THE ABYSS (1989)

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Ed Harris
Michael Biehn
Leo Burmester
Todd Graff
John Bedford Lloyd
J.C. Quinn
Kimberly Scott

James Cameron



Time: 146 mins.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action/Science Fiction

Won Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Sound and Best Cinematography.

There's not much to recommend Cameron's first foray into love and adventure on the high seas. At least with TITANIC, the main back drop to the romance was already written. Here, he tries to create an undersea epic full of danger and magic and only half succeeds. The film's main problem is that it has too much going on. What begins as a discovery of unimaginable proportions, becomes an atrocious mess of intrigue and world destruction. Like most sci-fi films, the fate of the human race depends on the actions of a small group of unlikely heroes. Unfortunately, the message was one all to familiar and done better elsewhere. Cameron bites off more than he can chew in this epic, waterlogged tale.

The first hour or so is quite enjoyable. The film takes place on an underwater oil derrick filled with the same unusual cast of characters. Only this time around, they are forced to use their equipment to rescue a Soviet submarine in trouble. Bud (Harris) is not exactly happy about this assignment, especially since it brings the US military, as well as his ex-wife Lindsay (Mastrantonio), onto the station. There's no love lost between her and the crew, but since she's the most qualified when it comes to the rig, they can't argue about her presence. What they don't know, is the nature of the recovery mission the Navy SEALS are planning. The submarine is believed to be carrying nuclear warheads aimed for the United States. The SEALS, led by Lt. Coffey (Biehn), mean to retrieve them, leaving any Russian survivors behind to die.

Conflict of interests between the crew and the SEALS leads to some great drama and exciting action sequences. Harris and Mastrantonio spar convincingly as a couple who has not fully resolved their feelings about each other. Then the aliens appear. Made of water. They contact Lindsay, who finds them extraordinary and beautiful. Lt. Coffey doesn't agree. He believes it's some trick of the Russians, forcing his addled mind to take action that places the lives of the crew, not to mention everyone on the planet in the gravest of danger. It seems the aliens are tired of our brutal, murderous ways. It's up to Bud to save the world, to stop Coffey and convince the aliens humans deserve a second chance. Didn't see that coming, did you?

What begins as a Cold War drama, full of interesting characters, complicated relationships and amazing underwater battles, becomes just another diatribe about the evil nature of man. The aliens are more a mysterious presence than an intigral part of the story, at least until the last half hour when their true intentions take center stage. This sudden shift in idealogy is quite disconcerting, especially in the original theatrical version, which basically cuts out all the reasons behind their decision to destroy the human race. At least in the Director's Cut, this part of the story is fleshed out. Whether that's a good thing or not, will be up to you. Having seen both, I wasn't satisfied with either ending, since I believe both belonged on a different movie altogether. Plus, it draws out a film that has, by this time, become tiresome.

"When you're hanging on by your fingernails, you can't go waving your arms around!"

The conflicting genres ruin the flow of the picture and diminish the importance of the message. I don't agree with what Cameron was trying to say, but he could have come to the conclusion a lot simpler if he had just chosen a direction. Despite the fact that this is directed by Cameron, it is not your typical action movie. It does have some spectacular special effects sequences, but they're more about heightening the drama than just a fight to show off the latest toys. Granted they do show off the latest toys, but he manages to work them into the story quite well. I just wish the film was about the derrick workers discovery of these undersea aliens. All the main plot points and sequences could have stayed in, except for the military crap which was vastly overplayed. The aliens were the best part. Sure, Spielberg does it better in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, but Cameron really captures something cool in those scenes, which never becomes fully realized.

The best thing about this film, besides the underwater photography (which is stunning), was the acting between Mastrantonio and Harris. They had real grit and some amazingly powerful scenes together. All I can say is I hope to someday meet a man who loves me as much as his character loved hers. First rate stuff. The rest of the cast suffers by comparison. Michael Biehn is downright awful. It's not his fault. His character starts at over-the-top and quickly proceeds to criminally insane. He's way better than this. Despite all the issues, THE ABYSS has to be Cameron's most adult work. It's a film that takes it's time to unfold, allowing you to really get to know the characters...before all hell breaks loose. It's about people and what it takes to overcome the impossible, not the latest, coolest effects, which, for all you sci-fi buffs, it has plenty of. I just wish he had stopped while he was ahead and kept his focus on the human drama, not the otherworldly one.

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