Hey, guys. I’m currently blasting a leaked chunk of the Batman Begins score as I prepare this bad boy for you. I’ll tell ya, if the score is at all indicative of what we’re gonna get from this film (which I’m catching tonight… I know, I rule!), then we’re in a for a REAL treat.
As for The Chewer Column itelf, this installment might be the last one for awhile. The proverbial well that I’ve mentioned is now DEPLETED. So, I’m turning this edition into a cattle call of sorts for all new entries. Remember, this thing is an avenue for you guys to voice your thoughts and opinions on almost anything entertainment and arts based. You’re not restricted to writing just articles on "Commando: The Epochal 80s Action Film" or stuff like that. Go nuts! Tell me what you think. Maybe some suggestions for future columns. This is YOUR place (outside of that dark and dank hole known as our message boards). Let’s not lose it. Email me at GeorgeMerchan@gmail.com.
Okay, let’s get to it…
Looking Long Into the Abyss: Cameron’s Greatest Film
By Leo Lucky
Member since 5/27/05
Marketing in Dallas, TX
I’ve always thought this, but what spurred me to write about it is this poll I found over at ugo.com. Apparently, their readers believe Aliens to be Cameron’s best flick (and then it gets strange). Here’s how it breaks out (note the omission of the original Terminator):
1. Aliens: 32%
2. T2: 26%
3. Titanic: 23%
4. The Abyss: 13%
5. True Lies: 6%
And here’s how I would stack them:
1. The Abyss
5. True Lies
Now don’t get me wrong: I love Aliens. It’s one of the best sequels ever made, and the only truly worthy addition to the franchise aside from the original (there are wonderful things about Fincher’s third film, but also serious flaws–a topic for another time). When it first came out I was only eleven or twelve, but I had been a fan of the original for years as my parents allowed me to watch damn near any movie I wanted when I was a kid, and what I wanted were horror movies. Sitting in the theatre watching this film was truly thrilling, I can still remember how the entire audience jumped in unison when the facehugger in the vat thumps against the glass at Burke, and of course it only got better from there. My appreciation of the film has only deepened over the years. When I later learned that the guy who directed it was the same guy who did Terminator, I thought, okay, what’s next. Of course, The Abyss would be next. Aliens has all the suspense that made its claustrophobic progenitor fantastic, but ramps up the action and throws dozens of aliens at us, and also has one of the finest performances by Bill Paxton in his career, enough for an article in itself, but alongside the rest of Cameron’s filmography, I would have to place Aliens second, just behind Abyss. Aliens contains the strongest character outside of The Abyss in any of his films: Ripley. But in this movie she is essentially a one-note character, and one that was created long before. There is none of the nuance or arc evident in Bud, for example. Ripley in the original was a much stronger character because of Weaver’s performance but also because it was so unexpected for a female character in a film from that era. Still and all, Aliens richly deserves an A.
I have the Terminator films next, and have combined them here. While T2‘s visual effects obviously dwarf the 1984 Terminator, the original had a better overall plot, and was certainly scarier. Also, it didn’t suffer as badly from underachieving supporting actors (Furlong and his mulleted friend). T2 also has several instances of Cameron’s winking, cheesy sense of humor (which is all over True Lies), while the original hardly takes a breath to allow you the opportunity to laugh. In fact, the movie’s biggest funny moments–the "I’ll be back." sequence alongside "Fuck you, asshole." — seem unintentional. However, the original is terribly dated, being born in the age of stock sound effects and rampant Aqua Net use, and these things have worn its legs out a bit over the years. That being said, I love both films enthusiastically, and have for years, but there’s no way in hell either comes close to matching the drama, characterizations, and realism of The Abyss. A
Now we come to that great sinking hulk, Titanic, Cameron’s most overrated film. Hampered by a very weak script, Leo’s worst performance ever (alongside weak secondary characters once more), and dialogue that has the slightly-off sound of ADR mixed poorly, the film is still a technical and visual tour de force, and it’s entire last half is simply amazing filmmaking. I think the first time I saw it, from the moment the iceberg hits to the moment the rudder slips beneath the surface, I watched it with my mouth wide open. This is the reason this film was made, and the execution of it is brilliant. Yet with the weak as hell bookend sequences with the old lady, and one of Bill Paxton’s worst performances ever, the film is wildly uneven. Yes, Kate Winslet got naked, but these flaws keep it from amounting to much more than an occasional watch, with mostly disinterest throughout the first half of the film. B+
True Lies is a wonderful B movie, Cameron’s only film that doesn’t take itself seriously for one single minute. It’s an all out action movie the likes of which hadn’t been seen for some time, and every one of its set pieces is amazing and a pleasure to watch. Yet the sense of humor is campy, as is its star, and although I remember actually liking him the first time I saw it, I realize now that I can’t stand Tom Arnold, and wish I’d never heard of him. A very fun movie that I can watch over and over, but is still in the end nothing more than a B+.
The Abyss blew me away when I first saw it. I was with my family, and remember walking out of the theatre dazed from what I’d just experienced, a feeling as palpable as my disappointment when it quickly became obvious I was the only one present who felt that way. The rollercoaster of emotion run on this film is truly epic. The motivations and actions of the characters are completely realistic, and this film has a perfect cast. Each supporting character brings real depth to their role, and adds to the overall impression of a surrogate family down there. Spectacular special effects and harrowing action scenes, as well as a good sense of humor permeate a brilliant script, and superb direction and cinematography. Let’s analyze a few particulars:
Michael Biehn as COFFEE
This is a performance I study every time I see it. While the potential for overacting is obvious in this, the part of an elite SEAL ravaged by pressure-induced psychosis, the brilliance of this Biehn’s take is in the subtleties: the twitchy eyes, the ragged breath; it simply is as if he was truly affected by the syndrome rather than just acting it out. This is certainly this actor’s best role.
The Crane Sequence
When the topside crane rips from the ship and crashes to the sea floor, precipitating a disaster within the undersea rig, it’s edge of the seat time, baby, in a big way. Seeing these actors being pushed through the sets by walls of water, you realize you’re not watching someone act–they’re really going through all of this, and perhaps the notoriously difficult nature of the production and its effect on the cast bears a large part of why the performances are so good (more on this in a bit). Bud’s wedding ring catching the auto-sealing door just in time to save his life; Hippy diving to save his rat and only narrowly escaping a crushing death by an oncoming submersible; the awe-inspiring images of vast amounts of water being pumped into these sets; the pulse-pounding score; this is an action set piece for the ages.
This would be a completely different movie without Alan Silvestri’s haunting, majestic score, from quiet moments like Bud’s descent down the abyssal trench, to the full-blown orchestrals of the alien ship’s rise from the depths, this is a score I listen to in my car, and have always loved.
We had never seen special effects like that, and of course it would make sense that it was ILM that brought them to us, but this single scene (which was shot as to be excised from the film if the effect didn’t work) heightens the sense of wonder and magic that the characters are experiencing as, in the midst of their own disasters, something profound is happening in front of them. I’m glad it worked.
Lindsay’s Death and Resurrection
This scene has two of the most riveting, realistic, and poignant performances by any actors ever. The chemistry between Harris and Mastrontonio is spot on, carrying the entire film with it, and the culmination of it all is the time from when Coffee dies to Lindsay’s first aching breath. It is famously depicted in the documentaries on the SE DVD how arduous this film was to make for the actors–they all had to become certified divers, they had to spend very long amounts of time deep underwater, all on top of being subjected to Cameron’s own cruel and genius brand of relentless perfectionism. The point is that people tend to bond under traumatic circumstances. When it happens to actors during a movie shoot who are playing characters with a special bond, the on screen result transcends the third wall and you can’t help but be swept away by it. Lindsay’s decision to drown is heart-breaking, but multiply that time ten in the scant seconds as the water closes around her lips and she second-guesses her then-irreversible decision. Back aboard the rig, it’s Harris’ turn to shine, and though it reportedly took several hours of him crouched over a camera that stood in for Lindsay to pull that performance out of him, when he’s screaming at her lifeless face to fight, fight, fight, and his voice cracks under the strain of not only the extreme physicality of the last hour, but the intensity of the emotion involved, it is simply a human moment, and connects with the audience in a very profound way. It is one of the best scenes in any film.
The Director’s Cut
It was 1989 when the theatrical version was released to disappointing box office sales. For my part, I saw it three times, one of those instances being the very first time I ever went to the movies alone (I do it all the time now). It was 1993 when, as a college Sophomore I would be walking down the hall of the dorm and past an open door that I would see some people watching something on TV that made me stop in my tracks, and watch along. It was a wave–a huge wave, a thousand feet high, perched off the coast of some beach in a movie I had never seen. "What is this?" I asked them. "It’s the director’s cut of The Abyss," they told me, and a new world of wonder was forever opened to me, as I had never heard anything about this kind of alternate cut of a film–and here was one that I already loved! Back then it was only available on laserdisc, and a friend of mine quickly bought it to my great delight. Needless to say, this version of the film is much better, and not just because of the aforementioned wave. There are several additional and extended character moments that benefit the film as well. Of course, the wave is the largest addition, and helps the end of the film greatly, although I never had a problem with it anyway. Very few Director’s Cuts are worthy of being released. Most are just cobbled together from scenes that really should have been left out of the film altogether. The Abyss‘ final cut makes it a complete film, and a much better one. A+ all the way.
If you don’t like this film, and it’s obvious not just from it’s initial box office numbers but also from this poll and reviews I’ve read all over the place that a lot of people don’t, you could never convince me of your position. This isn’t a movie that I love blindly. It has a few misses, and I’ll call them out. But I’ve studied every shot, every beat, every line, and I place this film on my Top Shelf with pride and very fond memories. But don’t let that stop you from trying to convince me, as I’d love the opportunity to prove you wrong. By the way, for a great interview with Cameron on the documentaries he’s done recently and the things the future holds for him, read this. And for strange trivia purposes, did you know that James Cameron is an uncredited writer for Point Break? Whoa.