This underwater epic features spectacular deep-sea special effects and elaborate high-tech hardware. But the story is bewildering and shallow.
The plot, which mainly involves a plucky oil-rig crew, lurches from one crisis to another – A doomed submarine, a nuclear warhead, a deranged naval officer, submersible craft chases and an alien creature all become part of the overwrought action.
Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) is the rig foreman on a civilian underwater oil drilling facility called Deepcore. Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is the boss lady, project engineer and soon-to-be-former-Mrs Brigman.
The film begins when a mysterious force sends a nuclear submarine to a watery grave in the Caribbean at the edge of a trench leading down into four miles of cold, inky creepiness.
The navy, knowing the missiles on board the sub possess five times the power of the bomb that decimated Hiroshima in WWII, sends a four-man SEAL team – headed by Lieutenant Coffey (Michael Biehn) – to clean up the mess.
That’s when Deepcore’s corporate owners volunteer the rig and its nine-person crew to aid the naval rescue operation.
Above water, there’s a hurricane brewing. Below, the clash of egos proves even more threatening.
Lindsey, living up to her reputation as hell on wheels, is determined not to let Bud run her operations into ruin on a government goose chase. Coffey, showing signs of a nervous disorder due to decompression, resents Lindsey’s interference in top secret affairs.
Director James Cameron is uncannily successful at creating a mounting feeling of claustrophobia. Some scenes, like the one in which the divers move through the stricken submarine as drowned bodies float by in an eerie mockery of death, have a tragic beauty. Others, such as Bud’s towing an unconscious Lindsey in a lung-bursting swim to safety, could reduce an audience to raw panic.
Even the first sighting of an NTI (Nonterrestrial intelligence) achieves a quiet sense of wonder.
Praised for its visual splendour and strong performances from Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, if not always for its plot, The Abyss was not quite the blockbuster it needed to be.
But the ground-breaking, Oscar-winning special effects (particularly the exploratory water node) set the stage for the explosion in CGI effects, beginning with Cameron’s own molten-metal T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).
To turn The Abyss into an experience like no other, Cameron took an abandoned nuclear reactor containment building in South Carolina, filled it with 7.5 million gallons of water and had his cast and some of the crew trained to dive. Then he tossed the lot of them into the drink at depths of up to 55-feet.
Despite The Abyss‘s warm message about marital bonds, director James Cameron and producer-wife Gale Anne Hurd split-up during production.
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Catfish De Vries
Alan “Hippy” Carnes
John Bedford Lloyd
Lisa “One Night” Standing
George Robert Klek
Jimmie Ray Weeks
J. Kenneth Campbell