Mystery and Exploration Still Rule in The Abyss. 31 Years Later

Title: The Abyss

Release: August, 1989

Director: James Cameron

Writer(s): James Cameron

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn

After two massive blockbuster hits with The Terminator and Aliens, James Cameron was one of Hollywood’s hottest directors. His next big outing would be 1989’s The Abyss, which saw Cameron continue his trademark for set-pieces and bigger-than-life action. In Cameron’s long and impressive resume, The Abyss seems to be his most forgotten. For fans of adventure, varying locales, and colorful visuals, The Abyss was likely a disappointment. Considering the more straightforward action approach of Terminator and Aliens, The Abyss is somewhat of a departure as it explores human nature more than explosions and time-travel. While some see underwater exploration as the driving force here, I see human intrigue and nature as the most prominent feature in this submersible tale.

The Story

The Abyss sees a military crew board a private civilian underwater exploration team in an effort to recover a nuclear warhead from a wrecked US submarine. The civilian team has a live-in outpost underwater that sits on the ocean floor with communications linked to a crane on a massive ship. As the small Navy Seals team commandeers the station, various civilian team members encounter an unknown [seemingly alien] lifeforce. As the crew members learn more about the Navy Seals’ secret mission objectives, tensions rise between the two crews. Emotions run hot, the aliens are still a mystery, and the nuclear warhead is a major concern. Can the crew and Seals survive the chaos, and each other?

Character-Driven

One of my favorite aspects of The Abyss is in how Cameron doesn’t just explore the ocean floor or depths of the ocean, but he explores mankind’s curios yet apprehensive behavior. Each main character has an objective, yet they are each displaying instinctual and conditioned responses to the environment around them. One character is in such shock by the alien lifeform, he goes into a coma. Another character clearly doesn’t do well in tight spaces, and he snaps. And then we have Bud (Ed Harris), and his spousal instincts save his ex-wife’s life, despite the fact they are divorced. Overall, the character development is strong and likable, a true Cameron quality.

 

While James Cameron delivers a wildly underappreciated movie, the shining stars are Ed Harris and Michael Biehn (Lt. Coffey), with the latter delivering perhaps the best performance of his career. Bud is the protagonist diving crew leader while Lt. Coffey is the antagonist Navy Seal with a possible penchant for being off-kilter. Both are strong actors in their own right, but Biehn shines as the movie’s wildcard as pressure-induced psychosis consumes him. Everything from portrayed shaking and paranoia to shifty eye and body movements, he brings the wacky and the unknown.

Ed Harris, though, keeps the cast grounded with an effortless (as he often is) and relatable every-man approach. Harris’s performance is great from top to bottom, but one scene in particular stands out. When he is reviving his ex-wife from drowning, it is the strongest and most emotional performance I’ve ever seen from Harris. His performance alone is a reminder of why we have top-billed actors and then everyone beneath them. Truly magnificent and moving. The stuff of legend.

A Blend of All Genres

The Abyss is definitely not your run-of-the-mill Cameron action movie. It is very exploratory in how we witness humanity’s ability to cope and reason in the face of peril and uncertainty. The tight quarters of a livable underwater vessel lends a strong sense of claustrophobia, giving The Abyss an intimate feel not often found in your typical science-fiction flick.

The underwater action sequences are still a highlight of this film, possibly because it is a specific location not often seen on screen. It’s hard to call it a “sub-genre” as there’s probably not enough underwater movies to justify creating the subgenre. Sure, we have plenty of submarine movies, both classic and modern. But combine that claustrophobic submarine feeling with aliens and true humanism, and you’ve got a recipe for something completely unique.

Perhaps what I appreciate most is how there is virtually no foreshadowing throughout. This keeps the mystery going long into the movie’s fourth quarter. Every new scene unfolds another part of the mystery. What are these underwater beings? How far will the Navy Seal lieutenant go until he completely snaps? Everything happens as it should, in no small part to the creative genius of Cameron.

Conclusion

Overall, The Abyss is a total blend of multiple genres: sci-fi, action, drama. This genre-bending story gives audiences something completely unlike they’ve ever seen before. Although some of the action sequences haven’t necessarily aged very well, nothing looks BAD, nor does it detract from the overall quality of the movie which is built more around its characters than around the action. If I could say one thing to change someone’s mind in how they perceive The Abyss, it would be: Do not compare The Abyss to Cameron’s other works, but instead view it at face value. Many may want faster pace and more frequent excitement, but let’s not forget to appreciate the deep look at humanity and how they react in tough circumstances in an even tougher environment.

David Berry

David "Nerdberry" is the proud founder and owner of Nerdbacon.com, a video game reviews and news website. Nerdberry owns a local pressure washing business in North Carolina, has a family, and a little house. With a college background in film and a personal love for dissecting movies, he feels aptly suited for Modern-Neon. The jury is still out on whether or not Modern-Neon wants him. We'll see. But he is excited to be part of the team here in an effort to help it grow!

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