140 Character Movie Review – #140RVW
More than a little unclear, it is nonetheless a fascinating & thrilling underwater sci-fi adventure. Great story & even better execution…
Spoiler-free Movie Review of The Abyss:
The Abyss is one of those films that may be remembered solely for their special effects. Indeed, when I was putting together this post, after much consideration I realized I had to use the water tentacle “face” as the featured image as it is so indelibly linked with the film. Until now I never actually sat through the whole picture, and that scene is more or less the only bit of the film I was familiar with as a result.
Having now watched it properly (I caught bits and pieces over the years) I think it is a real shame that the legacy of the film has been reduced to its effects. The movie is a whole lot more than a test kitchen for Terminator 2.
In some ways, James Cameron’s film isn’t terribly original. It could certainly be argued that the movie is a typical sci-fi actioner, but underwater. It certainly does follow many action film conventions, and I think the plot of the picture is significantly weakened when you reflect on just how much it relies on the action taking place on the edge of a cliff. It quite literally is a cliffhanger picture, with the only variation being the location of the cliff as part of an underwater trench. But it is an unique story, even if it does follow some well-traveled paths to get there.
An American nuclear submarine crashes following a run-in with an unidentified floating object and for reasons that are explained quickly and not entirely satisfactorily, the rescue is entrusted to an underwater oil drilling team. They’ll be supervised by a crack team of Navy SEALS (who can somehow get to the area when the regular military rescue team cannot), led by Lieutenant Hiram Coffey (Cameron regular Michael Biehn), who have their own (not entirely explained) agenda.
The drilling operation works something like this: the Benthic Explorer, on the surface is attached via some type of umbilical tether to the underwater drilling platform the Deep Core, over 500 meters beneath the surface. This was a little confusing to me, not being even moderately familiar with this technology. Generally that wouldn’t be a problem, but the interaction between the two vessels is a fairly major plot point and its one area where I felt the movie really failed. I’m not a huge fan of scenes of obvious exposition, but sometimes they are really necessary. A two minute scene showing a diagram of the connection or a map would have been hugely helpful. There’s a huge storm coming that affects everything, not to mention a potential military incident between the US & Russia over the recovery of the sunken ship due to its location, yet I never really had a clear idea where this all was taking place. A year after The Abyss, one of the greatest cold-war naval films of all time, The Hunt for Red October, did a fantastic job of illustrating its concepts with excellent exposition. I wonder if the filmmakers took any lessons from this film.
The human element of the story is ably handled by Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris) and Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), estranged spouses in charge of different areas of the drilling and rescue operation. The two actors have a nice chemistry, but the show is pretty much stolen by Michael Biehn. The studio unsuccessfully lobbied to get him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, which he absolutely deserved. His Lt. Coffey is suffering from high pressure nervous syndrome, and had a more marquee actor turned in this paranoid performance they certainly would have been recognized.
I haven’t even really gotten into what happens in the story, including the sci-fi elements, because they really are better experienced firsthand. If you’ve somehow avoided knowing what happens for 25 years (I did) I’m not going to be the one to spoil it. The story and the film are very good. It’s an exciting adventure story and the underwater setting makes for a great picture.
Unfortunately, the ending bites. This is almost certainly explained by the severe trimming the picture underwent to get to a more reasonable runtime of 140 minutes. The Special Edition cut of the film that made it to video restores another half an hour of footage that apparently makes a huge difference in rounding out the ending. I’ll try to screen it and update this review soon.
Cameron and DP Mikael Salomon do a great job of creating the claustrophobic feel of the underwater setting, with an early sequence as the rescue crew boards the stricken submarine particularly noteworthy. Salomon shoots a scene from the first person perspective of crewman Jammer Willis, with his labored breathing intensifying, and it is one of the most tense and suspenseful sequences I’ve ever seen.
Apparently it was a nightmare shoot, with actors breaking down and nearly drowning on occasion, and the film is probably single-handedly responsible for Cameron’s reputation as a very difficult director to work with. The final product is wonderful, though.
The Abyss is a unique film and another great example of James Cameron’s singular vision. The film stops short of being the greatest underwater picture of all time – I don’t think anything will ever top Das Boot – but it’s right up there. Had the filmmakers been allowed to make the longer picture they intended, the theatrical cut would likely be a much more complete film. As it stands, it is a very good if somewhat confused film with an unsatisfying and simplistic ending. Gorgeous visuals in a unique setting make this easily recommended.
The Representation Test Score: B (7 pts)
|Main Cast||Ed Harris Virgil ‘Bud’ Brigman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio Lindsey Brigman, Michael Biehn Lt. Hiram Coffey, Leo Burmester Catfish De Vries|
|Release Date||Wed 09 Aug 1989 UTC|
|Genres||Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller|
|Plot||A civilian diving team are enlisted to search for a lost nuclear submarine and face danger while encountering an alien aquatic species.|
|Tagline||A place on earth more awesome than anywhere in space.|
|Writers||James Cameron (written by)|