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Deep Dive: Remembering “The Abyss” on its 30th Anniversary

November 14, 2019 - 2:23 pm   |   by

The Abyss does something that every single Cameron film does: explores new frontiers in the technology of film making. And that’s important.” — Matthew Kapell, editor of The Films of James Cameron: Critical Essays

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 30th anniversary of the release of The Abyss, James Cameron’s (The Terminator, Titanic) underwater sci-fi adventure starring Ed Harris (The Right Stuff) and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (The Color of Money).

Also starring Michael Biehn (Aliens) and featuring groundbreaking visual effects, The Abyss opened thirty years ago this past summer. For the occasion The Bits features a package of statistics and box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context, along with passages from vintage film reviews, a reference/historical listing of the movie’s showcase presentations, and, finally, an interview segment with a film historian who reflects on the film three decades after its debut. [Read on here...]

In case you missed them or desire a refresher read, the Bits’ other James Cameron retrospectives include The Terminator 30th anniversary, Aliens 30th anniversary, and Terminator 2 25th anniversary.

The Abyss (1989) screenshot

 

ABYSS NUMBER$

  • 0 = Number of sequels, prequels, reboots, etc.
  • 0 = Number of weeks top-grossing movie
  • 1 = Number of Academy Awards (Visual Effects)
  • 1 = Number of Saturn Awards
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning movies during opening weekend
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning science-fiction films of 1989
  • 4 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 7 = Number of months between theatrical release and home video release
  • 7 = Number of Saturn nominations
  • 7 = Rank among top-earning films directed by James Cameron (adjusted for inflation)
  • 11 = Rank among top-earning films of 1989 (summer season)
  • 13 = Number of weeks of longest-running theatrical engagement
  • 19 = Rank among top-earning films of 1989 (calendar year)
  • 23 = Rank among top-earning films of 1989 (retroactive / legacy / lifetime earnings)
  • 1,533 = Number of theaters playing the movie during opening week
  • $6,079 = Opening weekend per-screen-average
  • $238,737 = Box-office gross (1993 extended cut re-release)
  • $9.3 million = Opening weekend box-office gross
  • $19.3 million = Opening weekend box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
  • $28.7 million = Box-office rental (domestic, original release)
  • $35.5 million = Box-office gross (international)
  • $47.0 million = Production cost
  • $54.2 million = Box-office gross (domestic, original release)
  • $59.4 million = Box-office rental (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $73.5 million = Box-office gross (international, adjusted for inflation)
  • $89.8 million = Box-office gross (worldwide, original release)
  • $90.1 million = Box-office gross (worldwide, lifetime)
  • $97.3 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $112.7 million = Box-office gross (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $186.2 million = Cumulative box-office gross (worldwide, adjusted for inflation)

The Abyss (1989) screenshot

 

A SAMPLING OF PASSAGES FROM REVIEWS

The Abyss is monumental mold-breaking entertainment. It is an experience like no other.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

“The best way to enjoy this overwrought action film is to go in knowing it is spectacularly silly — something the writer and director, James Cameron, never concedes.” — Caryn James, The New York Times

“With all its numskullness, The Abyss is at heart a sweet movie, full of people dying and then living for love, and nothing new to add on the subject of other-worldlings than Close Encounters of the Third Kind offered 12 years ago: ’Give ’em a chance. You don’t hurt them; they don’t hurt you. Who knows, we might learn something from them.’ But the climax of Close Encounters was breathtaking and the climax of The Abyss is downright embarrassing.” — Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

“The payoff to The Abyss is pretty damn silly — a portentous deus ex machina that leaves too many questions unanswered and evokes too many other films.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

The Abyss will, at times, leave you gasping for air, dazzled by its ingenuity, and plain befuddled by its complexity.” — Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Call it Close Encounters of the Wet Kind.” — Eleanor Ringel, The Atlanta Constitution

“Cameron has a hell of an eye, and in The Terminator and Aliens he proved himself to be a great bare-knuckled fantasist. But The Abyss lacks the intricately worked-out narrative of The Terminator or the Aliens star power of Weaver. Here, when Cameron tries to express emotions that have more depth of breadth than a Miller Lite commercial, he fails. It’s no compliment to note that, even when it looks and tastes great, The Abyss isn’t filling at all.” — Michael Sragow, San Francisco Examiner

“[The Abyss] asks us to believe that the drowned return to life, that the comatose come to the rescue, that driven women become doting wives, that Neptune cares about landlubbers. I’d sooner believe that Moby Dick could swim up the drainpipe.” — Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

The Abyss offers a harrowing, thrilling journey through the inky waters and high tension. In the end, however, this torpedo turns out to be a dud — it swerves at the last minute, missing its target and exploding ineffectually in a flash of fantasy and fairy-tale schtick.” — Chris Dafoe, The (Toronto) Globe and Mail

The Abyss doesn’t quite come off, but it’s a commanding failure — a film with a genuine cinematic project, which is rare these days.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune

“A firstrate underwater suspenser with an otherworldly twist. The Abyss suffers from a payoff unworthy of its buildup. Same sensibilities that enable writer-director James Cameron to deliver riveting, supercharged action segments get soggy when the ’aliens’ turn out to be friendly.” — Amy Dawes, Variety

The Abyss isn’t merely Aliens under water. Cameron doesn’t just want us to take a scary dive; he means to transport us to a sense of wonder, too. Give him credit for trying to move beyond the world of the technoweenie, but the truth is that Cameron just isn’t a transporting kind of guy. In several respects, The Abyss is a nice plunge, but one that can’t pull away from all its gear.” — Jay Carr, The Boston Globe

“Here it is… the final would-be blockbuster of the summer, and one of the few that isn’t a sequel. That alone makes it something special. Throw in top-notch special effects, an intelligent script and some breathtaking underwater action on breathtaking underwater sets, and you’ve got one of the best adventure films of the year.” — Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

“[The Abyss is] one of those rare movies that entertain — and scare — with something of substance while advancing our notion of what is possible in a film. The Abyss really is a voyage of discovery, and not just for the crew that finds out it is not alone down there in the inky darkness.” — Desmond Ryan, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“[The Abyss leads] to a big let-down and Steven Spielberg rip-off ending. Thus the Chinese dinner syndrome that leaves you hungry two hours later. The Abyss, a chop suey of Aliens and several Spielberg movies, zips through your digestive track like a bunch of high-speed stir fry and leaves you with a big appetite for, say, Lawrence of Arabia.” — Kathy Huffhines, Detroit Free Press 

The Abyss (1989) screenshot

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The Abyss (1989) screenshot

 

THE 70MM ENGAGEMENTS

Event and prestige movies (what we might refer today as a tent-pole or high-profile release) have on occasion been given a deluxe release in addition to a conventional release. This section of the article includes a reference / historical listing of the first-run 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo premium-format presentations of The Abyss in the United States and Canada. These were arguably the best theaters in which to have experienced The Abyss and the only way to have faithfully heard the movie’s discrete multichannel audio mix or to have been guaranteed a theater tune-up prior to the booking. This is the sort of listing (sans the duration figures) that might have trended on the Internet to assist moviegoers in finding a 70mm presentation near them had such a resource existed in 1989.

Of the 100+ movies released during 1989, The Abyss was among only seventeen to have 70mm prints prepared for selected engagements. Less than five percent of The Abyss’ initial print run were in the deluxe 70mm format, which offered superior audio and image quality compared to its 35mm counterpart prints and were significantly more expensive to manufacture.

For the release of The Abyss, 20th Century Fox employed the services of Lucasfilm’s Theatre Alignment Program (TAP) to evaluate and approve the theaters selected to book a 70mm print.

The 70mm prints of The Abyss were intended to be projected in a 2.20:1 aspect ratio and were blown up from Super-35. The noise-reduction and signal-processing format of the prints was Dolby “A” and the soundtrack was Dolby processor setting Format 42 (i.e. three discrete screen channels + one discrete surround channel + two tracks of “baby boom” low-frequency enhancement).

Fox’s 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo coming attraction trailers that circulated during the release of The Abyss included Die Hard 2, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Millennium, The War of the Roses and Worth Winning. (Additional 70mm trailers from other studios circulated during this period as well, and which trailers, if any, seen during the presentations of The Abyss varied by venue and screening.)

The duration of the engagements (measured in weeks) has been included in parenthesis following the applicable cinema name.

So, which theaters in North America screened the 70mm presentation of The Abyss?

70mm logo

ARIZONA

  • Phoenix — Harkins’ Cine Capri (10)

BRITISH COLUMBIA

  • Vancouver — Cineplex Odeon’s Granville 7-plex (7) [THX]

CALIFORNIA

  • Los Angeles (Beverly Grove) — Cineplex Odeon’s Beverly Center 13-plex (9) [THX]
  • Los Angeles (Canoga Park) — GCC’s Fallbrook 7-plex (10) [THX]
  • Los Angeles (Hollywood) — UA’s Egyptian Triplex (11) [THX]
  • Los Angeles (Sherman Oaks) — GCC’s Sherman Oaks 5-plex (7) [THX]
  • Los Angeles (Westwood Village) — GCC’s Avco Center Triplex (10) [THX]
  • Mountain View — Syufy’s Century 10-plex (9)
  • Newport Beach — Edwards’ Newport Triplex (6)
  • Oakland — Renaissance Rialto’s Grand Lake 4-plex (8)
  • Orange — Syufy’s Century Cinedome 8-plex (10)
  • Pleasant Hill — Syufy’s Century 5-plex (8)
  • Redondo Beach — GCC’s Galleria South Bay 6-plex (10) [THX]
  • Sacramento — Syufy’s Century Cinedome 8-plex (10)
  • Sacramento — UA’s Arden Fair Mall 6-plex (13)
  • San Diego — UA’s Horton Plaza 7-plex (4+) [THX]
  • San Francisco — UA’s Galaxy 4-plex (#1: 11) [THX]
  • San Francisco — UA’s Galaxy 4-plex (#2: 7) [THX]
  • San Jose — Syufy’s Century 21 (8)
  • San Jose — Syufy’s Century Berryessa 10-plex (4+)
  • Universal City — Cineplex Odeon’s Universal City 18-plex (9) [THX]

COLORADO

  • Denver — UA’s Continental (4+)

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

  • Washington — Cineplex Odeon’s Wisconsin Avenue 6-plex (6) [THX]
  • Washington — K-B’s Fine Arts (5)

GEORGIA

  • Atlanta — UA’s Lenox Square 6-plex (7)

ILLINOIS

  • Chicago — Cineplex Odeon’s McClurg Court Triplex (8) [THX]
  • Skokie — M&R’s Old Orchard 4-plex (5)

IOWA

  • Des Moines — Excellence’s River Hills (10)

KANSAS

  • Overland Park — Dickinson’s Glenwood 4-plex (8)

MASSACHUSETTS

  • Boston — Loews’ Cheri Triplex (5)

Abyss newspaper ad

MINNESOTA

  • St. Louis Park — Cineplex Odeon’s Cooper Twin (8)

NEW JERSEY

  • Edison — GCC’s Menlo Park Twin (5)
  • Paramus — Cineplex Odeon’s Route Four 10-plex (8)
  • Secaucus — Loews’ Meadow 6-plex (6)
  • West Orange — GCC’s Essex Green Triplex (6) [THX]

NEW YORK

  • Garden City — Loews’ Roosevelt Field 8-plex (5)
  • New York (Brooklyn) — UA’s The Movies at Sheepshead Bay 9-plex (6)
  • New York (Manhattan) — Cineplex Odeon’s Bay (5)
  • New York (Manhattan) — Cineplex Odeon’s Ziegfeld (5)
  • New York (Manhattan) — Loews’ Orpheum Twin (5)
  • New York (Manhattan) — Trans-Lux’s Gotham (10)
  • New York (Queens) — UA’s Continental Triplex (5)
  • Syosset — UA’s Syosset Triplex (5)

ONTARIO

  • Ottawa — Cineplex Odeon’s Somerset (8)
  • Toronto — Cineplex Odeon’s Hyland Twin (9)

OREGON

  • Portland — LT’s Lloyd 10 (4+) [THX]

PENNSYLVANIA

  • Philadelphia — Sameric’s Sam’s Place Twin (6)

QUEBEC

  • Montreal — Cineplex Odeon’s Place Alexis-Nihon Triplex (8)

TEXAS

  • Austin — Presidio’s Arbor 4-plex (8) [THX]
  • Dallas — GCC’s Northpark West Twin (5) [THX]
  • Houston — Cineplex Odeon’s Spectrum 9-plex (9) [THX]

WASHINGTON

  • Tacoma — GCC’s Lincoln Plaza 8-plex (11) [THX]
  • Tukwila — Cineplex Odeon’s Southcenter (6)

Note that some of the presentations included in this listing may have been presented in 35mm during the latter week(s) of engagement due to contractual terms, print damage and the distributor’s unwillingness to supply a 70mm replacement print, or because the booking was relocated to a non-70mm-equipped auditorium within a multiplex. As well, the reverse may have been true in some cases whereas a booking began with a 35mm print because the lab was unable to complete the 70mm print order in time for an opening-day delivery or the exhibitor negotiated a mid-run switch to 70mm. In these cases, any 35mm portion of the engagement (or movement out of a branded audio auditorium) has been included in the duration figure.

The listing includes the 70mm engagements that commenced August 9th 1989. The listing does not include any pre-release screenings, any of the movie’s thousands of standard 35mm engagements, or any moveover bookings, second run, re-release, international, etc.

The Abyss 70mm

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THE Q&A

Matthew Kapell is the editor (with Stephen McViegh) of The Films of James Cameron: Critical Essays (McFarland, 2011).

Matthew Kapell

Kapell is a Lecturer in American Studies and his other books include (with Ace G. Pilkington) The Kelvin Timeline of Star Trek: Essays on J.J. Abrams’ Final Frontier (McFarland, 2019), Exploring the Next Frontier: Vietnam, NASA, Star Trek and Utopia in the 1960s and 1970s American Myth and History (Routledge, 2016) and (with William G. Doty) Jacking In to the Matrix Franchise: Cultural Reception and Interpretation (Bloomsbury, 2004). He also is Series Editor of several books on role-playing and video games.

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think The Abyss should be remembered on its 30th anniversary?

Matthew Kapell: In a couple of ways: As the last film Cameron allowed to be meddled with, and as a film that first brought together his desire to combine science fiction with the ocean. But, his first few films are very much about nuclear anxiety — the Terminators destroying humanity that way, terrorism with nukes, even the destruction of the alien nest with a big nuclear explosion. Up until Titanic there’s a bomb of some kind in all his films. This is the one where it doesn’t explode, though. That’s important.

Coate: In what way is The Abyss a significant motion picture?

Kapell: See my answer to [your first question]. But, also, it does something that every single Cameron film does: explores new frontiers in the technology of film making. And that’s important. Perhaps more importantly, though, is that it does this without compromising the plot and the characters too much. Other filmmakers (I’m thinking specifically of Robert Zemeckis here) often get so caught up in the new technology they’re using that they forget that the story and characters are still the most important part. This doesn’t happen to Cameron until, ahem, Avatar.

Coate: Can you discuss the performances in the film, especially those of the leads, Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio?

Kapell: This is a hard one. They are both so, so good. As is Michael Biehn. I’ll remain disappointed that (with the possible exception of Harris) the three never got enough credit in their careers for how good they are at being character actors when they are surrounded by effects. On a certain level the character set-up of two divorced people forced to work with each other is pretty trite. But Mastrantonio and Harris do such a wonderful job of making their characters real people that you often don’t notice how trite the set-up is. This is a thing in many of Cameron’s films: a trite and overused trope that is surpassed by the quality of performance he seems to get.

Coate: How would you describe The Abyss to someone who has never seen it or to someone who has avoided seeing it because they dislike science-fiction films?

Kapell: Simply, I’d call it a film about the cold war and the hopes of surviving it. I’d put it in a category with the original Manchurian Candidate, not in a category with E.T.

Coate: Where do you think The Abyss ranks among Cameron’s body of work?

Kapell: It’s got to be near the bottom of his films, and he knows it. That makes it a pretty average film. But, that happened because he didn’t have the final cut. And he never made that mistake again.

Coate: Do you think The Abyss works best in its 1989 theatrical cut or the revised cut from a few years later?

Kapell: Oh, the theatrical release is kind of horrible. It’s the end of the Cold War that kills that version, and demands a significant edit in ’89. But the reworking is a far better movie. Because, simply, some of the plot holes are, if not filled in, at least covered over.

Coate: It has been ages since The Abyss was offered in a contemporary state-of-the-art home video release? Would you like to see it released on Blu-ray and/or UHD Blu-ray?

Kapell: Yes. But then again, I think every film ever made should be remastered. But, if you asked me to put it on a list of such things it would be somewhere in the bottom third. I’d remaster the 1950s The Blob before I’d do this one.

Coate: There were several underwater adventure/sci-fi/horror-type movies released in 1989. Where do you think The Abyss ranks among them?

Kapell: It’s the prettiest. By far. Even Ed Harris is pretty in it somehow. But, seriously: It is a film that ranks highly among all films of the year. Watch it with Batman and one of them still holds up and the other looks hopelessly corny. But, Dead Calm (a film about being on the ocean) is pretty great in a low budget way, and The Little Mermaid obviously is better known as the beginning of the new age of Disney animation. But Deep Star Six or Leviathan? I can’t even really remember what those are about and I’m an actual popular film scholar. So, yes, this film is a pretty good film for both the era, and of the type.

Coate: What is the legacy of The Abyss?

Kapell: I’m afraid it isn’t great. But, it will also be remembered as a film that began the movement toward really beautiful CGI effects. As a teen the thing I liked most about it was Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (and her hair), and as an old guy now it’s the fact that this movie made me feel like maybe we wouldn’t all kill each other with bombs. And you can’t really overstate the importance of that at the time. But, really, I think its legacy will be as a connector film from Cameron’s early stuff to his mid-career stuff. And, as one of the most important popular film makers of the last 60 years, that makes it an important film.

Coate: Thank you, Matthew, for sharing your thoughts about The Abyss on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

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IMAGES

Selected images copyright/courtesy CBS-Fox Home Video, Fox Video, Bobby Henderson, Lightstorm Entertainment, Pacific Western, Schauburg Archive, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

The Abyss (1989) screenshot

 

SOURCES/REFERENCES

The primary references for this project were regional newspaper coverage and trade reports published in Billboard, Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety.

All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.

 

SPECIAL THANKS

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Jerry Alexander, Herbert Born, Raymond Caple, Sheldon Hall, Bobby Henderson, Bill Kretzel, Mark Lensenmayer, Genevieve Maxwell, and Joe Odenthal, and an extra special thank-you to all of the librarians who helped with this project.

The Abyss (1989) screenshot

 

IN MEMORIAM

  • Capt. Kidd Brewer Jr (“Lew Finler”), 1948-1990
  • Don Bassman (Re-Recording Mixer), 1927-1993
  • J.C. Quinn (“’Sonny’ Dawson”), 1940-2004
  • Howard Feuer (Casting), 1948-2004
  • Leo Burmester (“Catfish De Vries”), 1944-2007
  • Brad Sullivan (“Executive”), 1931-2008
  • Joe Viskocil (Special Effects Coordinator), 1952-2014

-Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

The Abyss: Special Edition (DVD)