Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Kimberly Scott, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff
Rated PG-13 for Language and Some Scenes of Action
"The Abyss" is a departure for James Cameron. While he is famous for romance ("Titanic") and science fiction (everything else...save for "True Lies"), "The Abyss" is more philosophical and low-key than his other pictures. All of his films have included a lot of action, to some degree, and while there is some here, it's more restrained. Cameron is really telling a love story here, albeit one with mixed success.
A U.S. nuclear submarine has gone down in the middle of the ocean after reporting an impossibly fast moving ship. The US thinks that it's the Soviet Union playing hardball, so they increase their defenses. They hire an oil rig led by Bud Brigman (Harris) to find out what happened and if there are any survivors. To aid them, a team of Navy SEALS led by a no nonsense man named Coffey (Biehn), boards their rig. Also along is the designer of the rig, Lindsey Brigman (Mastrantonio), Bud's soon-to-be ex. As international tensions rise, it becomes clear to those on the rig that they are not alone.
James Cameron doesn't know what he wants his film to be, and as a result isn't much of anything. It makes plays for romance, science fiction and action, but Cameron has not assembled them in a way that works. Considering his immense talent and obsessive drive for perfection, this is surprising.
At its heart, this is a love story. As such, Bud and Lindsey are at center focus. Harris and Mastrantonio have some chemistry, but it takes nearly the entire film to catch fire. These two are no Jack and Rose. Further, the development of their relationship is fitfully developed, so our investment in their romance is weak. Michael Biehn is adequate as the increasingly deranged villain, but he's almost a non-entity. Or at least he feels like it.
If nothing else, "The Abyss" has become infamous for its brutal shoot. James Cameron is a notoriously difficult director, with a fiery temper and a demanding personality. Working conditions were also miserable, with much of it being filmed underwater. Ed Harris nearly drowned while filming one scene, which lead him to punch Cameron for continuing to film. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a physical and emotional breakdown and Ed Harris had to pull over his car because he spontaneously burst into tears on his way home. Cast and crew called it nicknames like "Son of the Abyss" and "The Abuse," and many of the cast and crew refused to work with Cameron ever again. Ed Harris still refuses to talk about it entirely.
Two versions of the film exist. The theatrical cut runs at two hours and twenty minutes, and was tepidly received. The special edition, which is the one I saw, has an additional thirty minutes of running time. That may have been too long, since the middle portion of the movie sags interminably as the characters sit in the dead rig pondering what to do next. Ten or fifteen minutes could have been cut with little lost.
There are some good moments, to be sure, like when the rig is flooding or the final 15 minutes. But as it is, "The Abyss" is more a curiosity than a title worthy of James Cameron's otherwise impeccable name. Pity that all the suffering the cast and crew went through didn't add up to more.