The Abyss

Deep in places, shallow in others, but still rewarding after 16 years.

Released in 1989, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 09 Feb 2005 by Craig Eastman
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James Cameron is clearly a man with a hard-on for that life beneath the ocean waves. After sending the Titanic South (didn't see that coming, did ya?) he's disappeared into a number of submersibles in order to film pioneering undersea science documentaries amidst the wild and wonderful world of the oceanic chasms including, some would argue, the crack of his own arse. But Camo's fascination with the life aquatic didn't start with Leo DiCaprio slipping off Kate Winslett's freezing icebergs and into the deadly cold waters of the North Atlantic. Oh no. Fresh off the testosterone-fuelled kickass ride of Aliens, the arrogant, ballsy young tyke set about realising his dream of filming an underwater sci-fi epic with several tens of millions of Fox's clams (no groaning at the back; I resisted the temptation to say "sea notes"). That epic was The Abyss. The story of it's production is the stuff of legend. But what of the movie?

Never one to paint on a small canvas, Cameron's oceanic opus deals with not one but several grand themes, juxtaposing it's Cold War setting against the estranged husband/wife dynamic whilst throwing in elements of racial tolerance and the promotion of mankind's understanding of the environment and each other. No surprise then that the already hefty theatrical cut of 140 minutes is stretched to 163 for the home formats Special Edition. So, ambitious is the keyword here, but is all that enthusiasm and the well-documented tortures of day-to-day filming worth the net result 16 years on? Well...yes and no. "Life's Abyss...and then you dive" read the crew t-shirts during filming, and indeed this decidedly wet meditation on just about every theme known to man follows just such a dip, starting out extremely promisingly before gradually sinking in proportion to the number of mounting plot strands.

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When an American nuclear sub carrying substantial ordinance goes down somewhere off the coast of Florida under mysterious circumstances, the closest available search and rescue team is the civilian crew of the prototype Benthic Explorer; an experimental undersea drilling platform. In command of the Explorer is Virgil 'Bud' Brigman (Ed Harris), a real blue collar kinda guy and estranged husband of the rig's designer Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who shows up unannounced with a group of US Navy Seals, lead by Coffey (Michael Biehn), who will front the recovery mission. As the crew close in on the downed sub, political tensions grow over suspicions the Russians may have something to do with the sinking, and before long the Cuban Missile Crisis MkII is in full effect.

Wisely sensing that the last thing an audience wants is a last-minute ludicrous twist to explain events, Cameron chooses instead to include the early ludicrous twist that events have in fact been precipitated by a benign alien race living deep beneath the ocean waves. It proves a wise decision of sorts, as two and a half hours is a more palatable period over which to digest such an outsized concept, and before you know it you'll be accepting the alien presence as a matter of fact rather than a bone of contention. Not that the increasingly loco Coffey is having any of it; all this talk of aliens and organic submersibles has him seeing Commie red and, cut off from communication with his superiors via a nasty hurricane, working on the assumption that recovering a nuclear warhead from the sub and detonating it is, in his own words as Aliens' Hicks, the only way to be sure.

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So far so good, but it's not long before Cameron is juggling a few too many eggs in his quest for the ultimate omelette. As the cracks in Coffey's mental state bring matters to a head onboard the Explorer, so too the weight of water comes crashing down on Cameron's admirable ambitions. Had he not been as concerned with pushing both his actors and the FX envelope, the beardy one might have had less difficulty running a tight ship, but just as the cast are ramping up to deliver their most challenging moments their valiant leader is being crushed under several hundred tonnes per square pixel. Just as he begins to indulge in "pseudopod" water tentacles and energetic undersea chases, so Cameron begins to lose coherency in both his vision and his overwhelming imagination. Indeed, Biehn's awesomely psychotic turn as Coffey aside, the last hour and a half is held together solely by the powerful turns of Harris and Mastrontonio.

Watching the "Making Of" included on the SE DVD it's apparent how Harris' distress off screen (he seems moments away from understandably breaking into tears when reminiscing about, amongst other things, almost drowning) had a direct influence over his temperament on-screen. Moments such as his emotionally invested ressuscitation of a drowned Mastrontonio were no doubt a personal release for the actor, but to the viewer it's pure dynamite. Long after you've stopped caring much about the fate of the human race as a whole you'll still be rooting for Bud and Lindsey, especially when after being portrayed as a "cast-iron bitch" the latter proves perfectly human and, in fact, nothing more than incredibly efficient at her job. It's schoolboy errors like this on the part of Cameron's characterisation that highlight exactly why he should be spending more time concentrating on the basics, but also just how outstanding a job his cast and crew did in papering over his plot holes. After all, the man managed to comfortably stretch only a few themes to 148 minutes for Aliens, so attempting to cram so much in here reeks of Coffey-like insanity.

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The Abyss also suffers from an unfortunately Spielberg-ian increment in sentimentality throughout it's final reels, which has the undesirable effect of squelching all those diplomatic tensions we should by now be quavering about above water. Again Harris and co. do their best with the available material, it's just that Cameron's script occasionally borders on Pakistani nylon rather than Egyptian cotton. Mind you, at the end of the day, is The Abyss half empty, or is it half full? Yes, Cameron took a potentially dynamite concept and massively over-egged the pudding, but at the same time at least the man had the balls to give it his best damn shot. And, despite it's flaws, this is a film that does remain well above average. It's easy to go a bit heavy on someone like Cameron when we're so used to him being spot on, and although The Abyss is certainly no Terminator 2 it's still miles ahead of most other movies in it's genre, even after the best part of two decades.

In summation, as many parts of The Abyss work as don't. The main problem is that someone as obviously gifted as Cameron should have had the foresight to pare down those aspects that quite blatantly fail to cut the mustard. Still, 20/20 hindsight is always the easiest of views, even if in this case it's through the murky haze of the Atlantic Ocean, and I prefer to focus on the positive. To that end I'm going to be generous. The Abyss is far from perfect, but beneath the stormy surface there are places where it does indeed run deep. Cameron may spend a little too long floundering in the shallows, but when he can be bothered taking a dive this is a movie that goes down a treat. A little dated, a lot flawed, but excellently acted and harbouring some knockout ideas.

I award this movie 4 out of 5 Rat In A Bag Units

James Cameron
Cast list:
Ed Harris (Virgil 'Bud' Brigman)
Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio (Lindsey Brigman)
Michael Biehn (Lt. Coffey)