The Abyss – 1989
I love this movie. But if you ask people about The Abyss, many of them will probably say that it was an OK movie that had a stupid ending. But I beg to differ! If you watch the director’s cut, the ending makes a whole lot more sense. The script was very brilliantly crafted and the plot had a pacing and a flow that was remarkably deliberate and incredibly well thought out. Everything in the film had significance and led very naturally into what came next. It all made sense, despite its science fiction nature.
This film had it all. Great character development, great acting, action, suspense, drama, romance, and a very specific moral agenda. It had incredible “Oh my god!” moments that were enhanced by a great soundtrack and groundbreaking special effects. Like all my other favorite films, this is one I could watch over and over again without ever losing interest.
The Abyss stars Ed Harris as Virgil “Bud” Brigman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his hard-nosed wife Lindsay. He is an oil rigger on an experimental underwater oil drilling facility that she designed. Along with them are a colorful cast of minor characters, like the paranoid conspiracy theorist, Hippy, played by Todd Graff, a bulky Marine Vet named Catfish, played by Leo Burmester, and a honky-tonk country girl called Lisa “One Night” Standing, played by Kimberly Scott, and several others, all of whom are fiercely loyal to Bud who has the quality of being a natural leader. They refer to Lindsay as the “Queen Bitch of the Universe.”
But film actually starts in a U.S military submarine. They are sailing in deep water along an abysmal trench that is at least three miles deep. They begin tracking an unidentified object moving through the water at incredible speeds. The mysterious object makes specific course changes, indicating intelligence, and they think it is a Russian vessel or possibly a missile. It passes by them and causes all their power to shut down, but when the power comes back on, the find that they are seconds away from a collision with a rock wall. The impact causes the sub to flood with water, killing the crew and sinking the vessel.
The military makes a deal with the oil company and sends a team of Navy Seals down to the oil rigging vessel named Deep Core, which is about a mile below the surface, and several hours away from the trench. The civilian oil workers and their diving equipment are used to assist the Seals in their search and rescue mission. But while the submarine is being searched, an oil rigger named Jammer, played by John Bedford, sees something that terrifies him. He damages his oxygen tank and sees a glowing vision.
I know that might sound a little lengthy, but it is a great set-up for the rest of the film. My favorite actors in the film are Harris and Mastrantonio. They both really played their parts well and had a great on-screen chemistry together. The scene where Lindsay drowns was intense and unnerving to watch, just like it was supposed to be.
And I have to give a special thumbs up to a fun performance by Leo Burmester. Sure, Catfish is a minor character, but I have always liked the way the actor took the small role and made it memorable. And we can’t forget Michael Biehn as Lt. Coffey, the Navy Seal who gets the bends and goes off the deep end, and tries to start a war with the aliens that live at the bottom of the trench. It is they who have been visiting the humans and scaring them half to death. All except Lindsay. She somehow develops a friendly relationship with them. In the famous water tentacle scene, they want to learn more about the humans so they explore Deep Core using a solid column of water like we would use an underwater camera.
But I would have to say that my favorite scene in the film is the one where the hurricane on the surface causes the control platform to get thrown out of place before the umbilical can be removed from Deep Core. Not only is the submerged oil rig dragged along the ocean floor, the crane holding the umbilical is ripped from the platform and crashes into the water. The horror as the wreckage plummets toward Bud and his crew is one of the most intense parts of the film. It misses the rig by mere feet, landing on the edge of the oceanic trench. For a few seconds, relief washes over them until it is slowly replaced with terror as the wreckage teeters and falls over the edge, nearly pulling the damaged oil rig into the abyss. It gets my heart racing every time!
And then there is the knife fight, the submersible battle, the drowning scene, Bud’s daring dive into the abyss to disarm Coffey’s nuclear warhead (made possible by the use of breathable liquid which allowed him to avoid pressure sickness and death), the aliens rescuing Bud, their rise to the surface, and their warning to the human race to stop the violence and the war. It was all so well done!
Then there was the wonderful soundtrack by Alan Sylvestri, a film score composer who always has a talent for capturing the feeling of the film he is writing for. This time, he really used sound to portray cold, dark ocean depths. Also, the mysterious and beautiful aliens are enhanced by his ethereal music.
Director James Cameron, who is known for daring, big budget films, did not disappoint. The scope of the underwater sets and environments that were built for the making of the movie were incredible. “Two specially constructed tanks were used. The first one held 7.5 million US gallons of water, was 55 feet deep and 209 feet across. At the time, it was the largest fresh-water filtered tank in the world. Additional scenes were shot in the second tank, an unused turbine pit, which held 2.5 million US gallons of water. As the production crew rushed to finish painting the main tank, millions of gallons of water poured in and took five days to fill. The Deepcore rig was anchored to a 90-ton concrete column at the bottom of the large tank. It consisted of six partial and complete modules that took over half a year to plan and build from scratch.”
The special effect of the alien water tentacle was incredibly well done and was something that nobody had ever seen before. Apparently, it took 6 months for the effects team to perfect it, using techniques that had never before been attempted. But the result was incredible!
The director’s cut ending was really heavy on the “give peace a chance… or else,” angle. But that sentiment was really downplayed in the theatrical release. That might explain why such a great movie performed so badly at the box office. Still, the film is well-respected today, and it has long been one of my personal favorites.