From the time perspective The Abyss was merely a prelude to a completely new chapter in James Cameron’s life. Probably the least remembered film in his career led indirectly to something potentially more exciting: the exploration of various underwater secrets that resulted with numerous IMAX documentaries. But before venturing into the unknown depths, Cameron treated the audiences with a somewhat typical s-f thriller starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael Biehn. The plot revolves around rescue party sent to recover a sunken submarine in the Caribbean. While investigating the site, they encounter a strange alien life form in the ocean. It is now mostly remembered for cutting-edge early CGI effects that heralded bold new era in filmmaking history. As for artistic merits, it contained a rather typical stock set of characters and conflicts courtesy of the directors’ trademark blockbuster formula. Entertaining but hardly exemplary.
Fresh off his success of both Back to the Future and Predator, composer Alan Silvestri was selected to provide the musical accompaniment for this adventure. The score for this film was a mix of two different approaches Cameron would employ in most of his projects - the organic and synthetic. In some projects he would favour only one of those elements (Terminator films), on other occasions he would merge the two (Titanic). Indeed, it seems that The Abyss perfectly encapsulates the ongoing battle between technology and humanity that is prevalent throughout all the director’s film output that culminates spectacularly with the massive super-blockbuster Avatar from 2009.
The score was available for a long time on a single 47-minute long album from Varese Sarabande Records. It presented most musical highlights in one neat package. Twenty seven years later, Nick Redman produced a deluxe expansion that would finally unleash the complete work as originally intended by composer, undoing a lot of changes that were made to his work during film’s postproduction. The resulting programme, while faithful to concepts and ideas expressed by Cameron, doesn’t offer the strongest of listening experiences. Largely plagued by ambient synths, with the traditional wondrous highlights seem to be few and far between, it might seem quite inconsistent in tone and style. Especially at 2-hour running time.
The score is mostly remembered for its redemptive orchestral and choral finale that offers some of Alan Silvestri’s most memorable career moment. Those portions that made their way into various concert programmes and compilation albums and they also formed a centrepiece of original soundtrack album from 1989. This material is hinted at as early as in the ‘Opening Titles’. After that, the score succumbs to its watery sound design, very effective in the film but much less so on its own. In some cases, such as ‘The Fight’, they badly date the score and the lengthy pieces like ‘The Only Way’ can really test one’s patience.
The military aspect is economically addressed with the aid of large snare-driven percussion section. Alan is well known in the industry for his impeccable sense of rhythm and it would only makes sense to employ that one aspect of his writing into most larger works. And The Abyss is no exception. With the occasional bursts of adrenaline-pounding action, heard in cues like ‘Crashing Crane’ and ‘What a Drag’, the score finally gains some momentum and propulsive excitement.
Occasionally, all three elements of the score - orchestral, synthetic and choral - are joined in one interesting combo (‘Lindsey’s Close Encounter’). It is a true highlight of the score, somewhat recalling John Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s more wondrous moments. Silvestri had a much rougher sound up to that point, extremely effective in some films. However, with The Abyss he started to evolve, becoming more full bodied and natural in his orchestral writing. Some of that might have to do with orchestrations - it’s enough to compare a cue like ‘What a Drag’ to any similar material from Predator or Back to the Future to notice a significant jump in quality. Also, Dennis S. Sands provided a much punchier and richer recording.
For most listeners, the best elements The Abyss will still remain in climactic tracks, employing the angelic chorus and epic orchestral crescendos. And that’s why the original 1989 disc will still mostly suffice. However if you enjoy the eclectic mixes of chorus, orchestra and atmospheric synthesizers and don't worry so much about coherent musical narrative, this new Deluxe set might be attractive. The album offers a very much upgraded sound quality and interesting notes by Julie Kirgo to additionally justify potential purchase. Recommended to the most ardent fans of Alan Silvestri and to all those who haven’t got the original release in their collections already.
The Abyss: The Deluxe Edition is out now from Varese Sarabande