If you’re a fellow Blankie like me, you’re probably spending the month of October revisiting the films of James Cameron as host Griffin and David embark on their mini-series of the director’s distinguished career. Even though so far I’ve skipped out on The Terminator since I rewatched those last year in preparation for Genisys, I gladly dusted off my quadrilogy to watch Aliens and followed that up with an inaugural viewing of The Abyss. I’m embarrassed to admit as an open-minded viewer that I was unfairly pessimistic going into this one. Originally I had lived most of my life assuming this 1989 feature had something to do with the Ghosts of the Abyss, the 2003 doc in which Cameron attempts a dangerous undersea expedition to find the sunken Titanic. I saw this reportedly “must-see” 3D event at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg, the only IMAX in Central Pennsylvania at the time, and was sorely disappointed that it was in no way as great as the illustrious romance/murder by sea fest that is Titanic. As I grew in my film education I learned that The Abyss has little to do with the series of deep sea diving docs and rather is a narrative manifestation of Cameron’s true passion: the sea. I was still skeptical of this movie because considering Cameron is such a titan of the screen, why was this one so often omitted in conversations of his work. No one has ever hyped The Abyss which is my defense of remaining so ignorant. I wasn’t expecting it to be bad because bad is exciting, bad is funny. I was worried about it being bland. For a nearly three-hour running time, bland is a death sentence. Thankfully, after sitting down and watching it on a medium sized TV screen, the exact opposite of the director’s intention, I realized it’s not bad or bland, it’s just derivative. Cameron rips off himself in this submarine sci-fi adventure.
The story begins with the mysterious sinking of an American submarine that requires a nearby oil platform to search for the wreckage. Our introduction to this crew headed “Bud” (Ed Harris) is a mix of both the Alien movie tropes. These sweaty, blue-collar riggers look as over worked the crew of the Nostromo and are militant about their contracts but the crew of the Deep Core amass the energy and enthusiasm of the Marines aboard the Sulaco. Everyone has got their nickname and quirky attribute, “One Night” is a cowgirl, “Hippie” has a pet rat, a bunch of them are southern, etc. Boarding the oil platform for this mission is Bud’s estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who’s playing the Ripley role, present as the expert since she designed this rig. The antagonist that joins her is Cameron favorite Michael Biehn as Lieutenant Coffey sporting an atrocious mustache to indicate his villainy. He and is two Navy Seal companions are there to oversee the findings and more nefariously, rescue the warheads carried by the sub. This is unbeknownst to the crew much like Paul Reiser’s plans to bring back a xenomorph, an equally deadly weapon. I’m less bothered by the character similarities and more by the general aesthetic. This feels like a movie meant to be set in space but due to the obsession with the mysteries of the deep, the plot is dropped underwater. You look at the high-tech diving suits, the enormous isolated ships, the impaired gravity of the outside, the ALIENS! Cameron is trying to convince you that water is as interesting as space and we all know that’s not true. It’s a valiant effort but no one is swayed. It feels like an interest that is being forced on me by delivering it in the Aliens shaped way I liked it the first time. I don’t like being tricked as if I’m a child being told to take my medicine. If you’re going to make a submarine movie, make a U-571 or Down the Periscope, just try something different. It’s too easy for Cameron to duplicate his own blue print.
With that major detractor out of the way, we can talk about how this movie is also ripping off Close Encounters of the Third King. It’s bizarre to see the director of the Terminator add such a family friendly spin to these aquatic extraterrestrials. That being said this is in no way a family film. There are some unsettling deaths involving hypothermia and drowning which are more haunting than any cinematic shark attack. The otherworldly side plot was actually the least interesting as I found myself more invested in exploring the vessel ruins and the psychosis Lt. Coffey undergoes as he succumbs to high-pressure nervous syndrome. The human relationships were more engaging than the infrequent interactions with the robotic glowing bodies. For as much as I was enjoying this movie, when my streaming platform paused to buffer following the gruesome death of Coffey, I nearly broke the remote in frustration when I noticed there was still 50 minutes to go. I was upset because I knew those 50 minutes were going to be alien shit that I didn’t want. I would have been pleased with an early wrap-up but we had to save the aliens or something. The film gets too preachy with these kumbaya beings that want everyone especially humans to get along in a tone that none of his other films will harbor till Avatar. It’s not that I want all aliens to be xenomorphs (though that would be dope) but there’s no character to what’s in The Abyss. The single time they’re intriguing is when they manifest as a water tentacle that looks identical to the liquid metal of the T-1000. They’re more of a spectacle for the people in the movie than the viewers on the other side.
This is the blank check movie for Cameron, though most of his career feels like a series of successful blank checks, this is the one you can only make after two massive successes. It’s a movie of a guy who couldn’t wait to share his love of the sea. It also becomes the most personal film of his filmography because you see a different love falling apart. He and producer/collaborator Gale Anne Hurd were going through a divorce and you can feel that anger with every piece of bickering dialogue between Bud and Lindsey. Their arc is realizing how much they mean to each other but the film relentlessly has characters refer to Lindsey as a “bitch”, a title that is a bit too harsh for a woman just doing her job. The extratextual material blending with perfected formulas proven by Cameron garner an odd place in his filmography. It’s at least more exciting than an oceanic doc. I wouldn’t oppose more midnight screenings of Abyss because sometimes we need a break from the classics. Not a lot of exciting cosplay involved but it would make it kosher to take your pet rat to the theater.