THE ABYSS was a dream project for writer-director James Cameron, something he’d nursed since he’d written a short story on the theme when he was 17. Seventeen years later, with the successes of The Terminator and Aliens under his belt, vision-bound and determined as Ahab (and eventually as popular with the crew), Cameron had millions of dollars to sink into huge sets, how’d-they-do-that? special effects and in putting his cast through six months of wet hell. *
“Look, he’s operating on his own. He’s cut off from his chain of command. He’s showing signs of pressure-induced psychosis, and he’s got a nuclear weapon. So as a personal favor to me, will you try to put your tongue in neutral for a while?”
When a US sub runs into something big & unknown and sinks near a trough in the Caribbean, the crew of a deep-sea drilling platform are enlisted to aid a Navy SEAL team to investigate. A hurricane complicates efforts, as does the fractious relationship between the crew foreman (Ed Harris) and his estranged wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the rig his roughnecks operate. Then the head SEAL (Michael Biehn) warps under pressure, just about the time something of “non-terrestrial intelligence” shows up way down there.
The finale is something of a letdown, but 95% of the long but tense journey there is a pip. The sets, gear, special effects and assorted technical prowess displayed are very impressive, and the acting is dynamic, with intense Biehn scoring extra points as a guy whose rivets are too close to popping.
Though efforts to see Biehn get nominated for Supporting Actor didn’t pan out, it did win the Oscar for Visual Effects, and secured nominations for Cinematography, Art Direction and Sound. Cost estimates range from $45,000,000 to $70,000,000. It came in 24th place in 1989, domestic earnings of $54,222,000 part of an $89,762,000 global take.**
With Leo Burmeister, Todd Graff, John Bedford Lloyd, J.C. Quinn, Kimberly Scott, Chris Elliott. Originally released at 140 minutes, it plays better in the restored 167 minute version.
* Crew nicknames for the shoot: “Son Of Abyss”, “The Abuse”, “Life’s Abyss And Then You Dive”. Harris: “I’m not talking about The Abyss and I never will”. Mastrantonio: “The Abyss was a lot of things. Fun to make was not one of them.”
** The Fantastic in 1989, in order of box-office success: Batman, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Back To The Future II, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Ghostbusters II, Field Of Dreams and Pet Sematary. They all outperformed The Abyss at ticket counters. Whether most of them should have is another question. In addition to all that more-lighthearted stuff, Cameron’s serious-as-sonar siege had to contend with other, lesser sci-fi entries horning in on the same undersea sandbox—Leviathan and Deepstar Six. Skip those pollywogs, stick with Captain Jim and his Special Edition big fish.