Abyss, The (United States, 1989)

August 15, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Abyss, The Poster

Spoilers follow!

James Cameron is widely viewed as being one of the most difficult and demanding directors, due in large part to the powerful streak of perfectionism that defines his filmmaking. Cameron's most difficult and contentious shoot to date has been The Abyss - a logistically nightmarish experience that frayed the nerves and tempers of cast and crew alike. Cameron completed The Abyss behind schedule and over budget, and the theatrical version is generally regarded as the weakest and most disappointing of the director's six major efforts (the other five: The Terminator, Aliens, T2, True Lies, Titanic). Had the 140-minute cut released into multiplexes on August 9, 1989 been the final word, The Abyss would be a mostly forgotten footnote on Cameron's resume. However, some three years after The Abyss made its debut, the director was provided with the wherewithal to produce an Extended Edition. Incorporating about a half-hour of deleted material, the Extended Edition repaired many (although not all) of the theatrical cut's glaring problems, resulting in a greatly enhanced viewing experience. Today, although both versions are available, I don't know anyone who would choose to watch the theatrical release over the expanded home video one.

Although the neutering of the climax played a part in the movie's initial lukewarm reception, that was not the only issue. Expectations were also a factor. Cameron's two previous features, The Terminator and Aliens, had been high octane thrillers with technologically advanced villains and rousing climaxes. Although there's plenty of action in The Abyss, coupled with a fair share of tension, the "bad guy" is nothing more frightening than a psychotic Navy SEAL (played by Michael Biehn). The aliens are largely decoupled with the action and, when they make an appearance at the end, it seems to be almost an afterthought, and their introduction recalls E.T. and Close Encounters. (This is fixed in the Extended Edition, but more about that later.) The film made about $54 million - a total that was ultimately profitable but disappointing (Star Trek V, released the same summer, made just a fraction less). Compared to Batman, The Abyss was the black hole its title implies.

The Abyss begins with the kind of opening scene guaranteed to capture an audience's attention. The nuclear sub USS Montana encounters unexpected trouble while patrolling near the Cayman Trough and becomes disabled. The military, facing rising tensions with the Soviet Union, are anxious to mount a search-and-rescue mission before the U.S.S.R. can go looking. The best and quickest option is to use Deepcore, a privately owned oil platform resting on the ocean floor near the abyssal trench, as the base for the operation. This is not well received by the captain of the platform, Bud Brigman (Ed Harris), but he is overruled by management. A team of Navy SEALS, commanded by Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), dive down to Deepcore, accompanied by Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the designer of the station and Bud's estranged wife.

The mission is beset by problems from the beginning. Bud and Lindsey have trouble being civil to one another. The platform's crew clashes with Coffey and his men. One worker is nearly killed during the exploration of the downed sub. A hurricane on the surface causes a tether to the platform to snap, resulting in a storm of debris. Coffey, suffering from High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, begins to lose his grip on sanity and make irrational decisions. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. inch closer to a nuclear showdown. And, in the depths, something alien is stirring.

The most important thing to recognize about The Abyss is that, beneath all the science fiction/adventure trappings and their allegorical interpretations, this is first and foremost a love story. Those who doubted that Cameron was a romantic at heart were forced to re-evaluate their position when Titanic was released. The Bud/Lindsey relationship is by far the strongest aspect of this movie. The two most tense and powerful scenes are keyed by their relationship: the scene in which Lindsey drowns, is dragged through the cold water by Bud, then revived when he won't give up on her; and the sequence when Lindsey talks Bud through the precipitous drop to the bottom of the Cayman Trough. The Abyss gains much of its tension as a result of our investment in these characters. Of course, the movie is comprised of far more than those two segments, but they are perhaps The Abyss' most memorable moments because of their emotional power. One of the reasons the ending feels a little anti-climactic, even in the Extended Version, is because it's cerebral. The Bud/Lindsey romance has been resolved by the time the extraterrestrials step out of the shadows.

The final act has always been The Abyss' most controversial element, due in large part to the way it feels disconnected from all that precedes it. Yes, the aliens make appearances throughout the film, but that doesn't prevent their full "reveal" at the end from feeling contrived. This is especially true in the theatrical version, where their entire raison d'etre is to save Bud and get him back to the surface. In those circumstances, it's hard not to think of the phrase "Deus ex machina." Their involvement is better integrated in the Extended Version, where they come across as observers and judges. Their decision to spare humanity because of the potential for love they see in Bud recalls Star Trek episodes in which humanity's capacity for goodness impresses various all-powerful extraterrestrials. This The Day the Earth Stood Still flavor makes The Abyss' final 30 minutes less extraneous, although it is by no means perfect.

At the time of its release, The Abyss received a fair amount of press for its use of CGI. The water tentacle, with its ability to mimic Lindsey and Bud's faces, represented the most advanced use of the "new" technology to date, and provided a breakthrough that allowed visionary filmmakers to incorporate increasingly complex effects in the years to come. Cameron would expand upon what he accomplished here in Terminator 2 and it would allow Steven Spielberg to bring dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park. For The Abyss, Cameron shot the CGI scenes early in production to give his computer effects crew as much time as they needed to perfect the creature's appearance. He was also aware that it might not be possible to accomplish what he wanted, and he was prepared to scrap the entire sequence if it couldn't be completed to his satisfaction. Cameron's reputation as an innovator was born with this film, and it's the reason why Avatar is being awaited with such anticipation.

The grueling nature of the shoot put many of the actors - especially Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio - at odds with Cameron. The director, however, was unwilling to put his actors through things he did not himself endure, and he frequently spent twice as long under water as they did. Still, there were instances when the leads were driven close to the breaking point. Harris recalled driving home from the shoot one day and having to pull over to the side when he broke into uncontrollable sobbing. And Mastrantonio stormed off the set during the filming of the scene in which Lindsey is revived. Nevertheless, there's no denying the effectiveness of Cameron's techniques. Both actors deliver powerful performances. Although it's unlikely either Harris or Mastrantonio would again work with Cameron, Michael Biehn was in his third stint with the director (following The Terminator and Aliens), and he has been a vocal supporter of Cameron's methods, believing them to get the most out of the performers. (Sigourney Weaver, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Paxton have said similar things and, not coincidentally, all of them have worked with Cameron more than once.)

Some consider The Abyss to be a blotch on Cameron's otherwise-spotless resume as a filmmaker, and I shared that opinion when I first saw the film in 1989. However, successive viewings, freed from the unfair expectations that The Abyss was going to be Aliens underwater, and the improvements resulting from the Extended Version have caused me to alter that early view. The Abyss, in its current, longer incarnation, works supremely as an adventure-thriller (there are plenty of white-knuckle moments ) and as a surprisingly intense and hard-edged love story. It deserves a place alongside Cameron's other top-notch titles.

Abyss, The (United States, 1989)

Run Time: 2:51
U.S. Release Date: 1989-08-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1