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The Abyss (1989)

by on 2012/01/25

“Raise your hand if you think that was a Russian water tentacle.”

* * * *

1989 was a hell of a year for underwater adventures. Among them were three I distinctly remember: Deep Star Six, Leviathan, and the theatrical version of The Abyss. I missed the first — to my benefit, I later discovered — caught the second, and eventually watched the third on video.

I believe what I saw was James Cameron’s later cut, where he reinstated extra footage and modified the ending. Assuming both share a comparable story, the original must have moved fast, for my nearly three hour screening hardly slackened in its pace throughout.

The tale begins near Cuba, with the sinking of a submarine, a MacGuffin quite reminiscent of several James Bonds. A nearby crew of undersea drillers is drafted into top-secret service. Supervised by an unstable Navy SEAL (Planet Terror’s Michael Biehn), they trade oil and mining for weapons salvage. Before long, however, they encounter the cause of the disaster, an alien life form, whose presence might lead to their ultimate doom, if they don’t kill each other off first.

The two most likely to draw blood are Bud or Lindsay, or both . . . an embittered couple on the brink of divorce. Played by Ed Harris (Appaloosa) and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (1983‘s Scarface), they both convey a sincerity which, frankly, won me over after a skeptical early going.

Still, despite his relatively short time on-screen, Biehn impressed me even more for his palpable sense of menace. If I were to describe him as twitchy, yet unblinking, and terrifying in his intensity, you may assume he’s doing a similar routine to one he’d repeat in Tombstone. But whereas his Ringo Kid was possessed of a darkly humorous self-loathing, his Lieutenant Coffey is dangerously unamused.

With Biehn on board, and Cameron at the helm, you could also be forgiven for thinking the vibe would resemble their other collaborations, the Terminator series and Aliens. And although The Abyss does threaten to exhaust the same civilian vs military dynamic, it evolves into something more like 2001: A Space Odyssey by way of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, this tonal shift was one of my few issues, a swing conveying claustrophobia, dread, and paranoia more effectively than wonder, hope, or triumph. I enjoyed the journey far more than its ending.

The characters were acceptable, and the subtext rather clumsy, but I respected the level of craft Cameron brought to the production. Like Titanic, this experience worked best on a disaster picture level, with great pacing, often quite tense, and occasionally harrowing. Even when “nothing” is happening, the half-heard whispers and creaking metal is enough to keep us on edge.

However, for all his success with the movie’s construction, I was let down a bit by the visuals. One can hardly hold it against him, though, for what was bleeding edge at the time. Still, for every liquid morph which succeeds, there’s jerky, distracting stop motion. For every attempt at compositing, the stock shows an increase in grain. For nearly every communion of cast and artifice, either one or the other looks cut out. The effects won an Oscar and pushed technology forward, but now suffer somewhat for their age.

Which is a bit of a shame. The Abyss is remembered perhaps least of Cameron’s major mainstream features and, even then, mainly for its visual effects. What those memories accomplish is a distraction, a disservice to an otherwise effective and engrossing thriller.

* * * *

Rated PG (Canada) / PG13 (United States)

171 minutes (1993 Special Edition)

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