Starring-Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Scott’s Review #1,210
Reviewed December 19, 2021
Well before he created Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) and became a household name, director James Cameron made the gorgeous, special effects-laden film The Abyss (1989). The film followed hits like Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986). These films undoubtedly allowed him to make a film that he wanted to make with necessary freedoms.
The Abyss is completely visual and the interesting cast of characters with possibilities for development are never allowed to shine through instead feeling stale. They are usurped by the constant flow of underwater lush worldly spectacles that utterly encompasses the film.
Even when central characters get a moment to dig deeper into their backstories Cameron never goes for the emotional jugular instead encouraging the viewers to focus on the extraterrestrial and science fiction elements rather than his characters.
That’s the type of director Cameron is and recommended is to watch The Abyss on the big screen, or the biggest screen possible. I did not and recognize the sheer bombast that a cinema watching would render. I missed out.
The film, and specifically Cameron, must be heralded for the vast loveliness the art direction, visual effects, and cinematography provide.
Forget the convoluted plot entirely and sit back and enjoy the spectacle.
Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio portray Bud and Dr. Lindsey Brigman formerly married petroleum engineers who still have some issues to work out. When an American submarine sinks in the Caribbean, a US search and recovery team works with an oil platform crew, racing against Soviet vessels to recover the boat.
Deep in the ocean, they encounter something unexpected and the American team is determined to find out what. Is it the Russians or a deadly and intelligent extraterrestrial force?
The story is overly complicated and riddled with stereotypical plot points. As the team becomes submersed in their submarine they experience the standard trouble- a hurricane, a rogue team leader, a flooded rig, and freezing temperatures.
Harris and Mastrantonio have pretty good chemistry here but we never fully grasp their marital problems or why there is a distance between them. Thrown together on this mission they predictably face peril and come close to losing each other. When they embrace in the final scene it is a wrapped up like a tight bow sort of ending that underwhelms.
But, man are the visuals amazing. When the team drops at the alien city in the deepest trenches of the ocean floor the beautiful underwater camera shots take center stage. The technical consistencies are simply breathtaking and become the focal point of the film.
I daresay The Abyss (1989) features the greatest underwater sequences ever seen on film to this date but somehow decades later the film feels forgotten or overshadowed by Cameron’s other works.
Perhaps the dated Cold War plotline and the traditional romance have not served the film well in the long run.
Oscar Nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects (won), Best Sound