The Abyss

Released: 1989
Director: James Cameron

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Visually stunning but unsatisfying

A few weeks ago I mentioned on Twitter that despite spending much of my time  with a dive club, my knowledge of diving related books and films was limited to the PADI instruction manuals and DVDs.  The suggestions came flooding in.  Several people suggested The Abyss and by sheer chance it was showing on Film 4 just a day or two after the discussion.  Directed by James Cameron and starring Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio this seemed like exactly the kind of film that Darren and I would enjoy.  If we didn’t focus too much on the diving …

A US nuclear submarine encounters a strange being and crashes.  A civilian crew of underwater drilling experts are tasked to join a specially trained SEAL team to recover any survivors and the nuclear warheads from the submarine.  While on the salvage operation the group encounters a seemingly benign alien aquatic species.  The excitement of this discovery is tempered by the realisation that Coffey, leader of the military team, is suffering a mental breakdown caused by high pressure nervous syndrome.

There’s lots of things that James Cameron could be accused of but a lack of vision and ambition is certainly not among them, this film takes us on a visually stunning adventure.  The underwater scenes are simply outstanding and take us to an exciting part of our planet that the vast majority of us will never have the opportunity to experience.  The world of The Abyss is more alien than many futuristic planet worlds that have been created in the movies.

It’s unfortunate however that the rest of the film doesn’t meet the promise that Cameron’s vision offers.  When The Abyss was finished I wasn’t sure what the point of the film had been.  It was neither an engaging science fiction story nor a thrilling human drama.  The scenes where the alien beings encounter the humans are spellbinding but there’s not enough of them.  The science fiction element is picked up and dropped at whim and seems to be a handy plot device rather than an integral part of the narrative.

The purely human action is mostly quite bland and predictable.  Had the story only been about the tension between the military and civilians it would have made for a much shorter film which would not have justified the time, budget or effort that clearly went into the making of The Abyss.

The story is slow to get started, but unlike a lot of other reviewers this didn’t bother me too much.  I enjoyed the dialogue and explanations of the diving process and got very excited by the thought of three week decompression, but for the most part it was a ponderous slog to get through the film.

The performances were ok, Ed Harris was reliable as Bud Brigman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was perfectly fine as his estranged wife Lindsey.  Michael Biehn as Coffey was embarrassingly over-the-top – there were too many hysterical moments and cliches and while this isn’t always a problem in action films it just served to highlight the lack of gripping action here.

The visual brilliance and imagination of The Abyss are hugely impressive and make for a stunning piece of cinema which is badly let down by a plodding and confused story.

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  1. I remember liking this one, but can only remember the visual and nothing about the story. Guess that proves your point :)

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