The Abyss (1989)

The Abyss (1989)
  • Time: 139 min
  • Genre: Adventure | Drama | Sci-Fi
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Cast: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn


An American nuclear submarine encounters an alien species, which coincidentally causes massive electrical and hydraulic malfunctions, causing the sub to crash into an underwater cliff and sink. The navy asks the workers of a nearby underwater oil rig who are joined by a number of navy SEALS to locate and investigate the cause of the crash. As the crew embark on their mission, they encounter a number of difficulties and discover that they may not be alone. There is something else down there.

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  • Made in between Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), The Abyss is widely regarded as a ‘lesser’ effort by James Cameron. Many are quick to dismiss the epic aquatic action-adventure as an experimental visual effects film, somewhat of a testing ground for Cameron to develop special effects which he could then incorporate into his second Terminator film.

    To a certain extent, I agree that The Abyss is experimental (not in the avantgarde sense but rather within the common understanding that The Terminator (1984) can be also regarded as such), but it is still an important entry into the Cameron oeuvre of originally-written and brilliantly-directed masterworks.

    The Abyss (special edition version) runs nearly three hours, the director’s longest picture after Titanic (1997). Starring lead actor Ed Harris as Bud, and flanked by co-stars Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael Biehn as Lindsey and Coffey respectively, the film is about a team of civilian oil-riggers led by Bud who gets recruited by the military to conduct a search-and-rescue effort after a nuclear submarine mysteriously sinks.

    Strange things occur underwater at great depths and soon the pressure begins to take its toll on Coffey who works for the military. He begins to feel paranoia and claims that the Russians are spying on them. Coffey is the sole villain in The Abyss. His anti-pacifist stance divides the military and civilian crewmen.

    Threatening to ‘put matters into his own hands’, he plans to nuke whatever is causing the strange occurrences. Biehn’s performance is riveting; while not as intimidating as Schwarzenegger in The Terminator or the savage creatures in Aliens, he provides a convincingly chilling and impassive demeanor to his psychotic character.

    The Abyss contains several action sequences directed and edited with emphasis on generating as much suspense as possible, the most memorable of which is the chase between two small watercrafts and the resulting dilemmatic aftermath. Considerable amount of tension also exists in the sequence where Bud goes diving into ‘the abyss’ to dismantle a stray nuclear missile.

    Technically, The Abyss is perhaps the most difficult film Cameron has ever shot. Almost two-thirds of the film is captured underwater which requires special camera and sound recording equipment. Cameron’s experience in aquatic filmmaking here would later lead him to direct Titanic, but The Abyss is testament to his ability to conjure spellbinding images under tough conditions.

    The final half-hour marks a sudden tonal shift from one of darkness and fear to one of hope and love. The film almost becomes an underwater version of the climax in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). I welcome this shift in atmosphere but it seems short-lived and out of place as if The Abyss is made up of two separate, ‘unequal halves’.

    This might sound weird but the film can be seen as fundamentally a love story between Bud and Lindsey as well. This theme becomes more resonant in subsequent viewings than the theme of ‘aliens and their hopes for humanity’. It is this Bud-Lindsey relationship which drives the film’s narrative along. So what? Now it is (pardon the pun) Titanic under water?

    The Abyss suffers (marginally) because of its questionable thematic balance, a flaw which probably made the film less well-received than Cameron’s other works. But overcome this, and it is clear that this film has much to offer to the analytical viewer who has the capacity to appreciate what the director has accomplished here. The Abyss is severely underrated and that needs to change.

    GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)
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