Archive Review: The Abyss (1989)


Filmmaker James Cameron’s constant yen to explore the unknown has taken us to the future, the depths of space and now the deepest caverns of the ocean. “The Abyss” is an underwater survival story with a science-fiction bend. It is a trip into the depths of what we know exists on this planet but can’t truly fathom. (I think that’s two unintended puns already, sorry.) Then it throws in an extra-terrestrial element, which to be honest, probably doesn’t need to be there.
“The Abyss” is about a team of oil drillers hired by the military to investigate a sunken nuclear submarine. When a hurricane strikes their surface crew, their underwater station is nearly destroyed, and tension between the drillers led by Virgil (Ed Harris) and the military men led by Lt. Coffey (“Terminator” star Michael Biehn) grows. This is then escalated by Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), Virgil’s wife, who discovers an iridescent sea creature is among them.

What makes “Abyss” pale in comparison to Cameron’s prior achievements of the 1980s is simply its non-chalant approach to character. Cameron tries to compensate for his idea-driven script by dialing up the romantic tension between Virgil and Lindsey whose marriage is days away from ending when they embark on the mission. We would see ’90s films such as “Armageddon” try and emulate this model for romance in a survival film and Cameron himself would get it right in his 1997 blockbuster, “Titanic.” This time around, however, it’s painfully forced and essentially ineffective.

As a concept survival thriller a la a Michael Crichton novel, “Abyss” is solid and entertaining. Maybe not the full two and a half hours, but most of the way through. The situations are well thought out, logical and suspenseful. A couple scenes later on take hacks at the credibility of the story and some character motivation overall is questionable, particularly Biehn’s character, but as a “how do we logic our way out of drowning” movie, it’s spot-on. Harris commands Cameron’s team leader role and with some exception Mastroantonio does her part as the strong female character he strives to have in his films.

The reason I don’t think the science-fiction element had to be part of this film was that it didn’t really exist other than jumpstart the conflict, escalate the conflict and bail the characters out in the grand finale. In other words, it was a cop-out for the script and an excuse for Cameron to pioneer some visual effects. Maybe you can’t blame him in the E.T- obsessed ’80s for including it, but looking at “Abyss” among the sci-fi greats, which includes some of Cameron’s other films, it doesn’t compare favorably. Yet, Cameron manages to do what he does best, use great visuals and write stories that compel and resonate so easily with his audience.

3/5 Stars

The Abyss (1989)
Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron
Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio, Michael Biehn


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