The Abyss (1989)

The Abyss posterTHE ABYSS’ is a grand-scale disaster sci-fi flick that ticks all the expected boxes on the James Cameron Scantron form, but for all its predictable components leaves a lurking and more lasting impression than several of his more successful pictures. At nearly three hours, its special edition format is still an engrossing watch that feels shorter than many sub-100 minute action blasts in theaters today. The film presents a beguilingly predictable template to the audience, but then jockeys about with our expectations enough to rile us from ambivalence and make us wonder, ‘Could they really fail?’ ‘Will [major protagonist B] really not survive?’ These various teases are given their full rein in this fuller edition, stretching our suspension of disbelief to nearly excruciating lengths before snapping back to form for the storybook ending. If nothing else Cameron has grasped his audience’s patience and empathy, and he ratchets up the pressure on each with just the right tweaks at just the right time. Perhaps its greatest coup is that it spends such a minority of its time actually inside The Abyss, which is never actually named as such in the film. As with any movie monster, be it a physical being or abstract entity, the great fright is within the anticipation, not the discovery. By perching his cast upon a deep cliff, literally teetering on the brink, Cameron reflects the close confines of the ship and its sweaty claustrophobia with a potent visual metaphor. Though a monster of sorts does exist in ‘The Abyss’, it is a red herring; the impenetrably dark space it inhabits—and the madness of those who endure it—are what we find more compelling, more unknowable, and more terrifying.

A concerted dissection of ‘The Abyss’s plot points, though, quickly threatens to dispel its cache. For the body of his film Cameron was clearly taking pointers from his own ‘Aliens’ (marginally sketched caricatures comprise an unlikely team of loveable outcasts who face dissolution and destruction on an unknown frontier), as well as John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’. The film’s endgame—admittedly essential and earnestly handled by Ed Harris, but rather hackneyed nonetheless—will naturally invoke ‘Close Encounters…’ or ‘2001’, but ‘The Abyss’ boasts more pulse-pounding action than profound, cosmic uncertainty. Indeed, ‘The Abyss’ is an iconic point of transition between the cerebral, semi-literary science-fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and so forth, and the more slap-dash, highfaluting fare of the modern age in which monsters’ claws outgrew their brains. Sci-fi revelations of this sort—meet your maker, or your potential destroyer—became flatter and less purposeful. These latter films often revolve around a similarly eldritch conclusion, but tend to serve merely as an excuse to show off special effects and set off several warehouses of explosives. ‘The Abyss’ is not entirely guilty of this fruitless misdirection, but in a way that is precisely its problem.

The Abyss

For after spending so long to create a sense of dread and ineffable weight around the abyss itself (to which the alien was an important but secondary consideration), Cameron switches gears and lays us all at the feet of an omniscient cabal who remonstrate the errant children of the human race with a wagging finger of total annihilation. Thus, ‘Star Trek IV’. All the power of the deep is lost—its capacity to suffocate, cripple, illuminate, or enthrall—and its last relevant subplot—the detrimental effects of abyssal depths on the human physiognomy and decompression—is swept aside as a throwaway demonstration of the alien’s surpassing power.

The Abyss1

Indeed, the longer one thinks about ‘The Abyss’ the more meager its substance becomes. Better to let it lie in the back of one’s mind, where all the irrational fears of drowning, the atomic holocaust, claustrophobia, alien invasion, and even basic marital distress can congeal into volatile goo—putty in Cameron’s hands. But tease it too far, and it will surely break apart.

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