REVIEW: The Abyss [1989]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 170 minutes (1993 Special Edition) | Release Date: August 9th, 1989 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): James Cameron
Writer(s):James Cameron

“You have to look with better eyes than that”

Even the most rudimentary research into the production of James Cameron‘s The Abyss yields horror story upon horror story as frustrations shattered personal lives and behind the scenes decisions fought against its genre, budget, and appeal. There’s the writer/director basing lead character Lindsey Brigman on producer Gale Anne Hurd only to find himself marrying her previous to filming, separating during pre-production, and divorcing months before it’s release date. That opening weekend itself was pushed from July until August to complete special effects, shooting spanned six months of arduous underwater work, actors Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio never hid their displeasure of the whole experience, and expensive sequences that simply didn’t pan out were cut to the studio and cast’s chagrin. Thankfully the result onscreen shows how chaos is sometimes worth it.

Full disclosure: I remember liking this film a lot more after my first viewing, probably because I had seen the original 139-minute version rather than this bloated 170-minute Special Edition. Those costly moments Cameron couldn’t get right in 1989 were added back thanks to his Terminator 2: Judgment Day technology a few years later and while their removal (the apocalyptic tidal waves) probably wouldn’t speed things along too much, drag is prevalent elsewhere. And it’s not like there was a war between the director and studio—Cameron’s final cut was contingent on him keeping it close to 135-minutes. He willingly adhered by trimming the fat and crafting the dramatic vision he set out to achieve. It’s therefore unsurprising to notice a lull every once in a while here because Cameron did as well.

The crux of the film remains, however, and overlong or not its intelligence and commentary can’t help but shine through. At its back lies a science fiction conceit bringing extraterrestrial entities to Earth in order to put a mirror on our penchant for self-destruction courtesy of Cold War annihilation. Here are two world superpowers in the US and Russia still with their fingers on the trigger of nuclear death caught in a who-will-blink-first standoff exacerbated by the unknown. American military generals don’t know why their nuclear submarine was sunk and lost at the bottom of the Atlantic; they just know the easy assumption. They put protocols together in secret, take macho paranoia to a new level, and set forth upon a mission for revenge thinly masked as one for the reclamation of warheads and crew.

Out go a SEAL team led by Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn) and a deep-sea oilrig posse capped by a two-headed monster of soon-to-be divorced captain (Harris’ Bud Brigman) and engineer (Mastrantonio’s Lindsey Brigman). It’s a tenuous alliance cobbled together by the former’s duty and latter’s desire for a payday and is obviously the model used for Michael Bay’s Armageddon a decade later. Whether roughnecks spewing orders, a blue collar shot caller in control of his motley crew, sassy cowboys, psychotic breaks under pressure, or self-sacrifice for love, the comparisons are unavoidable. Whereas that explosive blockbuster stuck to adrenaline rush, however, The Abyss alternates between it and heady sci-fi with suspense thriller thrown in. The alien entity sinking the sub plays a large role overall, but the true conflict deals almost exclusively with mankind’s kneejerk coping mechanisms towards fear.

Even when Coffey and his men see that it’s something otherworldly and not Russian speeding past them and messing with their electronics in the ocean depths, they remain vigilant and on task. Whatever it is, they must destroy it—humanity’s hubris believing we’re special little snowflakes perpetually proving victorious over any hope for diplomacy. That’s not to say Coffey’s unhinged company man isn’t without reason (these creatures aren’t as friendly as first appearances may share), but there’s a difference between blind aggression and violence as a last resort. Cameron uses the theme of nuclear disarmament throughout in a subtle, intrinsic way yet by the end finds it overpowering the story with an insufferable preachiness. Again, though, this excess was part of what he accurately trimmed prior to release.

What this means is that I really need to watch the theatrical cut to rediscover the instant classic I know this film to be when pared down to its fighting weight. The pacing is going to be slow either way, but a little leanness has to help prevent the need to look at your watch after a crucial life or death situation with Lindsey (one that could easily provide a decent ending) only to discover there’s still forty minutes to go. Because while the first two-thirds are about Brigman’s crew’s optimism and compassion versus Coffey’s jaded cynicism towards their discovery, Cameron still needs to broach the subject of why these aliens are here. It isn’t just about the Oscar-winning effects in action sequences within the water pitting cruelty against hope; there are bigger questions to be pondered.

As such he uses the microcosm of Harris and Mastrantonio’s failed relationship to stand in for humanity’s own less than stellar track record at peace, evolving it beyond petty differences and career-oriented decisions. There’s Biehn’s business-first and -last attitude portraying America’s ego and superiority complex, refusing to believe anything but the worst of the unknown. When did our curiosity become paranoia? When did fear start motivating every action we make? These questions are just as relevant today (if not more) as they were then because it doesn’t take a long look at government to see we haven’t learned a thing. Granted, neither has the rest of the world, so you almost can’t blame an extraterrestrial visiting party for wanting to stop a potential threat in its infancy before it can do harm beyond its own universe.

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