Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Abyss (1989)

Seen: On dvd partly on my laptop (long bus ride) and partly on my tv (when I arrived home), rented from netflix.
84/100 on the sci-fi list.

With a 3+ hour running time, James Cameron's comprehensive thriller The Abyss details the events befalling an oil-drilling crew in the Caribbean. When a US Navy submarine carrying nuclear warheads is lost at sea, the government enlists the crew and equipment of Bud Brigman's (Ed Harris) rig to find it. They're paired up with a group of no-nonsense Navy SEALs led by Lt Coffey (Michael Biehn). While down there, a hurricane begins raging above and they are cut off from communication with the outside world. It also happens to be the Cold War so there's friction with the Soviet Union, who perceive the mission as some sort of secret underwater nuclear attack. Along for the ride is Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantino), the oil rig's inventor/designer and Bud's ex-wife. Also there are aliens.

Goddamn this movie is long! Jeez!

But good. There is so much going on it's certainly never boring, with an escalating series of more and more treacherous situations. Between the Cold War fears, the hurricane, and the dangerous underwater mission there isn't even really a need for the sci-fi alien stuff, which is woven in as a metaphor as the story progresses. The tension steadily builds to insane nail-biting amounts, and I'm kind of glad I didn't see this in a theater since it would have freaked me out too much. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the various aquatic conveyances made me physically uncomfortable, and the very apparent threat of death by drowning at any given moment made me queasy. I count these as points in the film's favor, since Cameron proves himself adept at creating very believable danger and emotional stress; I couldn't help but be very affected.

The characters are fun and sympathetic, most very much in the Cameron mold. There's a goofy nerd, some tough guys, a rough-edged but good-hearted hero, and two totally badass ladies. I found Michael Biehn's character Lt Coffey to be the most interesting, though (and not just because I'm a little obsessed with Michael Biehn! I know what you're thinking!). He is a gruff and authoritative Navy SEAL, who follows orders without question but starts to lose it when he's cut off from his chain of command. He also seems to suffer from a sickness that affects some people under the heavy pressure of underwater living, resulting in slurred speech, loss of motor skills, and impaired judgment. He slowly gets crazier and crazier but his knowledge of the nuclear missiles aboard the sub and his advanced military training make him a formidable crazy person. And yet another problem for our protagonists to deal with.

The Abyss is a pretty cool movie, but there's just too much going on. It's not that there are parts of the story I didn't like, it's just that we really didn't need so much story in general. The alien segments- while pretty in their effects and relevant to the film's pacifist statement- are probably the most unnecessary. Well, that or the whole Soviet angle, which is just dated and hard to take seriously since the movie is from 1989 and I know that the USSR was really NOT a problem for the US at that point.


Pair This Movie With: Man if you have the stamina for another movie, good for you! I think the claustrophobic tension of Alien would work well with this.


  1. Good review, but you liking this really surprises me. I never looked very interesting to me, but maybe I will check it out sometime.

  2. The Abyss is an awesome film. I saw it on original release at the Cinemas. It was much shorter then. Amazingly, James Cameron chopped most of the SFX/Alien bits.

    It would have taken a lot of guts to chop those bits out but he certainly made the right choice.

  3. Was this the director's cut you watched, with the original ending?

  4. Adam: Yeah I didn't know much about it beforehand but I dug it!

    Gavin: I knew the theatrical release was much shorter but I didn't know what was cut. I think the alien stuff was interesting but not necessary to the plot so it's ok to cut it

    Rich: It was the director's cut, yeah. How did the shorter one end?

  5. IIRC, it ended without Ed Harris meeting the aliens and learning their plan, but I don't recall any more than that.

  6. Another great James Cameron film. I think, like Aliens, there is a longer director's cut so I'm not sure which version you saw (I'm guessing the longer cut) but I do prefer the longer version of the film. I think the endings are different but I'd have to have a look at the other differences.

  7. (Many months later... as I'm wading thru these good film blogs...)

    A favorite film, no possibility of objectiveness about it.


    The "death scene & swim" is only conveyed well in a big theater, and always impresses me that some films are only made for the big theater experience. This is one of those.

  8. Chuck: If a theater near me plays it, I'll be sure to check it out!