History, Legacy & Showmanship
Thursday, 14 November 2019 14:23

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

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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



  • 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



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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