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THE ABYSS – Alan Silvestri


Original Review byJonathan Broxton

The third and best of 1989’s claustrophobic underwater action thrillers, The Abyss was director James Cameron’s long-awaited follow up to Aliens. It stars Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Bud and Lindsey Brigman, an estranged husband-and-wife who work on a hi-tech underwater oil drilling platform which sits along the lip of a massive marine trench deep beneath the Caribbean Sea. When a military submarine sinks in mysterious circumstances near the platform, the government sends a team of Navy SEALS in to investigate, using the platform as a base of operations. There is immediate tension between the rough-and-ready oil drillers and the aggressive and testosterone-fuelled soldiers, and this is exacerbated even more when they encounter a mysterious creature that can seemingly manipulate and control water. The film co-starred Michael Biehn, J. C. Quinn, and Leo Burmester, and was both a critical success and a box office hit; it received special attention for its then-groundbreaking use of CGI special effects, which won its creative team an Academy Award. However, the film production itself was notoriously troubled; the shoot went massively over-budget, and the actors were subjected to near-torturous conditions by Cameron, who made them spend literally hours on end in freezing cold underwater temperatures. Cameron also spent a great deal of time editing the film, removing whole swathes of footage to try to create a more coherent cut, including the original ending which featured enormous special FX shots of tsunamis (although much of this was restored in a subsequent director’s cut).

One of the aspects of the film production that went comparatively smoothly was the scoring, which was done by composer Alan Silvestri. The Abyss was Silvestri’s first and, to date, only score for Cameron, whose previous major films had been scored by Brad Fiedel and James Horner. Silvestri himself was coming off of several back-to-back hits including Back to the Future, Predator, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, among others, and The Abyss continued the trend. The music is a combination orchestral-electronic score which combines dark, other-worldly ambiances with a series of aggressive, militaristic action sequences, before climaxing with some of the most heavenly beautiful orchestral and choral music of his entire career. Thematically, the score is a little on the light side, but there are a couple of recurring melodic ideas that weave their way through the music. The first is a beautiful, angelic, but slightly mysterious choral idea that first appears in the opening moments of the “Main Title,” but then disappears for most of the score, before finally coming to fruition in the finale. The second is what I’m calling the Rebirth Theme, and this also doesn’t appear until almost half way into the score, before combining wonderfully with the main theme towards the end. There also appears to be a minor percussive motif for the Navy SEALS and their leader, Lieutenant Coffey, whose increasingly deteriorating mental state and bouts of violent paranoia ultimately prove to be his undoing.

Much of the first half of the score is dominated by underwater atmospherics, and by large-scale intense action. The atmospherics tend to underscore the mystery of the US military submarine, and the nature of the unusual entity the protagonists repeatedly encounter. Cues such as “Search the Montana,” “The Manta Ship,” and “The Pseudopod” are marked by this style, and all feature a combination of meandering orchestral textures featuring string sustains and light harps, electronic sound design ideas that have a glassy, shimmery texture, and various levels of threatening, sinister percussive rumbling. The whole thing is intended to create an eerie mood of unease and tension, but virtually none of it is thematic – it’s impressionistic, and can be difficult to like. However, some of the choral ideas towards the end of the “The Manta Ship” are pretty and occasionally a little playful, especially when the orchestra is augmented by woodwinds and chimes, while the finale of “The Pseudopod” is inquisitive and has a sense of hesitant wonderment that reminds me a little of John Williams in places, most notably his score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This, of course, might be an entirely intentional tonal and textural homage considering that – spoiler alert – the aforementioned mysterious creature that can seemingly manipulate and control water turns out to be alien in origin.

The action music will be very familiar to anyone who has enjoyed Silvestri’s 1980s and 1990s work in that genre, as it has a great deal in common with scores like Predator and Back to the Future, among others. Cues like “The Crane,” “The Fight,” and “Sub Battle” are absolutely typical of Silvestri’s writing in that period – throbbing brass clusters with notable rhythmic interjections from xylophones, creative interplay between the different parts of the brass section wherein staccato rhythmic ideas jump between horns and trumpets and trombones, prominent syncopated piano chords, and so on. Both “The Crane” and “Sub Battle” are fantastically intense, especially the finale of the latter cue which accompanies the death of Lieutenant Coffey, who steals one of the platform’s mini-subs and eventually implodes to death under extreme water pressure as he falls down the side of the marine trench with no protection. Having said that, I do find some of the electronic pulses in “The Fight” to be a little intrusive, and as such it is one of the score’s few mis-steps.

“Lindsey Drowns” is an intense, claustrophobic cue for the scene where, having finally dispatched Coffey, Lindsey intentionally allows herself to drown and enter a deep hypothermic state so that Bud, who is a stronger swimmer, can pull them both back to the rig platform and (hopefully) revive her. Silvestri uses string sustains, electronic textures, incessant drums, and a few dramatic chords to clearly signpost the agony of the scene, but he is also clever enough to sell Bud’s anguish in the moment without turning it into melodrama. The subsequent “Resurrection” contains the first full performance of the ‘Rebirth’ theme, to accentuate the relief felt by everyone when Bud successfully brings Lindsey out of her hypothermic state and back to life. Silvestri’s use of strings, chimes, and a delicate harp is elegant, emotional, and tasteful.

The finale of the score begins as it is revealed that Lieutenant Coffey was carrying an armed nuclear warhead in his mini-sub when it crashed, and Bud volunteers to go several miles down the side of the marine trench to disarm it. “Bud’s Big Dive” accompanies his journey into the endless deep with atmospheric electronics and strings, solemn percussion hits, and an overarching sense of darkness. The cue’s low, collapsing bassoon notes seem to mimic the idea of falling, while the aggressive, synth-heavy finale allows the listener to understand the gravity of the situation when it becomes clear that – despite having successfully disarmed the nuke – Bud has no way of returning home.

However, just when all seems lost, we get to “Bud on the Ledge,” which marks the beginning of what many consider to be one of the standout musical sequences of Alan Silvestri’s entire career. For the first time since the main title Silvestri revisits his main theme, using light electronics, a soft choir, gentle chimes, and strings. There is a mystical, magical sense of awe and wonderment as Bud – who is unsure whether he is hallucinating or not – encounters a butterfly-like creature, glittering with bioluminescence, which takes him by the hand and leads him further into the abyss. The music erupts into a massive explosion of the main theme for the full orchestra, glorious and expansive, full of cymbal clashes and brass fanfares, as Bud is taken to a vast underwater city at the very bottom of the abyss, beautiful and fragile and glowing with light and peace. These are the aliens behind the mysterious creatures that control and manipulate the water, and they have been observing us for millennia. “Back On the Air” contains more performances of the main theme as the alien city begins to rise from the sea floor towards the surface; there are more wondrous orchestral scales, more choral explosions, and more brass fanfares.

The score’s “Finale,” is even more enormous in orchestral scale and choral grandeur, if that’s even possible, with bigger performances of the main theme, as well as the score’s most expansive performance of the Rebirth theme. The use of the Rebirth theme as the end credits music is excellent in context because, just like Lindsey was before him, Bud has almost literally been brought back from the dead by the near-divine intervention of these angelic aliens, and it has also caused their personal relationship to be reborn in new-found depths of respect and gratitude. Silvestri allows the Rebirth theme to scale massive heights of majesty, before ending with a beautiful choral finale, soft, gentle, and intimate.

The score for The Abyss was released on CD and LP by Varese Sarabande at the time the film was released, with a satisfying 47-minute running time that covered all the score’s most important moments and gave a solid overview of Silvestri’s work. In 2014, to recognize the film’s 25th anniversary, Varese then released an expanded 2-CD version of the complete score, with 45 minutes of additional music, plus almost a dozen demo cues, alternates, and bonus tracks. Most of the music can be categorized as ‘more of the same’ – more mystery and moodiness, more action, more thematic statements – but there is one cue in particular worth mentioning. “The Only Way” was Silvestri’s original take on the scene in which Lindsey drowns, and most of the cue was excised in the final cut of the film, but this 8-minute expansion of the track contains some of the most emotional writing of the score. The last minute is especially noteworthy for its dour but gorgeous piano-and-string rendition of the Rebirth theme that drips with regret; the expanded version of the soundtrack is worth purchasing for this cue alone.

The Abyss is often considered one of Alan Silvestri’s most accomplished 1980s works, and it’s not difficult to see why. He scores the action sequences with more of the brassy, ballsy writing that so many people love, and he scores the initial trepidation and uncertainty of the first encounters with the water-creatures with an appropriate amount of mystery. Although many may consider his understated string noodlings and synth atmospherics in those scenes to be inconsequential and even a little boring, I personally find them essential because they make the payoff all the more sweet. Juxtaposed against these low-key early scenes, the finale feels even more glorious, the thematic statements more sweeping, and the emotional content more profound. As Bud would say, ‘keep pantyhose on; you’re gonna love this’.

Buy the Abyss soundtrack from theMovie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:31)
  • Search the Montana (1:56)
  • The Crane (2:00)
  • The Manta Ship (6:23)
  • The Pseudopod (5:36)
  • The Fight (1:46)
  • Sub Battle (3:18)
  • Lindsey Drowns (4:42)
  • Resurrection (1:59)
  • Bud’s Big Dive (6:09)
  • Bud on the Ledge (3:14)
  • Back On the Air (1:40)
  • Finale (6:46)
  • Opening Title (0:42)
  • Montana/Crash/Flood (2:01)
  • Marker Buoy/They’re Coming (1:17)
  • Let Me Drown Your Rat/Search the Montana (10:09)
  • Jammer Freaks (3:30)
  • He’s Convulsing (1:14)
  • MIRV Recovery/SEALs Return (2:03)
  • Crashing Crane (2:08)
  • What a Drag (2:01)
  • The Draggiest Man (1:22)
  • Lindsey’s Close Encounter (6:23)
  • Here’s MIRV/Some Huevos (2:27)
  • Have To Take Steps/Jarhead Is Watching (1:13)
  • The Pseudopod (5:35)
  • Coffey Break (1:56)
  • Freeze (3:40)
  • Bud and Cat Dive/Click (0:59)
  • The Fight (1:52)
  • What a Drag (Original) (6:05)
  • Coffey Implodes (1:09)
  • The Only Way (7:49)
  • Resurrection (2:00)
  • Bud’s Big Dive (6:40)
  • Defusing the Bomb (2:17)
  • Bud on the Ledge (3:12)
  • Bud Reborn/Blinky Bows (3:22)
  • Back On the Air (1:47)
  • Finale and End Credits (4:47)
  • Opening Title (Demo) (0:43) BONUS
  • Flood and Sinking (Alternate)/Unused Synth Cue (1:01) BONUS
  • Crashing Crane (Alternate) (2:08) BONUS
  • What a Drag (Wild Original) (4:33) BONUS
  • Some Huevos (Alternate) (1:19) BONUS
  • The Pseudopod (Alternate) (5:33) BONUS
  • The Fight (Alternate) (1:51) BONUS
  • The Only Way (Alternate) (4:54) BONUS
  • Lindsey Dies (Alternate) (1:05) BONUS
  • Vocal Insert (0:56) BONUS

Running Time: 47 minutes 00 seconds – Original Release
Running Time: 113 minutes 43 seconds – Special Edition

Varese Sarabande VSD-5235 (1989) – Original Release
Varese Sarabande VCL-1213-1144 (1989/2014) – Special Edition

Music composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri. Orchestrations by James B. Campbell. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Kenneth Karman. Album produced by Alan Silvestri.

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