Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Little Waterlogged: "The Abyss" (1989)

Does James Cameron's groundbreaking film about underwater aliens still stand up twenty-five years after its theatrical release? I can answer yes, and no, after viewing the almost three hour special extended edition released on DVD a while back.

Bud (Ed Harris) is the leader of a motley crew of working stiffs on an underwater oil drilling platform. It seems those idiots in the military (Cameron makes his feelings for soldiers in uniform abundantly clear throughout this film) went and crashed a nuclear sub in a deep trench nearby, and the quickest way to rescue them is to use the platform. The platform designer, and Bud's estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), is sent down to the platform along with a Navy SEAL team headed by the immediately unbalanced Coffey (Michael Biehn, turning in a nice performance). Above on the surface, a hurricane is blowing through, and international tensions with the Soviets are high. Coffey and Bud clash as to who is running the operation, which quickly turns from a rescue mission to a mission to survive mechanical failures, weather-related disasters, secret military agendas, oh, and some pretty, glowing space aliens.

I think we can all agree that Cameron's strength comes from his technical savvy, and not his screenwriting skills. Dialogue here clunks badly after lingering uncomfortably in the air when uttered. It's awful, I compare it to how a junior high schooler thinks grown-ups at work talk. Bud and Lindsey's bantering threatens to degenerate into "nanny nanny boo boo" insults and accompanying wedgies (the number of times she is referred to as a bitch is kind of shocking). The special extended edition of the film adds half an hour to the theatrical release, which means half an hour more visual marvel, and Cameron's annoying preachiness, breaking down the Cold War into its most simplistic ingredients. Cameron borrows from "2001: A Space Odyssey," "2010" (a huge debt to that film), the random "Twilight Zone" episode, and even the glassy-eyed look of wonder and amazement from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

The cast struggles with Cameron's dialogue, and seem to do best when left to their own devices (Lindsey's drowning scene, and Bud's descent into the underwater abyss). The shoot was a troubled one, according to some online research, and that is sometimes evident on the performers' faces. Some of Harris' expressions at his lines indicate disbelief. Biehn's Coffey is the most interesting character.

So why am I recommending this? Technically, the film is awesome. The widescreen is used wisely, and the film is epic in scale. Some of the special effects are a little iffy, this was CGI in its infancy, but the crystal clear cinematography and sound is perfect. Alan Silvestri's musical score is terrible (really? drums when the military killing machines are onscreen? are those bongos during the fight scene between Bud and Coffey?). The plot is a good one, I wish Cameron had taken a story credit and handed it over to someone who could flesh the caricatures out and made us care about the people going through all of these great action sequences (a mini-sub chase) and suspenseful set-pieces (the crane collapse).

In the grand scheme of Cameron films, "The Abyss" falls behind "Titanic," "True Lies," "Aliens," and his Terminator films. I will say this- it's light years ahead of "Avatar." Glub-glub. (* * * *) out of five stars.