936full-the-abyss-posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? When The Abyss is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime, then you have to wonder why this problem is not getting the sort of attention that world hunger receives. The rumor is that the film is set for release on Blu-ray in 2014 so if you have never seen The Abyss it would be best to wait until then.

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, & Michael Biehn

Directed by: James Cameron

Written By: James Cameron

[NOTE: This review is of the director’s cut, not the theatrical cut, of The Abyss] In my not so humble opinion, the finest science fiction stories are those that have something to say about the state of our current society. They show us what society can be if we head down a particular, usually destructive, path. War of the Worlds; Brave New World; Fahrenheit 451; I, Robot; A Clockwork Orange and more recent stories such as Children of Men; Wall-E; and the upcoming Elysium, all have political and social themes interweaved into their stories. After the success of The Terminator and Aliens, James Cameron finally earned the clout to tell an original story in the way he wanted. The concept for The Abyss had been brewing in his head for a long time and, in the epic and grand fashion that characterize all of Cameron’s movies, The Abyss was no exception in both the ground-breaking and extreme fashion it was made and in the scope of its story. With The Abyss, Cameron also began introducing us to his political and social views, in particular to humanity’s wanton and destructive nature, which have further been explored in Terminator 2 and Avatar. The Abyss also introduced us to James Cameron’s growing obsession with exploration of the ocean – something he seems more interested in than in making movies.

The Abyss is basically an underwater adventure involving a nuke, a psycho Navy SEAL, and a sort-of benevolent alien species. The film stars a then relatively unknown Ed Harris, who plays Bud, a gruff but charming oil worker who leads a motley group of roughnecks on an underwater oil rig called Deep Core. The film starts out with an American nuclear submarine that encounters an underwater alien. Its mere presence causes all electrical devices to shut down, which basically means the submarine gets royally fucked. It ends up crashing into a rock wall, killing its entire crew and sinking into the abyss. Compounding the problem is the fact that the nuclear sub contains nuclear warheads (duh), which the American government doesn’t want the Russkies to get its hands on. So they send a team of Navy SEALS, led by Cameron regular Michael Biehn, to retrieve the nukes. Since Bud and his crew are located near the sunken sub and they have expertise and the equipment to operate at huge depths, the oil crew is recruited to assist the SEALS in getting the nukes. However, Biehn ends up going batshit crazy, thinking the aliens the crew has just seen is a new threat (possibly Russian) that must be eliminated.

Directors frequently come out with “director’s cuts” of their movies and they do so for various reasons, length being the main reason. Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott are two filmmakers who are probably best known for coming out with their own cuts of their movies. The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out with longer editions after the films’ theatrical release. The films were not a major improvement over the theatrical version and you would not be missing out on anything by not seeing them. On the other hand, Ridley Scott has released a seemingly endless number of versions of Blade Runner and it is arguable whether they improve upon the original theatrical cut. However, both the LOTR trilogy and Blade Runner were already considered to be great films in their original cuts and the director’s cut merely improved upon them. The Abyss is the only film I can think of where the director’s version turns a decent movie with a very problematic ending (the theatrical cut) into a far better movie that substantively changes the motivations and story. Does The Abyss still have problems? Yes it does, but Cameron’s version makes those problems a little less noticeable.

I remember seeing Prometheus last summer and thinking how little chemistry and character development the ensemble cast had. With the exception of Michael Fassbender’s robot character, none of the other characters were interesting or believable and the actors playing them were not very good either and felt miscast. In watching that film, you can’t help but be reminded of The Abyss and how perfectly cast its actors are and how well Cameron developed their characters. Cameron had already proven with Aliens that he could tell a story with many characters and he uses that skill even more effectively with The Abyss. In those first 20 minutes of the movie, you are immediately introduced to Bud and his crew and see some of their key characteristics at display. But most importantly (and this is something that Prometheus spectacularly failed at), you totally buy into the fact that these characters are oil rig workers. Part of this is the pitch-perfect casting of actors who look like they could be found working on an oil rig. The actors in this film are all experienced, but they are not well known and they don’t look like beautiful Hollywood actors. You can tell that Cameron carefully researched not only the technology involved in having an underwater oil rig, but also the day-to-day lives and the lingo of oil rig workers. This shit is important – otherwise, you get what we saw in Prometheus.

Many of you will probably not appreciate this because you may be unaware of what skill it takes to be an efficient screenwriter. However, for the majority of The Abyss, especially during its first 30 minutes or so, Cameron does not waste a single frame of film. The film starts right off with the nuclear submarine encountering an alien and sinking. Boom. We then go to the oil rig and get introduced to Bud and crew. Boom. From the conversations between the characters, we learn Bud is going through a divorce. Boom. The oil rig crew is then told they have to help the SEALS investigate the sunken sub and accompanying them is Bud’s soon-to-be-ex-wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). BOOM. We also notice that Michael Biehn’s character is already displaying the shakes, indicating that he’s suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome. Right away Cameron establishes two points of major conflict in the story: Bud having to deal with his estranged wife and Michael Biehn being set up to be the crazy antagonist.

The action sequences in The Abyss are similarly well placed throughout the film. Each action sequence progresses the story forward – not a single sequence is put in for the sole sake of providing the audience with eye candy and thrills. And although the film has plenty of action, you never feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the end of the film (like say in Man of Steel). Like all of James Cameron’s films, The Abyss was made to be enjoyed on a very large screen and the action sequences particularly looked spectacular when seen blown up. However, it is a testament to how well the action is set up when you can still experience the edge-of-your-seat suspense that audiences did in theaters. Two sequences in particular are pure genius: One is where the oil rig is being dragged to the edge of the abyss by a fallen crane and the other is when Bud and his wife, Lindsey, are trapped in a mini-submarine that is filling with water and they only have 1 wetsuit between them (I have posted the clip from this scene below).

There is no doubt that Ed Harris gives a wonderful performance in The Abyss and if it wasn’t for that film, I don’t know where his career would have ended up. But as great as he is, I was most impressed by what Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio brought to the screen. She is an absolute revelation and perhaps with the exception of The Color of Money, I think her performance as the hard-nosed and passionate Lindsey is the best performance of her career. This is not a surprise when you consider James Cameron’s habit of creating strong women characters (Linda Hamilton in Terminator, Kate Winslet in Titanic, Jamie Lee Curtis and Tia Carrere in True Lies, and Zoe Saldana and Michelle Rodriguez in Avatar). Lindsey is not your typical damsel in distress who is waiting for Bud to come to her rescue. In fact, she is the one who sacrifices her life in the mini-submarine by allowing herself to drown so that Bud can swim them both back to the oil rig. In that scene and in the later one where she has a heart-to-heart conversation with Bud as he descends into the depths of the abyss are compelling and raw performances that Mastrantonio gives.

Lets not give Ed Harris short shrift either. As the grizzled, tough, but compassionate leader of the oil rig team, no one but Harris could have played this role. With a friendly-looking face, a good sense of humor, and an everyman blue collar demeanor, it is impossible to not want to be working for Bud. Harris had a rich and challenging role to take on because his character not only comes to reconnect with his estranged wife, but he finds himself in the position of having to basically save the world (oh, and take on an insane Navy SEAL). Speaking of which, Michael Biehn does a commendable job playing the antagonist who decides to set off a nuke. At times his performance is a little hammy and over-the-top, but I suppose a trained killing machine suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome would begin to act a bit extreme.

Another interesting aspect of The Abyss is the film’s recognition of the end of the Cold War. During the movie, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of a nuclear war and events are played out in the same fashion as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Michael Biehn’s character represents the whole “us vs. them” mentality of the Cold War and by making him go crazy, the film comments on how outdated and insane this way of thinking had become by 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall fell and one year before the fall of the Soviet Union.

During its theatrical release, The Abyss was criticized for not explaining why there were aliens at the bottom of the ocean. In the director’s cut, however, previously deleted scenes were put back in that finally give us a reason for the aliens’ presence. I appreciate the fact that the aliens are accounted for and I thought the giant tidal wave scenes looked pretty cool back in the day. However, I remain unconvinced by why the aliens want to destroy humanity for its destructive ways – why would they give a shit? Furthermore, I found it totally unconvincing that the aliens decided against destroying humans based on a little text Bud sent Lindsey basically telling her that he’s going to sacrifice himself by plunging into the abyss. Let us not even go into the very end of the movie where the aliens raise the oil rig to the surface – I guess alien technology magically made decompression unnecessary. I’ve wondered if Cameron simply ran out of time and money to make a better ending because it stands in such stark contrast with the rest of the movie. That whole climax feels like it was rushed and hastily put together.

Nevertheless, The Abyss remains a highly watchable science fiction adventure film that gives us that rare combination of suspenseful and non-stop action, strongly developed characters, and wonderful performances. The film remains one of James Cameron’s best efforts. If you cannot wait for the blu-ray to come out and you want to see this now, watch the special edition version of the DVD and check out the 1 hour documentary on the making of the film. You will gain a much deeper appreciation for this movie when you see the grueling conditions this movie was made under.