‘The Abyss’ is a typical effects-heavy sci-fi mess

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The Abyss (1989)

Directed by James Cameron

Call it “1989: A Sea Odyssey.” Critics of James Cameron’s film “The Abyss” have found ample comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi opus “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But despite star Ed Harris’ thousand-league underwater adventure, “The Abyss” is preposterously shallow compared to Kubrick’s artistic masterpiece. At two and a half hours long, you’d think it’d have a lot to say. But when you get to the end, “The Abyss” seems like a gaping disappointment.

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Near the end of the Cold War (not that filmmakers knew it at the time), a Cuban Missile-like crisis surrounds a submarine crew as they descend to tremendous depths on a rescue mission of a military sub. The crew (Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Todd Graff, and Leo Burmester) are joined by a few military men (led by Lt. Coffey, played by Michael Biehn), who have some ulterior motives for getting so deep in such testy waters. As the sub falls and tensions rise, they’ll all realize they’re not the only ones down there after all.

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“The Abyss” was a precursor for Cameron’s future deep-sea adventures in “Titanic,” “Sanctum” (which he produced), and his dive to the deepest depth of all, the Mid-Ocean Ridge, which he documented in “Deepsea Challenge 3D.” But “The Abyss” is a puttering procedural of submarine work, like watching the first thirty minutes of “Titanic”—the part where they’re searching the wreckage with their underwater bot—over and over again. When shit hits the fan “The Abyss” gets exciting, like all submarine movies. But then you still have nearly 90 more minutes of movie to watch. Its story doesn’t pick up quickly enough—it’s not until we’re two hours in that we can even guess what the climactic scene might be. Until then, it’s a series of little bursts of excitement followed by boring downtimes. And once you get there, you’ll be left wondering, “That’s it?” The ending, which I’m sure has drawn the most comparisons to “2001,” is a head-scratcher, but not in the existential way Kubrick’s classic was. Its corny and idealistic message is too bogus for belief.

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Cameron also failed to build any characters. On the one hand, exciting thrillers don’t often take the time to develop characters. They let the thrills do the talking. On the other hand, a claustrophobic submarine movie with only so many characters could afford to give us some context. Plus, 155 minutes should have been enough time to do it. Instead we get Bud Brigman, played by Ed Harris, the lovable and benevolent crew leader, and his cold ex-wife, Lindsey (Mastrantonio), the architect of the ship and the object of many men’s sexist banter. We get “Hippy” (Graff), the nerdy tech guy with a pet rat. And we get the angry jarhead Coffey (Biehn), the grouchy military man who antagonizes the crew of the ship he so rudely boarded. Not real characters, just predictable archetypes. They’re played effectively enough, but that’s not worth much.

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Despite its flaws, “The Abyss” manages to stay exciting just long enough to keep you interested. Even if the ending is a let-down, the getting there can be fun—plus, despite its 1989 release date, the Oscar-winning visual effects fool you into forgetting you’re watching a Cold War-era production.

5.5/10

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2 thoughts on “‘The Abyss’ is a typical effects-heavy sci-fi mess

  1. Ouch…hurts my heart to read this. The Abyss is an all-time favorite — I could (and do!) watch it a few times a year and am always satisfied. Knowing what hell it was to make this, it’s a pretty well constructed piece. The ‘resuscitation’ scene gets me every time…Harris nails that scene. Sorry it didn’t strike your fancy 🙂

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