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The Abyss (1989)
Before he gave us the romanticized history lesson which was the mega hit "Titanic" legendary director James Cameron had already taken us below the waves back in 1989 with the sci-fi inspired "The Abyss". Full of those trademark elements from a strong female character and the abundance of special effects as well as ground breaking CGI "The Abyss" is a stunning visual movie which also has a pretty decent storyline or at least for the first 3 quarters of it before it ends up feeling weak.
After a US nuclear sub goes to ground deep below the waves the US Navy commandeer an experimental underwater oil rig to go down and check for survivors. With a bunch of Navy Seals sent down to control the dive all is not as it appears as they are more interested in the nuclear war heads than the possibility of survivors. But when a hurricane hits the surface causing them to lose their anchor to the control ship the rig tumbles deeper into the ocean and trouble where they encounter some strange alien beings.
The first 3 quarters of "The Abyss" has a nice fully packed storyline starting with a US nuclear sub running to ground after a close encounter with something a little strange. What follows is a combination of different storylines, the exploratory drilling rig and team which are commandeered by the Navy to go down to the sub, the navy seals who appear to have a hidden agenda when it comes to why they need to find the sub and the antagonistic relationship between chief rig worker Bud and his ex Lindsey who as the designer of the rig ends up on board as part of the team. There is a lot going on, building up a tense claustrophobic atmosphere down below the waves. Add to this a hurricane which ends up separating them from their anchors throwing them deeper into the ocean and into more danger and there is plenty of edge of your seat moments.
Accompanying all of this is a sci-fi aspect of an NTI, the UFO (Underwater Flying Object) which caused the sub to crash. Strangely whilst this sci-fi aspect is present it acts more like an embellishment for the first half of the movie with the focus being on the Navy Seals lead by Coffey who is becoming increasingly deranged, suffering an almost paranoia following his decompression. But even so the stunning CGI used to show the NTI from the water tentacle through to it's under water abode is for want of a better word breathtaking. The scene where the water tentacle morphs into the face of Lindsey is pretty realistic, considering that prior to "The Abyss" this technology wasn't yet made, and Cameron would use the same CGI technology to greater effect with "Terminator 2: Judgement Day".
But here lies a problem as whilst for the first three quarters "The Abyss" is a lesson in how to craft a tense, edge of your seat, action packed underwater thriller it all ends up being spoilt by what can only be described as a romanticized fairytale ending. It feels almost cheesy the way "The Abyss" ends and makes those final scenes disappointedly laughable after what had been such a great movie. It even feels that whilst Cameron had both written and directed "The Abyss" that maybe the producers forced him to deliver a more socially acceptable ending instead of one which was as gritty as the rest of the movie was.
Even so "The Abyss" does have some wonderful performances with Ed Harris leading the way as the sort of hero Virgil 'Bud' Brigman. It's an almost cliché character, a stereotype seen in movies both before and after but Harris does a great job of making him big and interesting. Equally delivering a big performance is Michael Biehn as Navy Seal Lt. Hiram Coffey who's decline into paranoia is so brilliant you wonder whether Biehn himself suffered a breakdown in trying to make his portrayal so authentic but at the same time he delivers just enough psychotic menace to make it a powerful character.
But there is one disappointment and that is the casting of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Lindsey Brigman the strong female lead. The trouble is that whilst Mastrantonio is a good actress and shows the elements of her character such as the strain and tension of being in danger she doesn't exude that feistiness or power as someone capable of bossing others around. It's just not completely believable and so doesn't quite work, although the pairing up with Ed Harris as ex husband and wife is an excellent decision and the chemistry, that antagonism is clearly evident.
What this all boils down to is up to a point "The Abyss" is a good movie with a great storyline, a good thread of tension and action as well as an abundance of stunning special effects and breathtaking CGI. But then that is all spoilt by an almost fairytale ending which feels out of place and laughable.
Title: The Abyss
Length: 138 mins
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, John Bedford Lloyd, J.C. Quinn, Kimberly Scott