'The Abyss'

"It's not easy being a cast–iron bitch. It takes discipline and years of training. A lot of people don't appreciate that."

Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio)

In 1989, James Cameron was still about a decade away from unimaginable fame and fortune as the Oscar–winning director of "Titanic."

Several years earlier, he had worked on special effects for an eminently forgettable movie called "Piranha II: The Spawning" — which, I suppose, was his first foray into aquatic cinema.

But 25 years ago today, his first directorial exploration of the sea — "The Abyss" — hit the big screen. (OK, he might have been inspired by the relatively recent discovery of the Titanic's remains.)

I do not use the word exploration lightly. It was truly a deep–sea adventure, a journey into the inky depths of the ocean. In fact, it went deeper than "Titanic" ever did — and introduced moviegoers to a Steven Spielberg–esque world far below the surface.

Actually, the inhabitants of that underwater world rivaled, in many ways, the extraterrestrial characters Spielberg cooked up for audiences over the years. That was appropriate because the premise of the movie was that the crew of a still–experimental underwater oil drilling platform (led by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, whose character designed the platform) was called in to investigate a suspicious nuclear submarine crash. The suspicion was that the crash was caused by extraterrestrials.

To contact these extraterrestrials, they had to explore a deep underwater canyon.

Meanwhile, they had another set of problems with one of the crew members who was growing increasingly paranoid. And, to top it off, Mastrantonio's character was paired with her ex (Ed Harris), the rig's foreman. All of that gave the story a suitably soap opera atmosphere — as well some underwater intrigue.
Virgil (Ed Harris): Hippy, you think everything is a conspiracy.

Hippy (Todd Graff): Everything is.

Still, I thought it was an absorbing movie with a story that was accessible even to those who were not sci–fi inclined.

I've heard that Harris nearly drowned while making "The Abyss."

Apparently, he ran out of oxygen when he was filming a scene where he had to hold his breath underwater for an extended period of time. He signaled that he needed oxygen, but the safety diver was hung up on some cable and couldn't get to him. Another crew member gave Harris a regulator, but it was upside down, and Harris got water instead of air. Finally, he got a regulator in the right position and was able to breathe again.

I've heard he broke down in tears later.

My understanding is that "The Abyss" did not use many stunt people. The actors were certified to dive before filming started and did their own diving. That accounts for the sense of realism — as well as, perhaps, stories I have heard of how raw emotions became during filming.

Mastrantonio has refused to talk about "The Abyss" in interviews. "'The Abyss' was a lot of things," she reportedly said. "Fun to make was not one of them."

"The Abyss" received four Oscar nominations and won one (Best Visual Effects).