A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , ,


  1. Actually the situation depicted is not imaginary–“saturation diving” methods keep divers at pressure for weeks or longer for deep underwater jobs. They don’t have to decompress every day. Transfer from the surface environment to the working pressure or back takes a long decompression time. The pressurized living facilities can be on a ship or platform. There have also been pressurized underwater habitats on the sea floor (mainly for research).

    Comment by David | July 29, 2010 | Reply

  2. primo video about saturation diving http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcSduoKj6KU

    Comment by David | July 29, 2010 | Reply

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