Anyone looking for a discouraging word about this stupendously exciting and emotionally engulfing film should read no further. The Abyss confirms James Cameron as a world-class filmmaker. Granted, he started out in 1981 by directing Piranha II: The Spawning; four years later, he even helped perpetrate the screenplay of Rambo: First Blood Part II. Granted, these are capital offenses. But hold your ire.
Consider The Terminator (1984), the violent masterpiece Cameron directed from a screenplay he wrote with producer Gale Anne Hurd about a killer cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the twenty-first century. The Cameron-Hurd duo, by then husband and wife, next teamed on Aliens (1986), the sequel that received seven Oscar nominations and outgrossed its predecessor.
Cameron and Hurd, no longer wed but still working together, now have devised their most ambitious project. The Abyss, with a budget topping $40 million, is many terrific things: the greatest underwater adventure ever filmed, the most consistently enthralling of the summer blockbusters, one of the best pictures of the year. It’s also something even more unexpected: a love story of shattering impact. Those who have written off Cameron as a whiz at hard action, hardware and little else should whet their palate for a feast of crow.
Some may insist on reading The Abyss as veiled autobiography. Like Cameron and Hurd, the film’s two major characters met on the job, married and then split due to the stress of combining work and wedlock. Ed Harris is Bud Brigman, the rig foreman on a civilian underwater oil-drilling facility called Deepcore. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is Lindsey, Deepcore’s project engineer, boss lady and soon-to-be-former Mrs. Brigman. Cameron clearly knows from experience how shared labor can heat or chill a relationship. But The Abyss extends far beyond the parameters of his personal life.
Cameron wrote a short story called “The Abyss” when he was seventeen, and the finished film retains traces of youthful innocence in its straight-on treatment of such verities as love, honor, duty, faith in a superior force and hope for a better day. Admirers of the dark and sinister Aliens and The Terminator may worry that gonzo Cameron has wimped out. Hardly. Though The Abyss is his most positive film, he hasn’t turned Pollyanna. In this pressure cooker beneath the sea, he has created a microcosm in which each character’s capacity for good and evil is tested. The effect is relentlessly unnerving.
The film begins when a mysterious force sends a nuclear submarine to a watery grave in the Caribbean at the edge of a trench leading down into four miles of cold, inky creepiness. The navy, knowing the missiles on board the sub possess five times the power of the bomb that decimated Hiroshima, sends a four-man SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) team — headed by Lieutenant Coffey (Michael Biehn) — to clean up the mess.
That’s when Deepcore’s corporate owners volunteer the rig and its nine-person crew to aid the naval rescue operation. Above water, there’s a hurricane brewing. Below, the clash of egos proves even more threatening. Lindsey, living up to her rep as hell on wheels, is determined not to let Bud run her operation into ruin on a government goose chase. Coffey, showing signs of a nervous disorder due to decompression, resents Lindsey’s interference in top-secret affairs.
Cameron is uncannily successful at creating a mounting feeling of claustrophobia. Some scenes, like the one in which the divers move through the stricken sub as drowned bodies float by in an eerie mockery of death, have a tragic beauty. Others, such as Bud’s towing an unconscious Lindsey in a lung-bursting swim to safety, could reduce an audience to raw panic. Even the first sighting of an NTI (Nonterrestrial Intelligence) skirts Spielbergian sentimentality to achieve a quiet sense of wonder.
Cameron and a superb technical staff excel at making the fantastical look real. To turn The Abyss into an experience like no other, Cameron took an abandoned nuclear-reactor containment building in South Carolina, filled it with 7.5 million gallons of water and had his cast and some of the crew trained to dive. Then he tossed the lot of them into the drink at depths of up to fifty-five feet. Underwater films are often shot on a sound stage, with smoke and light giving the effect of submersion while actors muck about in fake slow motion. Not this time. What you see and hear in The Abyss has a you-are-there immediacy that makes other undersea films look hopelessly hokey. This is monumental, mold-breaking entertainment.
Despite Cameron’s elaborate technical setup, it’s the human drama of The Abyss that carries the show. Even the smallest performances are idiosyncratic and memorable. Todd Graff’s Hippy, Leo Burmester’s Catfish and Kimberly Scott’s One Night deserve special praise, as does a white rat named Beany who performs beyond the call of duty in a liquid-oxygen breathing sequence that is one of the film’s scariest moments.
The three leads are outstanding. Biehn makes us feel compassion for the lethal Coffey, led astray by his twisted sense of duty. Harris has never been better or more appealing, bringing nuance, humor and gravity to the role of the blue-collar hero who’d risk his life faster than risk exposing his feelings. Still, the movie belongs to Mastrantonio. In a summer dominated by male action heroes, she has the strongest woman’s role and instills it with beauty, brains and a spiky wit that rank her with the top actresses of her generation; she is mesmerizing and indelibly moving.
Cameron may have fashioned his film out of familiar parts, but he’s put them together in a way that demands fresh attention and respect. There’s poetry in the images; The Abyss is pulp transcended. With probing intelligence and passionate feeling, Cameron has raised the adventure film very close to the level of art.