If you’ve never seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Cocoon, or any other of the contact-with-friendly-aliens movies of the last decade, then The Abyss may seem like a visionary film, a fabulous mix of action, science fiction, and wonder.
It may seem that way even if you have seen those other movies. But The Abyss, an expert and often evocative piece of action filmmaking, suffers from too much familiarity with these themes of alien awe.
That cavil noted, I hasten to applaud The Abyss as the top action movie of the year thus far. It’s the third movie since January to feature a plot about deep-sea workers trapped with major problems at the bottom of the ocean. But while the memory of Deepstar Six and Leviathan recedes into Z- movie cheesiness, The Abyss comes roaring at you with all the breathless ingenuity that writer-director James Cameron can muster.
That’s quite a bit.
Cameron is the fellow who created Aliens and The Terminator, and he’s an energetic, intelligent talent. The Abyss is his most ambitious effort, in more ways than one.
Most of the movie takes place underwater, at an oil-drilling station on the sea floor. When an American nuclear sub crashes nearby, the military asks the rig to help investigate. The boss (Ed Harris) isn’t thrilled, particularly when his estranged wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the sea station, comes down to supervise. He’s also suspicious of the grim Navy divers (led by Michael Biehn) who seem to have their own agenda.
The journey into the wrecked submarine, an unnerving graveyard of floating refuse and snow-white corpses, is just the beginning of the fun. The film’s full of crackling suspense in an old-fashioned movie way; at almost 2 1/2 hours, the forward motion never flags.
But Cameron is up to more than just adventure. The film is about two things: the exploration of non-terrestrial life (“something not us”), and the exploration of a foundering relationship. The Abyss is like a cross between Close Encounters and Scenes From a Marriage. The marriage of Harris and Mastrantonio is shown in broad but deeply felt strokes (and is well played by those two good actors).
Cameron and his own wife, Abyss producer Gale Ann Hurd, were breaking up during the shooting of this film. That must have made for an interesting production. Their marriage was not the only thing that became strained during the grueling, already notorious filming process. Conditions were so horrible that Ed Harris vowed never to talk about the movie at all. The complicated underwater scenes were shot inside a huge abandoned nuclear reactor in South Carolina, and the logistics were a practical nightmare.
Very little of this hardship comes across on screen; the film’s a technical marvel. Technical but human – Cameron knows just how to play off the big special effects with the personal story. It makes you wonder whether the supernatural elements that creep into the film were necessary at all. Despite the nature of his films, Cameron’s touch is for people, not aliens.
First published in the Herald, August 1989
I wasn’t comparing The Abyss to Cocoon, but I do remember thinking that (in terms of subject matter) The Abyss had just missed being ahead of the curve. So that’s what that comment is about. I realize there might be some debate about my last line, since Cameron is not exactly lauded for his treatment of characters, but on the other hand, Titanic wasn’t entirely a smash because of special effects – at the very least, Cameron has a touch for archetypes.