Having explored the future with The Terminator (1984) and outer space with Aliens (1986), in The Abyss (1989) director James Cameron turned his focus to the deep sea with mixed results.
When the submarine USS Montana encounters an unidentified submerged object, its electrical systems shut down, causing the sub to crash. In an attempt to salvage the wreckage, a team of underwater drillers are sent to Deep Core, a private underwater drilling platform, along with a military SEAL team. Included in the diving team are foreman Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris) and platform designer Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), an estranged couple. During their mission, the group encounters several unidentified submerged objects. As a scientist, Lindsey wants to explore the possible new lifeforms but Lieutenant Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn) is insistent they destroy it, creating much conflict.
At close to three hours running time, The Abyss Special Edition (1993) runs the risk of sagging and becoming lacklustre. It’s a credit to director James Cameron, then, that he keeps the pace of this thriller taut, aided by the interdepartmental conflict, Bud and Lindsey’s torrid relationship, and the witty repartee between the crewmembers. In fact, although the mystery of what lies below keeps viewers interested, it’s the actor’s portrayals of these vivid characters that hold this film together and keep the audience glued to the screen.
The Special Edition adds an extra half hour of material, setting the story in the middle of nuclear conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union, and an extended ending, revealing what Bud encounters below. Unfortunately, the new ending introduces a clichéd science-fiction element that’s out of place with the rest of the film’s realistic tone, and is hampered by a cheap CG sequence. Nonetheless, Alan Davis’ soundtrack is suitably chilling and euphoric, the other extra material adds to the film’s atmosphere, and the rest of the story is still highly engaging.
As an exploration of the submerged (and potentially extra-terrestrial) world, a thriller, and character drama, The Abyss Special Edition works and anyone interested in these things should check it out.
3 ½ stars.