'The Abyss': THR's 1989 Review

The Abyss 1989 Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Photofest

The Abyss 1989 Still - H 2014

A big-budget adventure from an accomplished director that takes its characters on a fantastic journey to places never before seen on the silver screen … while that description might apply to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in 1989 it would have referred to The Abyss. James Cameron’s underwater epic was a massive technical achievement, and given the filmmaker’s pedigree it had all the hallmarks of success; unfortunately, it failed to set the box office on fire (though Tim Burton’s Batman, released just two months prior, may have had something to do with that). On Aug. 7, 1989, The Hollywood Reporter called the movie “colossally ambitious” and a “visual tour de force,” sentiments that many fans agree with to this day. You can read the review in full below.

You keep hearing that 20th Century Fox has a case of HPNS, High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, which in the context of The Abyss refers to the hand tremors and psychological delirium a deep-sea diver experiences when going down too far too fast. Admittedly, this film goes far and deep, but it’s a careful, superbly controlled descent and one that should surface at the end of the summer with substantial box office treasure.

Colossally ambitious, this logistically boggling and technically brilliant film from writer-director James Cameron is a visual tour de force, featuring overall, the greatest underwater sequences ever seen on film.

As in their box office hit Aliens, producer Gale Anne Hurd and Cameron’s latest opus rests on a simple, war story-style plot. A small unit goes on a dangerous mission to uncharted terrain — in this case, an oil rig team is called upon to locate a nuclear sub that has mysteriously plummeted to the deepest waters of the Caribbean.

While the plot is deceptively simple, Cameron has packed it with a number of impending catastrophes: The downed sub is carrying 192 nuclear warheads; a hurricane is churning up the seas; and, since the craziness happened 80 miles from Havana, the Commies (“Russian submersibles”) are suspected.

And, since this is an ‘80s movies, there’s a higher, benign alien life-force behind it all. If this script were written today, it’s not inconceivable that Cameron would have a giant oil tanker spill besotting the area.

Some viewers may complain that The Abyss takes on too much — but their grumblings are akin to those who load up too much at the smorgasbord and then blame the cook.

Still, there are those Doubting Thomases whose higher sensibilities are so constricted and whose appreciation of dazzling special effects so retarded that yet another glimpse of a higher form of life through the theological window of popular, movie pyrotechnics is, simply, numbing.

Personal prejudices aside, The Abyss is a visceral and pulsating piece of filmmaking presented with a fluid yet jarring style. Cameron’s controlled directorial grip is both enduring and powerful — he doesn’t resort to the cheap thrill or easy frights.

Although sophisticated viewers are likely to get a case of the bends by the film’s too-fast-to-the-surface, Sea World-style ending, The Abyss is a superbly orchestrated narrative, using all the tools of the medium to lure one into its center.

Indeed, so tight is Cameron’s grasp, that one feels literally dropped into its plunging and frightful story descent.

While it may take awhile for the Star Wars generation — used to the Mach-speed zaps of outer space adventures — to adjust to the slower underwater action, The Abyss is no less riveting.

Visually and aurally, The Abyss is a masterwork: Mikael Salomon’s underwater sequences are magnificently lit and photographed, a keen but vivid blend of purples, greens and blues; Blake Leyh’s sound design is wrenchingly alive, a sharp and unsettling chorus of clanks and thuds; Leslie Dilley’s production design is convincingly real, an intelligent amalgam of the present and the future; and Deborah Everton’s costumes are conceived sharply, a perceptive combination of the personal and professional.

The players, who all deserve weeks on the beach after this demanding underwater film (or probably weeks on an oasis as far from the ocean as possible), are exemplary as members of the deep-sea unit.

Ed Harris is appropriately solid as the casual but valiant rig foreman, while Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is superbly credible as Harris’ dogmatic but brilliant wife — a virtuouso engineer.

Other members of the unit also shine: Leo Burmester as the team’s redneck, Todd Graff as its resident wacko and ex-Green Bay Packer John Bedford Lloyd as a decompression victim. Michael Biehn is chillingly outstanding as a Navy SEAL team leader who cracks under pressure. —Duane Byrge