Last night HE correspondent David Chien attended a special 70mm mag-track screening of James Cameron‘s The Abyss (’89). Fox Movie Night, 6:30 pm, Zanuck theatre on the Fox lot. Thanks to Schawn Belston and James Finn for the invite. Here’s David’s report:
“The Zanuck was about half-filled. I haven’t been in this theater in over a decade — last time was for a weekend screening of X-Men: The Last Stand with the screenwriters in attendance. The theater is nice and cozy and state-of-the-art. In particular, its sound system holds up quite well. The space reminds me of the Aero in Santa Monica but with better upholstery and vibe. I have a soft spot for screening venues (such as the Academy Theater) at which food is prohibited.
“As people were filing in, a slideshow/video was projected (digitally) on the screen, featuring details about 35mm-to-70mm conversion on a projector as well as production photos and quotes about The Abyss. One that stood out: Gale Anne Hurd stating that this was the hardest film she ever made (I believe it). One fact that stood out: The Abyss was the first film of its kind to record sync-sound while actors were submerged in water (the weight of this achievement had not occurred to me as deeply until last night during the actual show).
“The screening started on time. Finn nd Belston shared additional details about the screening. The 70mm print used last night is especially rare as Kodak no longer produces this type of acetate film stock. Also, as a 6-track mag print, the analog sound associated with this version of the film is rather unique. For this Fox Movie Night event (something specifically for Fox employees and their friends/family), the planning took months. Apparently, the projectionist spent weeks to adjust picture and sound. On the website, in70mm.com, I located The Abyss projection letter, signed by Cameron and Hurd, on which they explain the importance of brightness and volume. I suspect the projection team at Zanuck studied such notes.
“The 70mm print still had the Cineplex Odeon logos and two Fox trailers attached. First up was War of the Roses. It was immediately apparent how damned loud the presentation would be (for me, a good thing, as I enjoy that kind of immersive volume). Then, there was a largely text-based teaser (one which I had never viewed) for Die Hard 2. Its punchline moment had the theater laughing.
“This was the theatrical cut of The Abyss. Like other films of the era — Aliens, Terminator 2, JFK, The Professional — I usually leaned towards the shorter versions. From a theatrical perspective, the tighter pacing and focused narrative play better for me. I feel the same about Close Encounters, which of course The Abyss owes a great debt. I also noticed this time how much of The Abyss was appropriated by Interstellar. Nolan was there last night, by the way — sitting dead center in the front row, Tarantino-style, for the most immersive journey.
“What can I say about The Abyss? I grew up watching it many times, with my father, via several editions of laserdisc sets. CLV and CAV, theatrical and extended, pan-and-scan (Super 35mm formatted) and letterboxed. It is a technical marvel, Das Boot meets Close Encounters. The last time I watched it — and the only time theatrically — was at the Aero, in fact, back during the summer of 2009. We were promised a 70mm print of both The Abyss and Aliens. If memory serves, that night it was only a 35mm of the former but a beat up 70mm of the latter. And Cameron was there and made an awfully funny joke about Michael Mann being way more of a pain on set than he.
“I felt last night as I did in 2009, that the absolute showstopper of The Abyss (and one can make a strong case about several set-pieces) is towards the end when Ed Harris has to confront Mary Elizabeth Mastranonio’s decision to drown and subsequently revive her when all of his crew have abandoned hope. It is one of my favorite moments of Cameron’s oeuvre — definitely his most human — and it’s essentially that sequence with Seymour Cassel in Cassavetes’ Faces but placed within the framework of a Jules Verne-esque blockbuster of high magnitude. The woman next to me exhaled loudly when it was all over and turned to her companion and uttered ‘Jesus Christ’ and it made me smile to think how strong of a sequence that remains.
“People forget that 70mm did not necessarily play on the biggest screens back when 70mm was a fairly regular part of a major studio release. The great selling point of 70mm was often the sound—things like 6-track mag surround. And while The Abyss looked amazing (hardly a scratch on the print except for the heads and tails of reels and the color appeared as vibrant as release weekend in 1989, I’d surmise), the sound was what stood out. In other words, I feel that the true value of this print was its sound mix.
“The Abyss, while amazingly lensed, is interestingly small-scale when you consider the 70-30 breakdown of action/wide shots vs. close-ups and filthy interiors. I could not help but think of the way that something like, say, The Hateful Eight uses its 70mm for interiors and faces and not trains and horizons. But this is where the sound comes in, for the 6-track mag gives every boom and spark and whisper and thud and gurgle a kind of weight that I don’t often hear anymore.
“I think I noticed more of Alan Silvestri’s score, too — especially the quieter stuff that I didn’t know was even there in past viewings. Of note is the fact that people applauded Silvestri’s credit at the end. From a score perspective, this is a unique sounding James Cameron movie. This is Silvestri in Predator mode, with that militaristic tone not unlike Poledouris’ work on Starship Troopers. I bet you that Silvestri may be on the short list for replacing the late James Horner for the next four Avatar movies. Not unlike Silvestri stepping in for Williams on Ready Player One duties.
“Finally, from a visual perspective, it must be said that this 70mm print offered something which was reminiscent to the new unrestored print of 2001 (which I caught about a week ago at the Aero). Matte lines and some of the grain (from optical printing) were all visible. Some people chuckled because, yes, those details appear dated. But they don’t take one out of the story, and I do hope that such things are not corrected for the inevitable 4K home video releases.
“I come to this conclusion not as a purist. For instance, I greatly prefer the final cut of Blade Runner to any other version. I think The Abyss is subtextually about its own production hardships. It feels like Cameron’s Jaws. It feels like a hellish movie to make. And it also deals so intensely with a failed marriage — it ends on a note happier than Cameron’s own dynamic with Hurd — and so the roughness of the movie, the fact that the theatrical is not quite what Cameron wanted, all of this adds to the exhausting, overwhelming experience of The Abyss which, unlike other Cameron shows, feels like he colored out of the lines a bit.
“If the weak moments of Titanic and Avatar stem from its perfectionist ways, The Abyss holds up because no man can truly control the ways of water — at least, not during a 1988 shoot. When you have Harris going full Method on Mastrantonio, possibly risking cracking her actual rib cage, you get the sense that this was the kind of rawness that a filmmaker in his 30s could entertain which, by the time True Lies arrived, a sense of refinement and precision had to take over.”