The Abyss, James Cameron's most underrated film (and his most ambitious on an inter-personal level) was riddled with production problems of Apocalypse Now proportions prior to its release in 1989, something which overshadowed the qualities of the film itself. With the notoriously perfectionist director submerging his cast and crew in the darkness of an abandoned nuclear reactor during shooting, the near breakdown of leading lady Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and conflict with main star Ed Harris, it's a wonder it came together at all. But come together it did, in a riveting, spiritually poignant, if still flawed, whole (neither ending works especially well, although both are spectacular, and there is a distinct sense that Cameron bites off more than he can chew narratively).
However, the human qualities inherent in The Abyss lend proceedings a keenly personal edge. The superb ensemble performances gradually draw us into the claustrophobic environs of an underwater rig, where a group of workers have been assigned to help Navy Seals investigate a downed nuclear sub. However, no sooner have the conspiracy theories started flying than something else, possibly extraterrestrial, drifts up from the depths, something that will have profound repercussions on the central, estranged, husband and wife pair Bud and Lindsey (Harris and Mastrantonio).
Whatever issues people have with The Abyss as a film itself (cutting too close to E.T. for one), there's no doubt that it coaxed out of Alan Silvestri the finest score ever composed for a Cameron film, and probably the greatest score of Silvestri's career to date. Neither falling into the harshly electronic arena of Brad Fiedel's Terminator efforts or the alternately brutal/melodic highs of James Horner's Aliens and Titanic, Silvestri instead treads a marvellous line between synths, orchestra and choir, the music bubbling up from the depths in suitably watery fashion before exploding in moments of joyous choral exultation.
What the score does so well, besides work fantastically in the film itself, is tell the story effectively on its own terms, reflecting every facet of the narrative from the military injection (snare drums in Main Title), to the moody moments of water-based claustrophobia (Lindsey Drowns), to the spine-tinglingly redemptive choral work that is built up gradually over the album before it lets rip in the climax. The aforementioned Main Title lays out both the aquatic mystery of the aliens and the abrasive military presence, with a terrific choral burst at the start and the heavy snare drum rhythm in the second half.
Search the Montana is the first of several cues that brilliantly reflect the icy cold blackness of the abyss itself, Silvestri's carefully honed electronics rumbling along and mirroring the claustrophobic environment. Action pieces The Crane and Sub Battle emphasise more explicitly the danger of the characters' situation, cutting very close to Back to the Future and Predator with Silvestri's typically punchy brass ostinatos and xylophones getting a good workout.
The Manta Ship is the first masterpiece of the score, playing out and building up in minimalist fashion over 6 mins, the cold, bubbling electronics, winds and strings segueing, in spine-tingling fashion, into a breathtaking choral piece of enchanting proportions. What Silvestri does so brilliantly is have the choir emerge smoothly from the acoustic wash of the score, ensuring the competing elements of the music blend together smoothly. The Pseudopod (accompanying the famous CGI water-tentacle sequence) plays around more extensively with the aliens' musical identity, moving from threatening groans and scrapes into a delightfully whimsical woodwind piece as the characters, after their initial fear, joyously make contact with the new life form.
The Fight plunges us back into murky territory again with some very Predator-esque material for tapping percussion and layered strings and synths. Some of the darkest material of the score than rears its head, with Lindsey Drowns being an especially disturbing piece for wailing strings and insistent, clanking percussion, underscoring the especially well acted scene where Mastrantonio's character must persuade Harris to let her die. She's brought back to life in the glorious Resurrection, a sadly brief but beautiful piece placing the main theme in an orchestral context, reflecting the humanity of those on the rig. The warmth doesn't last though: Bud's Big Dive throws us back in it with some unbearably atonal writing for electronics and percussion, but of course this is brilliant preparation for the climactic masterpiece Silvestri has prepared us for.
The magnificent, closing trio of Bud on the Ledge, Back on the Air and Finale is where Silvestri finally lets rip with every bone in his body, coming up with possibly the finest work in his career. Deploying the (now massive) choir and full orchestra to astonishing and deeply moving effect, it brilliantly communicates all of the film's implicit themes (even if they were somewhat mangled in heavy-handed fashion by Cameron himself) while standing on its own as an extraordinary achievement. For all the excellent work the composer has achieved in the years since, this is surely his high point, evoking chills, grins of delight and a galvanising sense of triumph.
What's most remarkable is how Silvestri earns this sense of power. By prepping us from the start and building the thematic material and choir gradually, allowing the other aspects of the score to take centre stage when necessary, it makes the payoff all that more satisfying. That's the mark of a true professional, someone who structures their music effectively to ensure maximum emotional impact. Silvestri gets under the skin of the film brilliantly and crafts a fantastic, fully-rounded album in its own right. The Abyss assuredly is his masterpiece. The soundtrack album can be found at the following links on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.