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  • Post last modified:July 16, 2022

The Abyss: On the Edge of Darkness


Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Watching a good movie like The Abyss and knowing the kind of negative feelings that surrounded the production of it makes you feel conflicted. Both Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio reportedly vowed never to work with James Cameron again; cast and crew were frequently subjected to dangerous situations and tons of pressure because of the locations and the director’s quest for perfection.

And yet this film came out pretty special, a testament to Cameron’s immense talent. When I was a kid I absolutely loved The Abyss. Not only was I captivated by the story, but also the deep-sea environs and the fantastical ingredients. 

A rescue effort is organized
The film begins with a nuclear sub, the USS Montana, having a mysterious accident and sinking down a deep-sea abyss ending up on a shelf in the rift. An underwater oil rig sits on top of the abyss and a group of Navy SEALs led by Lieutenant Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn) is sent there to organize a rescue effort. Bud Brigman (Harris), the foreman of the platform, is uncomfortable with letting his men participate in the mission since they have no training for it. That is about to become his least problem. Also visiting is the designer of the rig, a woman he can’t stand, Lindsay (Mastrantonio), whom he once married and now is about to divorce. 

That’s not all. A hurricane is headed toward the platform, the SEALs turn out to be hiding secrets, Lt. Coffey is showing signs of a mental breakdown… and there could be aliens hiding in the abyss.

Carefully researched and staged
Director Cameron sure has a lot on his plate, perhaps even a few too many ingredients for one film; admirably enough, he still makes it work, keeping tensions high for two and a half hours. The characters are mostly flat (and so is the dialogue), but the actors work hard to bring them alive. Biehn is very good in a performance that turns your average uptight soldier into a trembling, self-mutilating madman; Harris and Mastrantonio make it easy to invest emotions in their troubled relationship and there’s a nerve-racking and highly memorable sequence where she truly has to lay her life in his hands in order for them both to survive. 

The visual effects make it look real, even though the design of the aliens is so-so.

The film is carefully researched and staged; not once do we doubt the fact that we’re on the bottom of the ocean even though the film was shot on land. There’s a love for and genuine interest in the technical ingredients; a lot of the newfangled hardware and ideas on display are based on innovative concepts. The visual effects make it look real, even though the design of the aliens is so-so, except for the watery alien visitor inside the rig, a fascinating precursor to the liquid metal in Terminator 2 (1991). Alan Silvestri’s music score also has the ability to tickle our imagination.

The film ends in a spectacular but unsatisfying way; there’s nothing wrong with the idea behind it, but the execution comes off as forced and unsatisfyingly designed. But what remains with viewers is the frightening sense of isolation deep down in the dark, the compelling action sequences and the emotional struggle for survival, something that is aptly conveyed by a cast that Cameron probably had fearing for their lives in reality as well.

The Abyss 1989-U.S. 145 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Gale Ann Hurd. Written and directed by James Cameron. Cinematography: Mikael Salomon. Music: Alan Silvestri. Art Direction: Leslie Dilley. Visual Effects: John Bruno, and others. Cast: Ed Harris (Bud Brigman), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Lindsey Brigman), Michael Biehn (Hiram Coffey), Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, John Bedford Lloyd… Chris Elliott.

Trivia: The shoot took place in a water-filled, unfinished nuclear reactor facility in South Carolina. The alternative version of the film runs approximately 25 minutes longer, featuring a different ending.

Oscar: Best Visual Effects.

Last word: “I was in Grand Cayman. There was a little company there that would give you a ride in a research submersible they’d purchased. For $500 you could go down into the Cayman Trough. It was a three-person craft, a pilot and two passengers. You sat right on the floor of this tin can, and it had an observation bubble in the front. We went around a shipwreck that was sitting at about 900 feet, stuck on the wall, just like the sub in The Abyss. After we’d made that dive, I resurrected my story and used it as the nucleus for a far more complex, feature-length idea.” (Cameron, LDSFilms)

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