The Abyss (1989)
The Abyss (1989)

Genre: Sci-Fi Adventure Running Time: 2 hrs. 19 min.

Release Date: August 9th, 1989 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: James Cameron Actors: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, Kimberly Scott




ames Cameron’s “The Abyss” brings to the screen some of the most suspenseful scenes ever filmed and an original and inspiring science-fiction story. While the special effects are slightly dated and the conclusion suffers from the inability to be succinct (with a denouement requiring an abundance of clarifications), the individual concepts and environments are still magnificently astounding. Gritty realism merges with light-hearted fantasy, setting the stage for a pre-“Avatar” adventure that will certainly appeal to audiences willing to submerge themselves in extraterrestrial wonders.

A small group of underwater oilrig workers, commanded by stubborn Bud Brigman (Ed Harris), is stationed below the ocean surface in the massive Deep Core vessel, bordering along a two-mile straight-drop abyss. Coincidentally due to their extreme depth, they are most closely positioned to a recently downed US submarine that requires a quick search and rescue mission. A team of Navy SEALs is sent down to lead the investigation, which quickly turns into a covert operation to retrieve a nuclear missile. As tensions grow between the two crews, heightened by the presence of Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), Bud’s estranged wife, and a raging hurricane destroying the topside communication facility, Brigman realizes he is caught between the psychotic machinations of Lieutenant Coffey (Michael Biehn) and possible deep-sea alien creatures.

Director James Cameron, evidenced by his early successes with “The Terminator” and “Aliens,” has perfectly mastered the art of suspense in a science-fiction setting. Cameron’s films employ an extreme level of intensity, often marked with plenty of action and violence and the specific notion that people can be just as deadly as the otherworldly monstrosities they battle. However, here, the only thing that interferes with the nail-biting predicaments is the introduction of gliding, glowing, jellyfish-like creatures, which marks a distinct contrast of his previously frightening ideas. Had “The Abyss” stuck strictly to the claustrophobic locations, the dark, flooded tunnels of metal grating and dangling wires, the smothering paranoia fused with decompression sickness that precludes the humans from working together effectively, and the impending death by suffocation, starvation, or freezing, it might have been a perfect thriller. By bringing in ambitious science-fiction themes, the impressiveness of the tautness is muddied and less digestible – especially for audiences opposed to taking random alien life for granted.

Despite this inclusion of otherworldly forms, whose water-manipulating capabilities were quite a visual treat back in 1989, several moments stand out as some of the finest suspense sequences ever committed to celluloid. When Coffey attacks the shuttle carrying Bud and Lindsey, they are stranded over 50 yards away from the main ship and left with only one diving suit. As they debate who will have to drown so that the other can swim back to the ship for help, ice water pours into the compartment from every wall. Another scene forces Bud to descend the abyss to disarm an active nuclear weapon, threatening him with both a limited supply of oxygen and increasing mental instability from tremendous water pressure. Sacrifices are constantly deliberated and frequently volunteered by the lead characters. This unfaltering decision to do the right thing and to preserve the lives of others is a powerful and emotional attribute consistent in many of Cameron’s heroes.

But the movie didn’t appease critics (or audiences, considering its mediocre theatrical earnings) on its release, based largely on several plot points that weren’t convincingly developed. Instances of decompression and other scientific factors were ignored during the theatrical edit, along with explanations for the alien intervention – despite the clever incorporation of the current political climate (the Cold War), mirroring “Aliens'” allusion to Vietnam. Cameron’s 1993 “Director’s Cut” features about 30 minutes of extra footage that better details some of the subplots and technical aspects of the underwater organisms. Though “The Abyss” is flawed in either version, it’s still a must-see for fans of the genre and for its uncommonly competent handling of suspense.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10