The Abyss (1989) / Sci Fi-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language and some scenes of action
Running Time: 139 min. (special edition runs 171 min.)

Cast: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantoni, Michael Biehn, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, Kimberly Scott, J.C. Quinn, John Bedford Lloyd, George Robert Kirk, Chris Murphy, Capt. Kidd Brewer Jr., Chris Elliott
Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron

Review published June 27, 2015

A less sinister take on technology from writer-director James Cameron, whose fascination with the underwater exploration of the wreckage of the Titanic would inspire him to make a film that utilizes such deep-sea research equipment (and, of course, would lead him to eventually direct Titanic).  Filmed in large part within the massive tank of an abandoned nuclear reactor facility, this endeavor would prove to be very costly and trying for all involved, (Mastrantonio is quoted as saying that The Abyss is many things, but fun to make was not one of them). Considered a flop at the time of release, it remains mostly obscure compared to other James Cameron films, but it also has its share of staunch fans.  I'm one of them.

Ed Harris (Field of Dreams, State of Grace) stars as Virgil 'Bud' Brigman, who leads a rag-tag crew of underwater oil rig experts. Bud gets word from on high that there is a downed US Navy nuclear submarine in the area, which is not far from Communist Cuba where Russian subs are close by, which means that foul play is immediately suspected. Bud and company are to escort a crew of Navy SEALs coming down to their vessel to head to a rescue mission.  A massive hurricane is also coming through the area, leaving the crew down below without means of communication up top, which means that Navy SEAL Lieutenant Coffey (Biehn, Tombstone), who is encountering psychosis due to the effects of pressurization, is in command of what goes on, though he is losing command of his own sanity, especially in his assertion that the various neon-colored NTIs (Non-Terrestrial Intelligence) in the abyss nearby are actually enemy Russian vessels, and must be destroyed.

At the time of its release, The Abyss was lauded for being a special effects film, earning an Oscar for Best Visual Effects and nominations for Art/Set Decoration, Cinematography, and Sound. I do think it is significantly more than that, working equally well as a tense relationship drama and survival thriller, with some gripping performances by its leads, who give their all in what must surely have been monumentally exhausting physically and emotionally (reportedly, Ed Harris was pushed so hard by perfectionist Cameron, including almost drowning in a mishap, that he washed his hands of the film after wrapping, refusing to promote it).  As good as the film is technically, it is for the scenes in the middle of the movie, in which the strained marriage of Bud and Lindsay (Mastrantonio, Scarface) is put to the test in life and death situations, where the film turns from intriguing and suspenseful into being downright enthralling and dramatically compelling.

But, of course, I can't deny The Abyss for its technical brilliance, with its amazing underwater photography, all beautifully lit and crystal clear as can be.  The sound work is equally up to the visuals, with superb distinguishing sounds that are different whether within the confines of the rig or echoing out in the middle of the ocean floor, all accentuated by a rousing Alan Silvestri score that captures the beauty and majesty of some of the fantastical events contained within.

The Abyss's relative lack of being at the forefront of classic science fiction films of its era comes from some unfortunate circumstances not of its own making.  First, there were two similar science fiction thrillers featuring deep-sea mining crews dealing with sea creatures to come out in 1989, first with Deep Star Six in January, then Leviathan in February, neither of which were received well by critics or audiences.  The Abyss would not only get lumped in with those films in the minds of many potential moviegoers as it is, but the lack of buzz for the movie can also be attributed by the pop culture juggernaut that was Batman, which was still playing big in theaters by its August 9 release, while families had plenty of other films to choose from with the releases of Uncle Buck, Parenthood, Turner & Hooch, and Honey I Shrunk the Kids.  Its reputation is further shut out from discussions today due to the bigger, better blockbusters in the James Cameron oeuvre. It is difficult to get much time for talk about The Abyss when discussing a filmography that also includes highly influential sci-fi classics like The Terminator and Aliens before it, and Terminator 2, Titanic, and Avatar after it, all of the latter taking the technical achievements of The Abyss and improving upon them by many leaps and bounds.

It's also an ambitious work, not unlike Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film in which The Abyss shares many thematic parallels, especially if you see the extended version, though the anti-nuclear suggestion can also be seen as equally borrowing from The Day the Earth Stood Still.  In some ways, the alien presence is both the blessing and the curse of the film, as it does add to the mystique and allure of what's going on, but it also feels underdeveloped, especially if you watch the original cut, where it isn't certain why the aliens are there, what their aims are, and how they are able to utilize their other-worldly powers.

With the exception of Cameron's rush to his finale (a vague, "Maybe they did something to us," is supposed to explain some pretty difficult to swallow science in play), The Abyss is an often overlooked showpiece that would likely have been the crowning master achievement in the filmography of just about any other director who is not Cameron or Spielberg.  Whether it's about strained relationships between superpowers or merely the strained relationship between marriage partners, Cameron's themes are clear -- it's better to love than war.  Ironically, Cameron would be going through a divorce with The Abyss producer Gale Ann Hurd at the time, giving perhaps an added dimension to the main relationship at the core, even if the end results suggest a more positive outlook. 

For a film so exalted by the technical aspects of cinema, it's the more quiet, human beats that emerge as the most impressive, never dwarfed by the gargantuan set design or eye-popping visuals. Though the special effects have faded over time, the heart and soul of the characterizations show why Cameron is smart to invest time and care in them, paying off dividends beautifully, and making The Abyss one of the best sci-fi films of the 1980s.

-- The Special Edition re-installs 28 minutes of scenes meant for the theatrical release that were excised for time considerations, as three-hour films of unproven properties are generally considered riskier financially.  Among the many additions is more alien involvement in the affairs around the world, leading to a more message-oriented movie regarding the danger of nuclear weapons. It's an interesting curiosity, but I think I prefer the theatrical cut, which leaves the alien intent as enigmatic.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo