The Abyss (1989)

the abyss movie poster


James Cameron as a director is a bit of a mixed bag. He has created some of the most phenomenal action showcases cinema has ever seen. His movies make loads of money and create a spectacle like no other. He has been part of the Alien quadrilogy, he created the Terminator, and there was that little movie about a couple of lovers on a sinking boat. For that little picture, he even won an Oscar. However, as a writer, he has also given us some patently ridiculous dialogue. It’s like he can create some pretty interesting story concepts, generate a great deal of tension between characters and pull off amazing action, but when it gets to finding the heart and soul of a character he pulls out the cheese. It is interesting than that my favorite Cameron movie would be so character-driven with only a few moments of grandiose action.

The Abyss came out in 1989 with a trimmed-down 146-minute run time. Later when the movie came to video Cameron released his director’s cut adding a significant amount of footage and bringing the time to 171 minutes. Most of this extra footage comes in at the end of the film and stands to clear up some major confusion wrought in the theatrical version. It seems that there are some creatures living at the bottom of the ocean and are rather perturbed at humanity’s prevalence for violence. It seems these creatures (aliens?) can manipulate water and have forced giant tidal waves to start approaching every major port. Humanity is saved when the creatures see the true love between the two main characters. It reminded me of the beginning quote from Genesis where God agrees to save Sodom and Gomorrah if He can find just 10 righteous people. In their case, He didn’t, and the cities were destroyed by sulfur and fire, but in Cameron’s tale, it seems that the rekindling of love between Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio does save humanity.

What Cameron does extremely well in this picture is to create tension. From the claustrophobic setting of an underwater oil rig to the potential nuclear meltdown each scene slowly tightens the screws of suspense. The cold war plot raging outside of the main action reminded me a lot of 2010: the Year We Make Contact. In both pictures the main characters are isolated on vessels (a spaceship in 2010, an underwater oil well in The Abyss) while the USA and Russia bring conflict close to nuclear war back on earth (or above water). In both movies, this helps to add tension as it also dates the movies since the cold war is now over.

One of my favorite scenes involves the flooding of parts of the rig. Water comes rushing into the rig and several of the characters scurry to make it to safety and close off the doors to isolate the flooding. Ed Harris is saved by his wedding ring. One of the doors automatically starts to close and Harris sticks his hand in to stop the door, which normally would have crushed his hand, but because he still wears the ring the door does not fully close. This gives him enough time to be saved from the flooding waters. There was an earlier scene in which his wife asks him why he still wears the ring since they have separated. When I chose my own wedding ring I opted for a titanium band known for its extra strength. I can’t help but think of that scene every time I look at my own ring.

Much of the dialogue in The Abyss is of the heavy-handed, cliched variety that Cameron brings to pretty much all of his movies. Some of the extemporaneous characters bring little to the overall movie and help distract the viewer from the main plot. I think Cameron has done a very good job with the two main characters though. Ed Harris does a remarkable job playing his role as ‘boss’ on the rig while still arguing with his wife. Mastrantonio also does a fine job of portraying the tough-as-nails “Lindsay” while still remaining feminine and sympathetic.

The director’s cut ending is much debated in the online world. While it serves to clarify what was a rather abrupt and confusing ending in the original it also becomes quite preachy and is at a loss for any type of subtlety. Cameron attacks his anti-war message like Ripley against an Alien.

Even with some awful dialogue and a preachy ending, The Abyss still remains one of my favorite sci-fi movies. James Cameron creates tension like a master auteur and creates two of his best characters to date.