Forewarning: This revisitation of what should probably now be considered a “classic” does involve spoilers. I highly recommend this movie if you haven’t seen it before. If you have seen it, please share your experience!
After what is probably my seventh viewing of The Abyss, I have come to realize it is less an underwater action/adventure movie and more a spiritual journey about letting go. Even with oxygen remaining a limited resource in highly pressurized ocean depths, and a nuclear warhead threat that diverges with an alien lifeform, the estranged relationship between a husband and a wife is what strikes most of the emotional chords in this movie.
The theatrical version of The Abyss premiered 30 years ago, and I’m not sure if today’s younger generation would give it a second thought. In 1989, Director James Cameron and his production team introduced special effects that were state of the art at the time. The alien liquid water formation that would snake through the hallways of the drilling vessel was jaw-dropping, and Cameron would later bring this fluidy feature to the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Today, the effect is still impressive, but when current movies implement this kind of CGI technology for most of their running time, I wonder if our younger audiences would consider The Abyss scant.
The irony is that I gravitated toward the special effects when I first saw The Abyss as a teenager, but now as a cinematically seasoned adult, I shudder more at everything non-CGI. What is more human is more relatable. In essence, it’s the human struggle that is more entertaining, not the obligatory action.
The most dramatic, harrowing scene is when Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) has to let go and let her husband, Bud (Ed Harris – one of my favorite actors of all time), swim her across two underwater vessels, knowing fully well she will run out of air. The resuscitation scene is beyond intense. It is heartbreaking and even borderline nauseating to watch. If I had to list my all-time favorite Ed Harris scenes, this would be in the top three for sure.
Not long after this scene, Bud has to then let go and let his wife’s voice guide him via intercom through the cold, dark depths of the ocean as he breathes liquid oxygen and can only communicate by typing on a tiny wrist keyboard. Director Cameron juxtaposes the silence of Ed Harris’ journey with the passionate pleading of his wife in front of a microphone. Even with seven viewings under my belt, I still clench my pillow as Bud drops further and further out of reach and into the black. All he has is his wife’s voice to guide him. When that is lost, all he has is the acceptance of letting go. The underwater void leaves nothing but faith to guide him now.
Unfortunately, the theatrical release ending is a letdown, swiftly wrapping up Bud’s alien rescue with some slipshod tangible production effects and no conclusion as to why the aliens exist underwater in the first place. The director’s cut ending is barely any better as it overreaches with a universal message to end all war and live pacifically as the aliens do.
Although these endings keep The Abyss from being a masterpiece, I still commend Cameron for achieving a groundbreaker in sci-fi spiritualism. Yup, I think that’s exactly what it is.
The Abyss (1989) ****1/2
Available on Amazon Prime