A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 150 – The Abyss (Special Edition)

The Abyss (Special Edition) – July 28th, 2010

When I was in high school either my chemistry class or the science club managed to convince the teacher (same teacher for both) to let us watch this movie due to the liquid breathing stuff they introduce early on in this movie. We’d found a blurb about how some scientists had managed to get a mouse to breathe in liquid (unfortunately getting the liquid out later on caused… problems) and well, our teacher was super cool and we watched this movie for credit. We didn’t even have to do an analysis of the science involved like we did when my physics class watched Speed. Pretty cool. But I think that was the only other time I’ve ever watched this, and I’m a good ways out of high school.

I guess it’s a good thing I’m fairly good at compartmentalizing my suspension of disbelief away from my scientific scepticism, because this movie is chock full of pseudo-science that’s not the sci-fi part of the movie. I would just like to recount a little exercise they had us do when I did a science program at sea one summer in high school. We had this great rig on a cable attached to a winch, and we could send it down to collect water samples at various depths. We could also attach things to it. So we all decorated styrofoam cups and put them in a net bag and sent them down. And do you know what we got back? Shriveled and twisted little bits of compressed junk. That was just a high school science voyage, so we didn’t send them all that far down. So I admit, I did poke a little at the movie’s handwaving away the pressure issues.

After all, the vast majority of this movie takes place deep in the ocean. That’s the point. It’s called The Abyss for a reason. The Navy (sort of) commandeers an experimental ocean floor oil platform and diving rig to investigate a nuclear submarine that crashed somewhere near Cuba. They send down a group of Navy SEALs to help with the operation as the crew of the rig, led by Ed Harris as Bud, aren’t really experienced with salvaging nuclear subs. With the SEALs comes Bud’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Lindsay, who is apparently the designer of the rig they’re on and who has a very hands-on approach to its maintenance. Of course things go wrong, with a hurricane up top leading to a loss of communication and the guy leading the SEALs gets “pressure-induced psychosis” and becomes more than a little dangerous. But on top of that, something is down there with them, and they don’t know what it is.

Really, a very large portion of this movie is simply a disaster movie with suspense elements thanks to the psychotic SEAL dude. I kind of like that. The reveal is gradual. We see something mysterious reflected on a diving helmet faceplate at one point, but after that it felt like a good half hour or more before we see anything else. It’s the tensions on the rig that drive the movie. Unfortunately, in the special edition? I lost the tension. Around the 1:40 mark I really started feeling the filler. The original release of the movie was 138 minutes, which is almost two and a half hours. The release we’re watching? 171 minutes. It’s pretty and all, and I’m sure a lot of work was put into the diving scenes and I do love underwater stuff, but during what I’m pretty sure was the climax I couldn’t help but look at the clock and think “Seriously? There’s another fifty minutes?” They spend what felt like half an hour doing CPR on Lindsay, which really strains my ability to stay tense and invested. It was beginning to feel like my own personal Rock Climbing scene (I’d include a link, but as YouTube links are rather impermanent, go ahead and look up MST3K and “rock climbing,” if you dare). I’m not really up to going back and watching the 138 minute version tonight to see what was added, but I honestly don’t think whatever it was, was necessary.

Now, this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the movie. I did! It was a lot of fun, just a good bit longer than I think it needs to be. The acting is good – I do love Ed Harris – and so are the effects. Can you believe this movie is twenty years old? I can’t. Well, okay, every once in a while I could, but for most of the movie it just didn’t occur to me. The subtlety of the sci-fi aspect (up until the end) helps there. It keeps the effects limited so they won’t date things too much. I do have some quibbles with how the psychotic Navy SEAL plot is set up and handled. They set up the whole “pressure-induced psychosis” thing right at the outset with a speech from Lindsay and some immediate symptoms from the guy, and yet even once the rig’s crew makes it clear they know what’s up, they still act all hands off with him. Sure, he’s got a nuclear warhead, but it’s cool, right? Sure! But that aside, if you accept that they miss the symptoms and then know he’s too dangerous to take out, fine. It works.

One thing I do love is that while Lindsay, the female lead of the movie (played wonderfully by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), does need rescuing at one point (marathon CPR!) she’s otherwise a competent scientist and engineer who knows the rig they’re working on and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Sure, she starts out in heels and the guys refer to her as the Queen Bitch, but damn if she doesn’t know what she’s doing and is unwilling to let anyone say otherwise (sadly, that’s probably why it’s so realistic that she gets called a bitch). And then there’s One Night (played by Kimberly Scott, who does a damn fine job), one of the submersible pilots working on the rig. She’s an African American woman who kicks ass at her job, and she makes it through the damn movie. Two competent female characters, working at jobs normally held by men and aside from the early labels for Lindsay, long term they’re both accepted and valuable members of the team and both of them make it through the whole movie. Do you know how awesome that is? Awesome enough that I’m willing to forgive the padding and the pseudo-science and the deus ex ctenophora and the year-long CPR scene.

All in all, it’s a good movie with good actors, decent writing, fun effects, lots of great underwater footage, some dubious-at-best science and a somewhat predictable message. But ignore the science and take the message as a given and watch the regular edition and you’re all set.

July 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Abyss

July 28, 2010

The Abyss (Special Edition)

Can you believe that we’ve reviewed one hundred and fourty nine movies before reaching our first James Cameron one? You’d think in a heavily action and sci-fi oriented collection like ours we’d have hit, say, a Terminator or an Aliens before now. (Not an Avatar, because I’m holding out for a extended edition 3-D blu-ray. Which means it’s not worth getting for me until I can afford a 3-D television, so maybe sometime in the next couple years.) Actually, I’m quite glad that our first Cameron movie is this one. It’s easily my second favorite James Cameron movie (the original Terminator is just about one of my favorite movies of all time, so it’s a hard one to beat.)

What we’ve got here is basically Close Encounters of the Third Kind at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with a little Day the Earth Stood Still thrown in for good measure. Sure, there’s a big cold war message about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, which was actually expanded for the special edition, but just because it’s a little dated in its sensibilities doesn’t make it any less thrilling to watch. When a mysterious deep-sea object causes a US nuclear submarine to crash there is no time to get another submarine over to it on the sea floor to investigate it. There is, however, an experimental submersible oil rig (think Deep-Deepwater Horizon) nearby that can be moved near to the wreck. So the Navy sends a bunch of SEALs down and co-opts the rig, sending it on a mission to investigate. Down on the rig we have the hard-assed chief “Bud” (Ed Harris who gets to be both the chief of operations and the romantic lead star of the movie) and his crew of idiosyncratic drillers. Hippie, One-Night, Sonny and all. Then there’s the SEALs, headed by Cameron regular Michael Biehn as Lt. Coffey. I enjoy seeing Biehn playing against type here. Rather than being the hero he’s the intruder military presence, working without orders from the surface and slowly going insane with pressure induced psychosis and paranoia. Also along for the ride is Bud’s soon-to-be-ex wife, the designer of the rig (the divorce, as he points out, is not yet final.)

It’s a great set-up with a lot of plausible but far-out sci-fi tech. The whole notion of the deep-sea rig is cool. I mentioned Deepwater Horizon earlier, and it was kind of in the back of my mind for a lot of the time while I was watching this tonight. The murky, unfocused back and white footage from the submarine cameras was the reality I was comparing to the fantasy of this film. The rig in this movie is pressurised to the same pressure as the water around it so that the inhabitants can dive outside in just wetsuits. It’s a cool idea, but I somewhat suspect that no matter how gradually you bring a human body up to the enormous PSI of a deep underwater environment the organs would be pulverized into a fist-sized pulp. (Have you seen the Mythbusters where they compress an analog human body into a diving bell helmet? Not pretty.) The oxiginated fluid they use to keep their lungs working in extreme pressure is also plausible, but again, at that depth breathing is only one problem. But suspension of disbelief is easy because Cameron is so careful to show all this cool tech in a believable way. He stresses drawbacks to the pressurization, for example, such as the fact that characters in this environment must be depressurized gradually over a weeks-long period and are vulnerable to deleterious neural effects that can cause the shakes, slurred speech and cognitive impairment.

The actual unknown entities themselves are exceptionally cool. They’re these strange luminescent abstract things. A combination of some awesome early digital effects and models I suspect, with a lot of digital processing as well. I should add that the special effects in general are top notch. There is a ton of miniature work here blended with live action footage of actors in cockpits which almost all of the time is completely believable. (There are only a couple shots of the crashing submarine early on in the film that made me cry out “it’s only a model” in my head.)

One thing that really sets this movie apart from your general sci-fi fx-fest, though, is the superior acting. Particularly on the part of the two leads. There’s a real chemistry between Ed Harris as Bud and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Lindsey, his estranged wife. They each have powerful emotional scenes which in the hands of lesser actors could have come off as cheesy and spoiled the movie. Instead they end up providing a lot of emotional power to the movie and raising it far above what it might have been.

I’ll not deny that the movie is heavy-handed in its message, especially in this extended edition which features the threat of war with the Russians and a massive tidal wave which is not in the theatrical version, but I’m willing to ignore that. I choose to concentrate instead on the great performances, cool concept and fantastic special effects. There’s a ton of great action, some well built tension as things get progressively worse for the isolated inhabitants of the oil rig, and a sense of real peril not just for the lead characters but for all Humankind as first contact with a largely benign alien civilization almost goes disastrously wrong.

Looking back now after just having watched the movie I find it amazing just how much goes on, and how much powerful and emotional investment I have in the story, long after the final climactic battle between right and wrong. There’s a big action laden battle with the bad-guy and then the movie drawn in on itself to become a much more emotional and human story… and there’s about a half hour to go between then and the end of the film.

It’s a James Cameron film all the way through, and one of his better ones at that. I recognise some Cameron tropes like the weaselly company man and the not-to-be-trusted hard-nosed military goon. His fingerprints are all over the action and the effects seem a dry run for some of those used in Terminator 2. Sometimes I feel like this movie isn’t given its due by sci-fi fans, and that’s a shame.

July 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 2 Comments