The Abyss
Theatrical Release Version
Reviewed in August 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: James Cameron. Cast: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Ed Harris, Michael Biehn, Todd Graff, Leo Burmester, Kimberly Scott, John Bedford Lloyd, J.C. Quinn. Screenplay: James Cameron.
Twitter Capsule: Cameron's A.I., wrestling madly but magnificently with too many obsessions. Photography, Harris tremendous; ending isn't.

Photo © 1989 20th Century Fox/Lightstorm Entertainment
James Cameron's The Abyss falls squarely within that camp of auteur-driven science fiction that almost invariably alienates the ticket-buying public, who don't seem to mind an infinite belaboring of fairly simple ideas (The Matrix) or a slathering on of standard-issue gunfights in roundly incongruous circumstances (Inception), but who leap to cry "Too much!" when a filmmaker starts too many trains running on converging tracks. The vitriol intensifies if this tendency toward heedless surfeit leads to a film that's as passionate about technophile derring-do as it is about sentimental hoo-hah. I cannot say it's an unfair reaction, and I am not here to argue that The Abyss shouldn't have made stricter choices among its intertwining plots, or that its tonal and generic swerves are easy to countenance. I do wish that hard-driving, setpiece-driven, bleeding-heart follies got a fairer commercial and critical shake, though I feel like I'm starting to see why they don't. To place The Abyss alongside The Matrix, Inception, or even Cameron's subsequent Avatar is to be reminded how those films offer their viewers the sense, at least, of a strong, bracing element holding their complexities together, even when that bracing element seems superficial at best: a sleek sheen of zero-gravity vinyl couture, an unrelenting wall of sound and lots of mile-marking cross-cuts, or the high-concept pinnacles of Blue People and 3-D Breakthroughs. By contrast, films like The Abyss, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Mission to Mars, or the remake of Solaris (which, remember, Cameron co-produced) make an aggressive point of disarticulating any sense of a binding structure, any spool of thread to reassure your hand while your head and heart get beckoned through the labyrinth. All the repeating motifs and baleful, ambient music in this world or the next can't keep Solaris from feeling like a conceptual and emotional centrifuge, forever on the tipping-point of shivering apart. A.I., Mission to Mars, and The Abyss are even more baldly constructed as series of set-pieces of variable density and uncertain trajectory. The flagship sequences don't always propel the films forward so much as they shift them repeatedly among tonal and generic planes that are difficult to reconcile.

This structure is enormously difficult to pull off, all but necessitating that you will occasionally back away entirely from heavy-weather passages of the movie in question, whether in pique, perplexity, or outright derision. The even more intimidating challenge is that the film has to rely on a jumble of intense, irregular feelings in order to keep you hooked, rather than a condensation of one or two guiding sensations. You also have to be interested in this jumble in a way that doesn't make you wish that the filmmaker would just resolve their competing impulses. Mission to Mars goes narratively and conceptually limp many times, but for me, the imposing force of the opening red-dust sandstorm, the terrifying and ornately choreographed breach in the hull, and the panicked attempt to recover a drifting colleague are worth their weight in celluloid gold, as is the unlikely tension of watching a virtuoso sequence architect like De Palma constantly changing his mind about whether he is invigorated or lazily bemused by his life-or-death narrative.

If Mission to Mars is also an outerspace fugue about marriage and loss, The Abyss is an undersea version of something similar. However, where De Palma keeps threatening to wrench apart two people in love, Cameron keeps circumstantially forcing two people back together who were, until very recently, on the cusp of cutting themselves loose from each other. A more mawkishly edited movie would underscore a lurking analogy between the in-process divorce of engineering genius Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and rig captain Bud (Ed Harris) and the scary, topographical precipice on which they soon find themselves hanging; the titular crevasse is marital as well as terrestrial. Thankfully, these sorts of resonances are rarely belabored, except when the movie hits its romantic notes so hard that it's almost daring you to resist its idealistic conception of love, something that happens in proximal ways with the Ripley-Newt bond in Aliens and with the unabashed fable of infatuation in the middle of Titanic. As you'd expect, the emotional threads are much more gripping in the Cameron than in the De Palma. If Connie Nielsen and Tim Robbins's marriage in Mission to Mars becomes a palpable concern of the audience (and for me, it did), this transpires mostly through De Palma's exacting control over distance, proximity, framing, sound, and space. It's hard to point to anything in the performances or in any layering of the narrative that gives us a rooting interest in these characters, which makes for a dexterous but cold form of pathos. Cameron fires away on all the same pistons of formal ingenuity, but he plainly cares about coaxing rich, remarkable performances from his leads, even if the production of The Abyss famously pushed its actors well beyond their wits' end. Still, you wouldn't know how furious and spent they were, based on the fine-boned but steel-souled Mastrantonio, who is introduced almost as misogynistically as possible for the first 20 minutes but gradually resolves into one of those proficient, smart, resourceful, haughty, but still accessible women whom Cameron can't help respecting. She's very good, and nowhere more so than in a scene that must have been murder to film and is no peach to watch, either, as Lindsey begs her soon-to-be-ex-husband to let her drown, then attempt to revive her from the dead, as the only way out of a diabolical circumstance. Every moment of Mastrantonio's acting in this sequence is indelible, from the overall depth of emotion to her terrifying precision with the symptoms of encroaching hypothermia.

Harris, whose charisma, gaze, and body were like a periodic table of virile emotion during this period in his career, is tremendously moving throughout this key sequence, and really throughout the movie. Almost every kind of emotional and physical demand is laid into his part, not the least of which is maintaining a thread of admiring connection to his wife even when she and the screenplay seem intent on making her hideous to him. He is credible as a blue-collar leader and clubhouse hero who is both ideally suited for and poignantly unequal to the herculean tests that Bud, among others, is assigned over the course of The Abyss. These include swimming through freezing and lightless ocean, taming a psychopath, killing his wife, resuscitating his wife, learning again to believe in his wife, learning to breathe water instead of air, suit-diving three miles down into the ocean, saving the world, and making extra-terrestrial contact. Plus doing all of that with a hand that, early in the movie, he embarrassingly stains indigo in a chemical toilet, while fishing for something he tossed down into the bowl before deciding he wanted it after all. (That James Cameron: if he isn't freezing or drowning people, he's always finding other ways to turn them blue.)

If Harris, even by his own high standards, proves both limber and astoundingly potent at keeping pace with everything The Abyss tosses his way, that doesn't mean The Abyss ought, necessarily, to have tossed quite so much. Cameron tries to force the kind of overstuffed narrative here that one tends to find only in cash-grab sequels to comic-spawned franchises. The high-stakes drama of solving a precarious technical problem under miles of water, in cahoots with an estranged lover and an overtaxed crew, could have sustained a magnificent film. Indeed, that's all The Abyss needs to propel several of its strongest passages. I've already alluded to the famous drown-and-revive gambit, but if anything my heart got yanked out of my chest even more harshly by Harris's underwater freefall down the creepy, lunar rockface of the oceanic trench, with Mastrantonio connected to him only by a mic and an earpiece, and Harris connected to her only by a touchpad and a computer screen. (Even in their moments of reignited sympathy, this couple is never speaking the same language, or in the same way.) It's less clear whether a team of Navy SEALS necessarily needed to shoulder its way into the submerged rig as a third faction within such close quarters, where Mastrantonio is already playing the intrepid, impatient, barking Ripley to Harris' platoon of diligent but skeptical grunts. Michael Biehn, doing "character" work by sporting a gay-porn mustache, is not nearly the asset to this film that he was to The Terminator or Aliens, despite its being such a plumly showcased role. And besides, isn't it enough for his Lt. Coffey to have a different underwater agenda than those of Lindsey and Bud without coarsening his priorities into those of an obvious madman? Or couldn't his erratic behavior have stayed more closely within the bounds of circumstantial dementia, the outgrowth of such deep submersion, rather than implying a flamboyant impulse toward murderousness that has suddenly hit its breaking point?

And then there are the "non-terrestrial intelligences," pinging through the ocean like pink-and-purple pencil sharpeners, and then swirling around in more resplendent form like comets made of saltwater. A familiar line about The Abyss is that the seaworms and the science-fictional idiom they import into the movie are the hardest elements for the film to accommodate, and yet there is no question that the Oscar-winning special effects were also the principal hook by which The Abyss could be marketed as a midsummer blockbuster. They didn't pay off as a commercial hook, but that's the least of the creatures' problems. Forecasting precisely those unfathomable entities that climactically receive the Mission to Mars squad inside the "giant white face," or A.I.'s accelerated dénouement among the twinkling, Giacometti-ish sylphs of the future, the alien beings in The Abyss feel like extremely awkward inheritors of the film's conclusion. It's not just a matter of the film switching genres too precipitously. Cameron's astonishing acumen for choreographing space, motion, weight, and light, in tandem with his blessed interest in complex human characters, makes him precisely the sort of filmmaker whom you want to insulate from his own hippie-dippiest phantasms of What Else Might Be Out There, shimmery-sweet beings that will gladly caress our cheeks if we come clad in peace, agreeing to study war no more. Strangely, these entities feel even more shapeless in the finale, when we get a long look at their most concrete forms, than they do in the virtuoso F/X moments when they literally are amorphous. I struggled in similar ways with Avatar's bulb-eyed, feline, but insubstantial-seeming denizens of Pandora, whose undercooked character designs were similarly wedded to thin-gruel, soaring-string philosophies of naïve spiritual oneness.

Even despite a wobbly 15 minutes when Mastrantonio first shows up on the rig her character designed, and despite the overcrowding of narrative elements in its middle, I was feeling solidly A/A– about The Abyss until it rushes through a final act that's as much of a narrative cheat as it is a stylistic, tonal, and textural default on everything that's so wonderful about the rest of the film. I know the extended cut of The Abyss that was released a few years after the premiere of this truncated version fills out this flaccid finale considerably. Even if the edits were coerced, though, I'm surprised to see as scrupulous a filmmaker as Cameron bungle such a crucial passage of his own picture quite this badly. Spielberg's barely controlled spiral into a rhythmic and visual vortex at the end of A.I., no matter how many people hated it, handily surpasses the weak-willed and defiantly unspectacular compromises that finish off the theatrical Abyss. I would argue that A.I. is finally as spooked by its own ambivalent homilies about parents and children as The Abyss is freaked out by the surges of virulence and devotion which it has proposed as its guiding notion of marriage. Spielberg at least shows us how scared of his own imagination he is by the end of A.I., how unable to control it he has become, but Cameron just hides under the gigantic cover of a weirdly unpersuasive alien vessel, a spiny, lavender sand dollar the size of a Hawaiian island.

And yet, I'm not ready to say that Cameron ought to have avoided the aliens entirely, for the same reasons I don't begrudge him the Biehn character or the cooked-up conflicts that figure introduces, or even the fears of nuclear apocalypse, which suddenly refuse to stay put as a marginal McGuffin—a premonition, I suppose, of the unbridled doomsday terrors that burn all over Terminator 2. The elements of The Abyss that work the best are regrettably sullied by what works the least well, but not as fully as you'd expect them to be; the film gains in some ways from its own Achilles heels, in a way most movies don't. I think, for example, that The Abyss is stronger for evoking a sense of the ocean floor's irresolvable strangeness, and though Mikael Salomon's ingenious lighting and Leslie Dilley's exacting production design go a long way to driving home that impression, the phosphorescent swirls of alien life feel dangerous and magical. They elicit responses from Lindsey, Bud, and the others that remind us that these characters have all, at some point in their lives, fallen crazily in love with deep water, and they're still caught off-guard by what they find there. In place of the more usual, pedestrian tactics—like a fly-over tour of improbable organisms, accompanied by "Ooh, aah" ejaculations from the actors and the score—I'll take the high-risk poetic conceit of some distant, runic world lodged in the recesses of the one we think we know.

And even if the Biehn character remains largely unsatisfying, his entrance marks the moment where all the other performances in The Abyss lock into place. Is it because everyone in the cast purportedly hated Cameron that the prospect of a shared antagonist—embodied by the filmmaker's only consistent collaborator, at that—propelled them all toward their fiercest, loosest, subtlest work, and their most convincing semblance of synchronicity? Mastrantonio radiates a real sense of mission, of strength, and of wonder (even, occasionally, of humor) once she has seen her enemy. At much the same time, and maybe for the same reason, the second-stringers stop playing archetypes from other adventure films and start coalescing as an ensemble of persuasive individuals. It's been 24 hours since I saw The Abyss, and though its flaws at times assumed a prodigious scale while I was screening it, the movie's formal technique, its reckless obsessiveness, and its gutsy emotionalism are what I can't stop turning over in my mind. I can't yet look past the stuff that patently goes wrong, but I was invigorated by how much goes right, and I still am. Maybe the overall conception is too schizophrenic, the guiding ethos too more-is-more, but there are pulverizing interludes of perfect clarity within The Abyss's erratic arc. For better and worse, but mostly for better, Cameron offers a whole lotta movie. He didn't learn from all of his mistakes, but who cares about that, really, when the movie profits so gloriously from his formidable strengths? B+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Cinematography: Mikael Salomon
Best Art Direction: Leslie Dilley; Annie Kuljian
Best Sound: Don J. Bassman, Kevin F. Cleary, Richard Overton, and Lee Orloff
Best Visual Effects: Hoyt Yeatman, Dennis Muren, John Bruno, and Dennis Skotak

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