Wednesday 7 April 2021

Movie Review: The Abyss (1989)

An ambitious science fiction underwater survival adventure thriller with cold war undertones, The Abyss is visually stunning and technically astounding, but sidelines people in favour of machinery. 

The nuclear-powered USS Montana submarine sinks after an encounter with an unidentified object in deep waters near Cuba. With a hurricane moving in, the US Navy launches a rescue attempt. The crew of the nearby Deep Core underwater drilling platform led by Virgil "Bud" Brigman (Ed Harris) is hurriedly recruited to support a SEAL team under the command of Lieutenant Coffey (Michael Biehn). Deep Core's designer and Bud's wife Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) joins them, although the couple are on the verge of divorce.

Underwater, tensions rise when Coffey starts suffering from the effects of high-pressure nervous syndrome. Then mishaps leave Deep Core stranded at the bottom of the ocean without surface communications. Encounters with alien beings continue, with Coffey attributing the activity to enemy action and unilaterally deciding to nuke the area using one of the Montana warheads. Bud and Lindsey have to set aside their differences and work together to prevent a series of catastrophes and save each other.

Written and directed by James Cameron and clocking in at 140 minutes (an Extended Cut adds another 20 minutes), The Abyss borrows themes from science fiction landmarks including The Day The Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The plot unambiguously stands against military action and nuclear escalation, and argues for protecting the environment and the majesty of the oceans. Meanwhile, technologically superior friendly beings keep watch on humanity's progress (or lack thereof).

To achieve his vision Cameron subjected himself, the actors and crew to a gruelling schedule of almost continuous filming in massive water tanks, with Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio taking the brunt of the physical strain. The effort registers on the screen, the action taking place almost entirely under water, the characters' exertion and exhaustion in battling frigid waters, deep underwater pressure, and the continuous risk of drowning adding to the drama's intensity.

But the film tries to do too much and never latches onto to a cohesive, human-centred direction. Bouncing from rescue mission to natural disaster then a survival ordeal before veering towards a crew-versus-SEALs hostage drama followed by a nuclear device countdown preceding a deus ex machina finale embellished with psychedelia, the narrative lurches from one crisis to the next, barely catching a breath or pausing for an explanation.

Along the way the machines take centre stage, especially in the clumsy and awkward opening 90 minutes, so eager to get wet that character definitions and human emotions are forgotten somewhere on the shoreline. It's late in the day by the time Bud and Lindsey finally break through the stock bickering and round into people worth caring about. Harris and Mastrantonio then deliver a couple of stellar and unforgettable sequences of love, heroism and sacrifice merging in exceptional tests of endurance. The Abyss is a technical marvel, but only soars when human warmth overcomes the frigid hardware.

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