The Abyss (1989)

Director: James Cameron

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn

Because relations between the United States and Russia are as strained as they’ve been since the end of the Cold War, now may be as appropriate a time as any to look back at this underappreciated science fiction film, which got lost in the sea of box office blockbusters in the summer of 1989. That’s right… there was a time when James Cameron wasn’t the “king of the world.” Right at the tail end of the decades-long game of chicken being played between the United States and what was then known as the Soviet Union, Cameron committed to celluloid the message that everyone hoped the two nations would hear loud and clear: “Calm down before you ruin this world for everyone!” The end result is not only a great movie, but also a hint of things to come in the career of its director.

After a United States submarine is sunk following a collision with an unidentified object, accusations are being thrown back and forth between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Any hope of a détente appears lost when more “accidents” follow on both sides. In-between this action, a group of deep sea oil drillers are recruited to save the world… er, I mean locate the submarine. Sorry about that, Michael Bay. Led by Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris), the team is not entrusted to do this job alone. Enter a Navy SEAL unit, led by Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), accompanied by Bud’s estranged wife, Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the drilling platform and therefore knows as much about it as anyone. Early on, the SEALs are warned about the fact that a percentage of those who travel as deep into the water as they are going simply cannot handle it, and the stress causes them to go a bit mental. Lt. Coffey insists, rather forcefully, that his men have all passed their required physical tests before making this voyage. Right about that time, Coffey notices his own hand starting to shake…

Together, the two groups find the missing sub, and much more. Coffey and his group proceed with “phase two” of their mission, which involves the recovery of one of the dozens of nuclear weapons in the sub’s arsenal. The drill team find something they can’t really explain. One of them sees what he perceives as an angel and, believing that this means he is near death, the poor guy slips into a coma. The others discover what these creatures really are and what their agenda is, but only after a couple of power failures that coincide with their arrival.

As most of the nearly three hours of “The Abyss” take place deep under water, there is plenty of room for claustrophobia (and, yes, that pun was intended). I think there can be no greater example of this than the scene in which Bud and Lindsey are trapped in one of their mini-subs, its power shorted out and a sizeable leak having been sprung. With time running short, the two have only one option remaining. One of them will have to let themselves drown while the other puts on diving gear and heads back to the rig with them in tow. The thought is that the deep hypothermia will allow the drowning victim to be revived after a few minutes times. It’s just a truly terrifying scene, but brilliantly executed, and easily the one thing I remember most about this movie.

One of my favorite actors from the 1980’s is Michael Biehn. He’s one of those actors who has the ability to make you like his characters no matter how virtuous or reprehensible they may be. Of course, the one character he’ll be remembered for most is Kyle Reese from “The Terminator.” Lt. Coffey is no hero, but I don’t really see him as a villain either, in spite of all the shady moves he makes. He’s been tremendously affected by his environment, and as such is not really behaving like himself. At least, that’s what I choose to believe, and that’s due to Biehn’s irresistible charm. But it seems that, outside of the James Cameron oeuvre, Biehn was never able to parlay that charm into a steady career. He did make a brief return with his part in “Planet Terror,” Robert Rodriguez’s half of the 2007 double feature known as “Grindhouse,” but I’ll save more detailed thoughts on that for a later time.

With the knowledge of where the career of James Cameron would travel from this point, one can look at “The Abyss” and see elements of each subsequent film (with the exception of 1994’s “True Lies”). Famous for his use of CGI, Cameron first puts it to good use here. This movie, ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Titanic” and “Avatar” each would provide breakthroughs in how best to use this technology in filmmaking. You have the strong female role, which Cameron put to good use in “Aliens” and would do so again with “Terminator 2.” Long before he would go in search of the Titanic’s wreckage, Cameron would first show off his love of underwater sequences (and the finding of lost treasures) here. Even the CGI responsible for creating the shape-shifting qualities of the villainous T-1000 from “Terminator 2” would get a trial run in “The Abyss.” It may not have had the gusto to outdo “Batman” or “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” at the box office, the film’s final message may come off a bit heavy-handed, and the whole thing might seem like a movie which Steven Spielberg could easily have directed, but “The Abyss” is just as relevant, and just as good a movie as any of James Cameron’s other works.

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Comments
  1. Ian Shuirr says:

    I agree about the drowning scene. So intense. One of my all time favorite movies still. Need to watch it again soon. Great review Chuck!!!

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