Earlier this month, I reviewed two Ocean themed Science Fiction movies … and they were 1961’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and 1973’s “The Neptune Factor: An Undersea Odyssey”. Now, we come to a third film in my own set-trilogy of Ocean Themed Sci-Fi movie reviews … 1989’s “The Abyss”, and subsequently one of my all-time favorite movies of the genera. While it’s easy for me to slip into a fun action movie or a goofy comedy, the Sci-Fi genera has always been my personal favorite category of film. It’s a genera that’s built on fantastical ideas, inspiring visuals, thematic storytelling, and ambitious film-making.
It’s the kind genera that expands the imagination, and can transport the audience to worlds that fit right in with the wonders of what film can create. However, I feel the Sci-Fi genera has frequently lost its identity over the years, and is far too often tied-in with hi-voltage summer Blockbusters, or special effects driven action flicks. Every once and a while, the combination of action and Sci-Fi can go hand in hand, resulting in classics like “The Matrix” or “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”, but still, I prefer when Sci-Fi takes a step back from flashy action spectacles. “The Abyss” is 100%, true Science Fiction cinema at it’s finest, one that invokes a sense of awe and wonder, without losing itself in a sea of mindless excitement. The film was written and directed by the great James Cameron, who was just coming of the success of both “The Terminator” and “Aliens”, both of which were game changers for the Sci-Fi genera. However, they too dabbled in the fast-moving action genera, while “The Abyss” was Cameron’s first time really creating his own world, and following the simple guide lines of making ... not just a terrific new Sci-Fi, but a genuinely great movie on its own.
The movie begins with a US Sub carrying nuclear missiles, mysteriously sinking to the bottom of the Cayman Trench, out in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. With Soviet ships moving in to try salvaging the sub, and a hurricane moving over the area, the U.S. government sends a SEAL team, along with Dr. Lindsey Brigman to team-up with the workers of an underwater ocean facility called “Deep Core”.
Together, they go diving in search for survivors, as well as safe guard the missiles. While investigating the wreckage, individual team members begin encountering strange oddities, like creatures that seem to glow before them, and manipulate the image of water. It’s soon discovered that an alien race has likewise landed their ship at the bottom of the abyss, and is trying to make contact with the humans. While most of them are determined to peacefully make first contact with this mysterious race, one crew-member is terrified of them, and aims to use the recovered nuclear missiles to wipe them out, even if it means taking out the team in the process.
This film easily fits in with the classic alien contact movies along the lines of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. H. G. Wells was initially the first to introduce the notion of “sea aliens” in his 1897 short story "In the Abyss". However, the real inspiration for James Cameron’s deep-sea Sci-Fi first took shape back when he was in high school, and attended a science lecture about deep sea diving by Francis J. Falejczyk … who was the first human to breathe fluid through his lungs. This concept likewise carries over into the film, as it features the lead diver breathing through a fluid substance. Cameron was also exposed to a short story focusing on a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean. Thus, Cameron’s ideas for “The Abyss” took shape, and while the basic idea did not change, many of the details evolved over the years.
It definitely contains all the trademarks of Cameron’s films, including an enormous budget, an ecological message, and cutting-edge technology. It’s also a fascinating concept to come into contact with Aliens at the bottom of the ocean, as the sea itself is just as mysterious, vast and alien to us as outer-space itself.
The creature designs on display are highly original, as these Aliens almost look like a cross between a star fish and an angel. The effects on display were utterly gorgeous marvels for the time, and they still look stunning all these years later. Before “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” or “Jurassic Park”, this was one of the first big budget Sci-Fi’s to utilize the new tool of CGI to create such lush visuals, the likes of which were never possible before. Sense the visuals revolve around these transparent sea creatures and the manipulation of water, it allows the effect to still look convincing, unlike other movies of the 90’s, which have really dated CGI. Naturally, at the 1990 Academy Awards, “The Abyss” won the Oscar for best visual effects, as well as received three additional nominations for best art direction, best cinematography and best sound design. Of Course, I also have to mention the incredible music score composed by the great Alan Silvestri. This score hits all the right notes, as it gradually transitions from the enchanting discoveries, to the dark and mysterious. Some of his music ques remind me of the score later composed for Disney's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" ... another undersea Sci-Fi venture.
Equally as important as the effects … are the characters, who are all excellent in this movie. While some of the cast members are recognizable, I never once feel like I’m watching actors on a set.
They all feel like real workers, with distinct personalities on display, and the performances all-around are solid. Ed Harris stars as “Bud”, the leader of the Deep Core team, and he delivers a driving performance with natural tension and rough emotion. His ex-wife Dr. Lindsey Brigman is played with equal emotional commitment by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who I’ve always associated with Maid Marian from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”. Had this ocean crew been less interesting, or believable in their respected roles, they wouldn’t have carried the slow build-up of the films first act. Just like “Blade Runner”, this is a major studio sci-fi movie that doesn’t rely on poppy hooks, and instead slowly submerges the viewer with some big concepts and methodical pacing. Make no mistake, “The Abyss” has a lengthy run time, and it takes a little while before any big events happen. For me, this works in the films favor, as it makes the setting feel real, and lived in. Then when all the exciting Sci-Fi elements take shape, I feel completely submersed in both the experience, and the genuine suspense of a growing situation in the movies third act.
The film is actually quite suspenseful, gripping, and quiet claustrophobic. The action on display during the third act is subtle, and doesn’t go for fast-excitement. Yet, it still feels thrilling, as it’s all very “in-the-moment”, and it’s the emotions conveyed that really drive the excitement. The whole climax focuses on our lead, as he descends deeper in the abyss by himself in an effort to deactivate a nuclear bomb that slipped to the bottom of the cavern.
It’s a very emotional and suspenseful sequence, as he frequently looses consciousness, and the only thing keeping him going is a texted conversation he’s maintaining with his wife. Eventually, he’s rescued by the aliens, taken aboard the space ship, and we get a relevant anti-war message. At this point in the film, I’d recommend watching the extended directors cut. In this version, all previous events were played against a backdrop of a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the potential for all-out war, and the sinking of the sub additionally fuels the aggression. When Bud is taken to the alien ship, they start showing him images of war and aggression from news sources around the globe. The aliens then create massive megatsunamis that threaten the world's coasts, but the aliens stop them short before hitting any towns. Bud asks why they spared the humans, and they show Bud his previous message to his wife Lindsey. Personally, I feel the directors-cut has the stronger ending, and I feel the message just leaves the bigger impact. The ending sequence with the alien ship rising out of the ocean is one of my favorite visuals in all of Sci-Fi cinema, and it just leaves this impact on me every time I watch it.
In my view, “The Abyss” stands as an important testament to both Science Fiction cinema, and original movie material in general. It’s something we’ve lost sight of over the years, as we’re so caught-up in fast paced escapes, or familiar franchises. All these years later, “The Abyss” is still an aw-inspiring motion picture, and one that can potentially inspire filmmakers for years to come. It’s visuals are still breathtaking, the characters are engaging, the claustrophobic suspense is downright thrilling, and the themes are still timely. It’s an excellent film on all grounds, yet I fear it’s lost its popularity over the years. I’m sure people still remember this film, but not enough people really talk about it, or celebrate it. While certain Sci-Fi classics like “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” are still regarded as the best of it’s respected genera, let’s not forget to include “The Abyss” as one of those greats. It’s the kind of film I want Hollywood to challenge itself to make more of, and maybe one day, my favorite movie genera can once again be viewed as more than just escapist entertainment.
I give the 1989 Sci-Fi classic “The Abyss” … a strong 4 ½ stars out of 5.