The Abyss (1989)    1 Stars

“A place on earth more awesome than anywhere in space.”

The Abyss (1989)
The Abyss (1989)

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn

Synopsis: A civilian diving team are enlisted to search for a lost nuclear submarine and face danger while encountering an alien aquatic species.




Made at the dawn of the CGI era, James Cameron’s The Abyss was one of the most expensive movies ever made. It was also something of a flop, despite being able to boast all of this new technology, which gives a clue as to the quality of the plot –the one component of a movie that will remain of prime importance irrespective of technological progress. A few years after its initial release, an extended version, adding 28 minutes to the running time was released, as if Cameron believed that increasing an already bloated running time would transform the movie into something wonderful. It’s tempting to believe such a move on the director’s part smacks of arrogance, as if he can’t quite believe we’re really too stupid to understand how really great his movie is…

The Abyss sees Ed Harris (Gravity, Frontera) playing Bud Brigman, the head of an oil drilling crew working on a prototype underwater platform who reluctantly agrees to allow a US Navy Seal team on-board after a nuclear submarine crashes when colliding with a UFO (or USO?). The Seals are led by Lt Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn – Aliens, Puncture), who conceals from all aboard the incipient case of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome which will transform him into a paranoid madman before the movie’s half over. Accompanying the Seals is Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio – Scarface), the woman who designed the platform and who also happens to be Bud’s estranged wife. Of course.

Such a lazy piece of writing (take a second bow, Mr. C) is typical of the low quality of The Abyss. Although there are a lot of action scenes, very little of note really seems to happen. Decent actors are forced to utter terrible dialogue in between the action scenes as they rush about the stricken platform trying to prevent Coffey from blowing up a nuclear warhead which has come into his possession. Care is taken to telegraph key moments of the plot which we, the ignorant audience, will need to remember later on. It feels a little like a rip off of Alien, with the crew running around dark, claustrophobic corridors, but it lacks the suspense of Ridley Scott’s film (the sequel to which was directed by Cameron) and is not so much a race against time as an unsuccessful race against boredom.

It’s a shame, because there are moments of potential here. Bud’s nightmarish descent into the pitch black depths of the sea, and his earlier revival of his drowned wife should have been the movie’s high points, but both of them go on too long; the tension is deflated from the descent long before he touches down, while his wife’s return to life simply looks ridiculous – not because she does return to life, but because she does so after Bud has given up administering CPR and taken to shouting at her instead.

(Reviewed 5th May 2015)

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