If the years had taught us nothing else, they’ve taught us that James Cameron fucking loves the ocean. The director has been very open about his aquatic romance and has made several films celebrating it. The first of these was “The Abyss.” The movie was Cameron proving his mettle as a sci-fi auteur. “The Terminator” was a low-budget actioneer that bloomed into an unexpected hit. “Aliens” was a sequel to an established property. “The Abyss” sprung wholly from Cameron’s brain, based off a short story he wrote while he was still in high school. The result was an expensive and divisive film that fans and critics alike still debate the merits of to this day.
A U.S. submarine, carrying nuclear missiles, has an unexplained collision with an unknown object, sinking into the depths of the ocean. Sent to recover the wreckage and the missiles is a team of deep sea drillers, led by Virgil “Bud” Brigman. A team of Navy SEALs accompany Brigman’s team, along with Brigman’s volatile estranged wife, the designer of the drilling platform. Thousands of feet below the waves, the crew encounters danger. The pressure of the situation affects their mind. A discovery is made under the water of alien life that has uncertain plans for humanity.
Cameron’s primary goal on “The Abyss,” perhaps, was to open audiences’ eyes to the splendor of the ocean. Throughout, the film shows sweeping views of the endless, blue water. The characters dives into the depth, black and infinite. The sheer enormity of the sea is imposed on the audience. The movie is also in awe of the technology required to explore such places. We see plenty of the experimental drilling rigs, the smaller submarines, the massive cranes, and the automated drones sent into the deep waters. Pointedly, the explorers are not scientists, but blue-collar men. They are normal people, thrust into extraordinary positions, exploring the most remote places on Earth. The wonder and audacity of both these places and their actions are well conveyed.
The physiological effects of such diving is emphasized. The blood can thin, the brain can swell, and sanity can slip. The opening sequence, on the submarine about to crash, is intense. Especially terrifying is the team entering the ship. They discover the dead bodies of the crew. One of the team freaks out and is soon abandoned in the dark, his rope tearing apart. In its middle section, “The Abyss” becomes a survival drama. The drilling platform is wrecked and water-logged. The characters escape rooms as they flood with freezing, forceful waters. Due to its extensive cast, you truly don’t know which characters will survive. Indeed, there are causalities. Cameron shoots these moments with the same intensity of a horror film. The ocean’s power and danger is never overlooked. For those with a fear of drowning, “The Abyss” can be terrifying at times.
Aside from its impressive theatrics, one of the best things about “The Abyss” are its central two performances. Cameron did not fill the cast with big name stars. Instead, the parts are played by experienced character actors. Ed Harris is one of the most consistently entertaining character actors we have. In “The Abyss,” he finds a part made for all of his strengths. “Bud” Bergman is a tactile man, tough and earthy. He’s emotionally honest, prone to anger and frustration. He’s also capable of great love and devotion. The brotherhood he shares with his crew is touching. Despite his blue collar roots, he is also an adventurer, stepping into an unexplored, dangerous world. Harris’ grouchy toughness is well utilized but so is his ability for greater depth.
If Harris’ Bud is the movie’s hero, it’s heart is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Lindsey. Mastrantonio never crossed over from being a character actress into mainstream recognition, possibly due to her ridiculous last name. Like Ripley or Sarah Connor before her, Lindsey is a strong-willed, powerful woman. Her body language is commanding. From her first second on-screen, she’s obviously in control. Her inner strength speaks through her actions. She’s a woman willing to jump in a submarine, going after her target. She climbs through the darkness, examining the outside damage of the platform. Mastrantonio compliments Harris’ performance, as both hide squishy emotions under hardened exteriors.
James Cameron divorced producer Gale Anne Hurd, his wife of the last five years. Knowing this, one is inclined to read into “The Abyss.” Bud and Lindsey are married but, at the film’s beginning, their union is dissolving. They don’t seem to like each other very much and their casual conversations are full of petty squabbling. Their marriage seems likely to end soon. Bud seemingly confirms this when he tosses his wedding band into the toilet, early on. Immediately afterwards, he pauses and retrieves the ring. In a none-too-subtle piece of visual symbolism, the ring later saves Bergman’s life, when the platform floods. Their relationship is rebuilt throughout the film, the two coming together inside a wrecked mini-sub, her life nearly ending. After her own potentially life-ending crisis, Bud has his own. Both times, each partners get an oppretunity to say their piece on their marriage. Bud and Lindsey end the film in each other’s arms, their love seemingly renewed. Was this ending Cameron practicing some wish fulfillment, hoping for a similar happy ending to his own crumbling marriage? Or were these concepts merely on the director’s mind, at the time? If nothing else, it adds a personal edge to “The Abyss.”
Like the marines in “Aliens,” there’s a certain level of macho comradely in “The Abyss.” Virgil’s crew of workers are tough, blue collar guys. The cast is large enough that most of the men don’t get much development, even in the longer cut. The characters have simple, easily understood characteristics. Kimberly Scott is Lisa, the only woman on the team, who wears overalls and a cowboy hat. She pilots the mini-subs as if she’s riding a horse. Leo Burnmester’s Catfish is a war veteran, who gets a fight scene all to himself. The towering John Bedford Lloyd plays Jammer, who has a funny reappearance at an important time. My favorite of the supporting cast is Todd Graff as Hippy. Hippy is a conspiracy theorist, the first to accept that there are aliens among them. He also carries a pet rat on his shoulders at all times, that he is very attached to. One likable moment has him saving his furry friend at the last minute. The characters are simplistic and not deeply developed. However, they’re all likable enough.
Another Cameron trademark is present in the movie’s antagonists. The mission to recover the wreck, return to the surface, and perhaps make peaceful contact with the aliens, is impeded by a group of Navy SEALs. The soldiers are incompetent, representing the untrustworthy authority figures. They are in the same league as Weyland-Yutani in “Aliens” or Cyberdine in “The Terminator.” The leader of the SEALs is Lieutenant Coffey, played by Michael Biehn. Coffey goes crazy under the waves, due to the physiological effects of being so deep down. This is a convenient plot excuse for him to act like a crazy idiot. Coffey steals a remote-controlled prob, which causes the disaster that nearly kills everyone on-board the platform. He believes the aliens are evil, despite the lack of proof to support this. He prepares to blow them up with a nuclear bomb, despite that being a very silly thing to do. Instead of Biehn being recognized as someone cracking under stress, his character becomes a full-blown bad guy, attempting murder and being killed for his sins. Biehn goes over-the-top in the part, cutting himself, sweating, and fuming in crazed frenzy.
As usually happens with James Cameron movies, “The Abyss” went over-schedule and over-budget, becoming one of the most expensive films ever made at the time. Worst yet, it’s reception among the public was underwhelming, the movie barely making back its budget. However, the movie was universally well-received in one aspects: It’s special effects. The expensive underwater photography didn’t receive much attention. Instead, the early use of CGI was lauded. The sequence that replayed during hundreds of programs about movie special effects involves the aliens sending a probe into the human ship. It takes the form of a living pillar of water, moving through the ship. It’s face molds to match the people inside. This was revolutionary stuff in 1988. It set the precedence for the liquid metal Terminator in “Terminator 2.” The CGI is primitive today but still accomplishes its goal.
The often unseen aliens are easily the most intriguing aspect of “The Abyss.” They are glimpsed briefly throughout the film. We see a radiant ball of light moving through the water, something like a jellyfish, transparent and squirming. Later, we see one of their vessel in more detail. The mechanical craft floats through the water with grace, its surface covered with a malleable gel-like substance. The eventual reveal of the aliens is one of the most impressive sights in “The Abyss.” They are something like mermaids, humanoid features attached to fish-like bottoms, obscured in octopus-like hoods. Their eyes are curious, their limbs spindly, their hands reaching out for connection. The film generates a real sense of awe around its extraterrestrial characters, making them a memorable special effect and story element.
The director’s cut of “The Abyss” is not especially better then the theatrical release. Even in its standard form, the movie is quite long. While it does expand on the supporting characters and their relationship, it also bloats the movie’s 140 minute run time to nearly three hours. The most pressing change the extend edition makes is to the ending. Suddenly, the aliens are not strictly peaceful explorers. They initially intend to wipe humanity out. The hurricane, which is referenced throughout the film, is one side effect of their plan to punish mankind for its crimes. It’s Virgil’s selfless act of love that changes the aliens’ minds. This is not only cheesy, it also proves the bad guy right. The extraterrestrials are a threat to mankind. Though it includes some more impressive special effects, Cameron was right to exclude these scenes from the final film.
“The Abyss” has a mixed reception even among fans of James Cameron. Some consider it the director’s greatest work, an underrated masterpiece. Others say its too long, overly sappy, and less interesting then the sci-fi/action films that made his name. Audiences did not exactly flock to the theaters and the film just barely made it’s then-massive 80 million dollar budget back. I fall somewhere in the middle. The movie features two great lead performances and a number of fantastically orchestrated scenes. However, the antagonist is undercooked and out-of-place, the cast is too large, and the story can’t support its epic run time. Still, “The Abyss” is ambitious and well-made, delivering its intended message of wonder and suspense, among the depths of the sea and the human heart. [Grade: B+]