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The Abyss

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Abyss

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Director: James Cameron
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 145 Minutes
Release Date: August 1989
Genres: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action, Horror

*Also starring: Michael Biehn, Todd Graff, Leo Burmester, John Bedford Lloyd, J.C. Quinn, Kimberly Scott, Jimmie Ray Weeks, Chris Elliott

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

When James Cameron started working on TITANIC, many expected that project to fail and with a good reason. In late 1980s Cameron was heavily involved in project with many striking similarities to 1997 "Oscar"-awarded epic - both were shot on water, both required revolutionary special effects, both required ridiculously high budgets, both represented incredible psychological challenge to the cast and crew. The results of Cameron's efforts were, however, different in - while TITANIC became one of the most successful cinema projects of all times, his 1989 science fiction epic THE ABYSS is almost forgotten by now.

The plot, based on Cameron's script, begins with American nuclear submarine USS Montana chasing unidentified underwater object in the waters near Cayman Trench in Caribbean Sea. The chase results with USS Montana hitting the underwater reef and sinking with all hands aboard. Due to heavy Soviet naval presence in the area, US Navy wants to organise quick salvage and enlists the help of civilian divers situated on nearby experimental underwater oil rig. Virgil "Bud" Brigman (played by Ed Harris), the team leader, is not particularly happy about this arrangement, and his enthusiasm is further diminished after arrival of his estranged wife Lindsay (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who designed the rig. Lindsay is accompanied by the team of elite Navy SEALs led by Lt. Coffey (played by Michael Biehn), and soon the series of incidents would put everyone on the rig to the ultimate test. Severe storm cuts all links with the surface and the rig crew is faced not only with the immediate task of survival but also with the series of strange phenomena. While Lindsay becomes convinced that those events have something to do with friendly underwater aliens, increasingly paranoid Lt. Coffey wants to prevent submarine's nuclear missiles from falling into enemy hands.

When the author of this review saw THE ABYSS for the first time, he was so blown away by the experience that he gave it the best possible "10/10" grade in his review for the local science fiction fanzine. As years passed, the author of this review learned that some great films can't look that great after the second viewing, so this was the last time I gave such a high grade without allowing some time to pass and put into perspective. However, although THE ABYSS to me now looks worse than during the first viewing, it is still more than interesting film experience that includes better display of Cameron's filmmaking talents than TITANIC. But those two films had separate fates - one was commercially successful, and had its commercial success was mirrored in rave reviews; the former was commercial failure and many critics jumped on the bandwagon by calling it a setback in Cameron's career. Cameron had additional reasons to be displeased by THE ABYSS - the film was subjected to heavy cutting by the studio, leaving some important plot issues unresolved and audience had to wait 1992 Special Edition before seeing Cameron's true vision.

However, even in its 1989 version, THE ABYSS is great film. The film lasts for more than two hours, yet the audience could hardly expect to be bored. On the contrary, there are few films so exciting as this one, due to Cameron's ability to fill almost entire running time with spectacular and breath-taking action scenes and, in the same time, allow enough plot development to make us care about the characters. Three years earlier Cameron used the same technique in ALIENS and this is probably the reason why some critics viewed THE ABYSS as repetitive and tried to describe it as "ALIENS under water". There are plenty of similarities between those two films - plot takes place in isolated, claustrophobic location; characters are almost constantly forced to fight for their lives; roles are played by ensemble cast of character actors instead of regular Hollywood stars; relationship towards technology is ambivalent; heroine fits into Cameron's post-feminist stereotype of strong, self- conscious woman who can take care of herself in male-dominated environment; political subtext of the film is again influenced by the Cold War escalation of Reagan years - but there are also differences.

The major difference is, of course, in the way Cameron treats First Contact. While in ALIENS he stuck to the dark and disturbing vision of original creators and portrayed outer space as a place full of unspeakable horrors human beings can't handle, Cameron takes more optimistic approach in THE ABYSS. New frontiers - in this case depths of ocean instead of outer space - represent both the challenge and opportunity; the biggest threat to mankind is not from the outside, but from within - irrational instincts from our subconscious that make us react to anything new and different with ignorance, paranoia and outright hostility. According to this film, civilisations technically more advanced than humanity are also morally superior to humans; they managed to overcome such instincts, otherwise they would perish in self-annihilation similar to nuclear war that used to haunt us during Cold War. This thesis is explicitly given in final scenes of 1992 version that explain a plot, but also seem somewhat too preachy and simplistic. 1989 version, on the other hand, suffered from plot not being explained enough. It takes almost an hour before the protagonist experience first alien sightings; until that time (and even after the finale) THE ABYSS might be viewed as a standard action/disaster film with whole alien subplot being nothing more than screenwriter's afterthought.

However, this structural flaw won't prevent the audience from enjoying THE ABYSS. Cameron again shows his tendency towards perfectionism and extracting all talents and resources at his disposal. Acting in this film is really good. Ed Harris shines in his role, allowing class conflict to play part in love story. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is very convincing as a woman whose social skills represent total opposite of her abilities to handle extreme situations. Michael Biehn, who played squeaky-clean heroes in two previous films by James Cameron, is refreshingly menacing as psychotic naval officer. Todd Graff serves as an excellent comic relief. Photography by Mikael Salomon creates effective atmosphere, and special effects are top-notch. Musical soundtrack by Alan Silvestri is good, although it might sound somewhat too corny compared to Horner's work in ALIENS.

Another reason why fans of science fiction cinema should pay attention to THE ABYSS might be found in the scenes where Cameron pays homage to the classics of the genre. Aliens and their vehicles look like those in Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, while "Bud"'s visit to alien underwater city might remind many of the final scenes in Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Some might argue that the level of originality in this film below criteria of masterpiece, but THE ABYSS is nevertheless great film that should deserve much better reputation.

Copyright 2002 Dragan Antulov

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