Running almost three hours, the special edition of The Abyss manages to be too long in an interesting way. It forgets its story. There’s about an hour there with the valiant undersea oil workers battling the psychotic military man–there’s fight scenes and chase scenes and drama scenes and all sorts of scenes… just nothing about the movie’s actual story, which is something to do with space aliens saving the human race from itself. Cameron’s thesis is incredibly naive and also a fantastic cop-out. Thanks to some newsreel footage of Americans being asked about being on the brink with the Soviets, its clear Cameron puts all the blame for xenophobia on the military. It’s a very, very goofy move… and wholly lifted from 2010 (I think from both the book and the movie).
But The Abyss is highly derivative. Cameron borrows storytelling techniques from all the finest sources (Irwin Allen mostly) and comes up with a rather amusing, well-acted undersea action melodrama. It’s perfectly fine. Well, except Michael Biehn. As the nutso Navy SEAL, Biehn’s supposed to be suffering from the bends and, therefore, not responsible for going insane. Except, with a few exceptions, Cameron never goes and makes Biehn anything but a nutso jerk even before the insanity sets in. And Biehn doesn’t even try to work it in as a subtext. He’s the movie villain. He’s not all together bad, but he’s not good.
Almost every performance is excellent, otherwise (except Christopher Murphy, who Cameron appears to have cast from a weightlifting advertisement). In particular, Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Both are good throughout, but it’s really at the end when they excel, when they’re acting by themselves. Harris can’t talk and does everything with his eyes, Mastrantonio can’t move and does everything in close-up with her voice. Spectacular acting from the two of them, so much so, when they finally to get back to regular scenes… Cameron’s script is a real letdown. Supporting-wise, Todd Graff, Kimberly Scott, Leo Burmester are all great in the most vocal (and funny) roles. John Bedford Lloyd is also good, in a much quieter part.
Cameron’s direction of groups is impressive, even if the editing doesn’t always match. He gives everyone something to do and, as he has lots of group shots, it makes The Abyss a congenial experience (which is why it doesn’t feel like three hours).
But the movie fails–thanks to Cameron’s goofy ending–when it should succeed. For a few moments, Cameron gets close to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then manages to screw it all up with his pedestrian plotting. He cut two scripts together–Ed Harris vs. Rambo underwater, underwater aliens make their presence known–and somehow, in three hours, didn’t achieve either.
I need to take a moment to comment on Alan Silvestri’s highly derivative (of his own work) score. There’s a lot of good material, but then there’s a lot of mediocre. And maybe even some bad.
So it fits The Abyss well, I suppose.
Written and directed by James Cameron; director of photography, Mikael Salomon; edited by Conrad Buff IV, Joel Goodman, Howard E. Smith and Steven Quale; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Leslie Dilley; produced by Gale Anne Hurd and Van Ling; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Ed Harris (Bud), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Lindsey), Michael Biehn (Coffey), Leo Burmester (Catfish), Todd Graff (Hippy), John Bedford Lloyd (Jammer), J.C. Quinn (Sonny), Kimberly Scott (One Night), Captain Kidd Brewer Jr. (Lew Finler), George Robert Klek (Wilhite), Christopher Murphy (Schoenick), Adam Nelson (Ensign Monk), Dick Warlock (Dwight Perry), Jimmie Ray Weeks (Leland McBride), J. Kenneth Campbell (DeMarco), Ken Jenkins (Kirkhill) and Chris Elliott (Bendix).