Movie Review : The Abyss (1989)
Not everybody is familiar with movie directors names, but I'm fairly certain the majority of people know James Cameron is. The iconic Canadian directed movies that made you dream and probably shaped you as a person. I'm talking Aliens, Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, motherfuckin' True Lies, and whatnot. The man had a strange thing for Arnold Schwarzenegger and bless him for that. Cameron also directed an ambition little submarine movie titled The Abyss, which surprisingly didn't make its money back in theater and went on to become a cult favorite despite that it's difficult to find people who actually saw it nowadays. Well, I've watched The Abyss for you, beautiful people, and while I've somewhat enjoyed it overall, I'm not surprised it didn't light Hollywood on fire the way James Cameron's other movies did.
So, The Abyss is the story of the U.S.S Montana, an American nuclear submarine sinking in the Cayman through, which is apparently located between Cayman Islands and Jamaica. It's also ridiculously deep. The U.S government quickly sends a team of Navy SEAL to Deep Core, a privately-owned experimental underwater oil rig *, before a hurricane hits the region, hoping to beat the Soviets and salvage the submarine. I know this is convoluted. Please bear with me. The initial rescue mission goes south when Deep Core crew member Jammer (John Bedford Lloyd) panicks, damages his oxygen supply and falls into a coma. Lieutenant Coffey (Michael Biehn), commanding officer of the Navy SEAL team, doesn't seem to respond too well to depths and darkness either. It's a complicated geopolitical thriller that happens to happen underwater and only feature American characters. But it's good. I wouldn't call it great, but it's a good movie.
The Abyss is a three hours long symbolic head trip ** about the paranoid fears of the Cold War. The workers of the Deep Core oil rig aren't exactly a scheming elite. They represent the working class Americans, insulated from geopolitical power struggle by the grind of their daily lives. Being underwater symbolizes living in a different, somewhat sheltered world on a parallel plane of existence to feuding superpowers. The characters could've been into space and The Abyss wouldn't have been much different. The workers are always dealing indirectly with the Cold War through elements that penetrate into their realm: the submarine, Coffey's navy SEAL team, etc. The Abyss shows how Americans dealt with the Cold War paranoia filtered through media hysteria. They are portrayed as fundamentally good by James Cameron, yet acting on instinct and merely trying to survive in a precariously balanced environment.
So, The Abyss was a pretty smart movie. Why wasn't it more successful, then? One could argue it was pretty successful in its own right, but would it have even been made if James Cameron's name wasn't attached to it? It's tough to criticize such a movie objectively. I do believe that The Abyss illustrates some of James Cameron's flaws as a filmmaker, though. He is very good at ONE particular type of movie and sometimes doesn't show the necessary subtlety that such a mood piece requires. For example, there is this slickly shot fight scene between hot mess Ed Harris and Michael Biehn that is awesome in its own right, yet torpedoes the quiet tension the movie has been working towards until then. The science fiction aspect to this movie is also utterly bizarre as The Abyss never really commits to it. It just turns out to be a heavy handed and moralizing subplot. Cameron has to have certain things in his movies: action (even if unnecessary), scope, a neatly wrapped ending, etc. Some of these variables didn't quite fit The Abyss.
Was The Abyss good or not? Well, it is an objectively good movie. It's smart, multifaceted, well-acted and yet is a little too all-over-the-place to be great. James Cameron obviously cared about this narrative and wanted it to be as successful as his other movies, but it doesn't quite work as a blockbuster. It would've required more of a minimalist approach in order to better make its point. Cameron was probably heartbroken over The Abyss because he never went back to this more cerebral narrative approach, but it's safe to assume he got over it. He's been obsessed with blue CGI-crafted creatures and ripping off animation movies since 2009 and there is no sign that it will stop anytime soon. Anyway, The Abyss will always be there to remind us that mainstream storytellers have more personal stories stories to tell *** and that being tremendously popular doesn't necessarily mean you're the best at your craft.
* As if this kind of endeavor wouldn't be protested to death today, right? RIGHT?
** Not so symbolic at times, too. The ending had great special effect, but was somewhat of a narrative letdown.
*** Not sure how the Cold War and aliens were personal to Cameron, but it was obviously very important to him.