Synopsis: A civilian diving team are enlisted to search for a lost nuclear submarine and face danger while encountering an alien aquatic species
Stars: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn
Director: James Cameron
Running Length: 171 minutes (Director’s Cut)
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: There are some movies that need only be mentioned and I instantly am taken back to my first experience with them. I have a pretty solid memory of most films I saw in my younger years including where I saw them and with whom. Often times the movie itself is secondary to the experience or vice versa. This is the power that films have over us and it’s these memories that make movie-going a unique timestamp on our lives.
The Abyss is one of these “memory” movies for me. Though only nine at the time of its release, I remember seeing the 7pm showing opening day at Grandview Theater with my Pa Botten. At that time my movie tastes hadn’t developed enough to follow all of the movie hype or reviews so the choice was most likely up to my dad because he knew me well enough to get that this is a movie I’d enjoy.
Much like director Cameron, I’ve always been fascinated by the water and the unexplored depths of the ocean. Aside from outer space, it’s the only ‘undiscovered’ landscape available to us and it still intrigues me to this day. Cameron’s devotion to the ocean (in The Abyss, Titanic, and several excellent underwater documentaries) has made him a leading innovator in underwater technology and it was with The Abyss that significant strides were taken in underwater filmmaking.
Filmed in a half-completed nuclear reactor compound, Cameron crafted the largest underwater set in the history of filmmaking…40 feet deep and 7 million gallons. A documentary on the making of The Abyss is essential to understand the kind of money that was spent on this film as well as the blood, sweat, and tears shed from the cast and crew. Though not a tremendous hit, Cameron’s film was a watershed moment in filmmaking that changed the way movies were made ever after.
Cameron never skimps on creating large scale epics with multiple moving parts and storylines that all seem to converge around a central goal. I can see why The Abyss was a bit of a puzzlement to audiences when it was originally released because it’s a film that changes it’s thrust several times as more outside forces are introduced to the underwater oil drilling team at the heart of the plot. First we are dealing with a nuclear submarine rescue mission and soon the mysteries of the nearby trench where the rig is parked start to take precedence. Coming off of Cameron’s The Terminator and Aliens, audiences were maybe expecting something a bit more straight-forward action-y while Cameron himself was interested in pushing further than bullets and destruction.
It’s hard to reveal too much about the plot of The Abyss without spoiling some of the secrets or making it sound more routine than it is. I recently viewed the film again with a friend who hadn’t seen it or had much knowledge of its plot and she remarked that it was nothing like she had expected. What I will say is that Cameron has molded a high-stakes film that knows it needs to dig into the darkness of the ocean before it can reveal any light. Lives hang in the balance and not everyone we meet will make it by the time the credits roll.
It helps that the cast assembled is pretty perfect in conveying the everyman (or woman) quality that is necessary for the blue-collar workers that populate the rig. Less successful are the outsider Navy SEALS that come aboard to aid in the recovery operation. With the slight exception of Biehn (whose Lt. Coffey gradually becomes more unhinged as the movie progresses) the three men playing the SEALS are straight out of Central Casting’s Army Grunt division.
Casting Harris and Mastrantonio as the leads was a wise step as both fit nicely into their surroundings and play extremely well off of each other. Jeff Bridges was up for the Bud Brigman role that went to Harris and while Bridges too can embody this type of guy, Harris gives him a sincerity that would have been hard to match. Already Oscar nominees, Harris and Mastrantonio bicker as soon-to-be-exes that find themselves at the helm of a mission that will test both their resolve to their work and each other. Both actors were pushed to their limits in several scenes that have maintained their intensity in the twenty three years since it was released. One scene in particular still gives me chills…though I know how it will play out I still hold my breath as it is happening onscreen. Harris should have nabbed an Oscar nom for his work as he’s arguably the star of the show and the character we most connect with.
When The Abyss was first released it ran 138 minutes. Though it was the cut that Cameron had delivered to the studio, he went back three years later and added 28 additional minutes that gives the crew some more character development as well as provides more back-story on the relationship between Harris and Mastrantonio. More importantly, a large plot chunk was restored that really changes the overall message of the film. While the shorter cut is an impressive achievement, the nearly three hour Special Edition is the version that should be celebrated.
I try to revisit The Abyss once every few years when I find myself needing an all-consuming experience and an underwater adventure. The Oscar winning special effects hold up well and the powerful score hits the right notes as it blends well with the action onscreen. Though labeled a troubled production causing several actors to not speak about the making of it publicly, The Abyss can be likened to the ocean depths that it investigates: mysterious, inspiring, and well-worth exploring over and over.