James Cameron's The Abyss plays like a mixture of his superb Aliens, Spielberg's fantastical Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the anti-war message of The Day the Earth Stood Still. It takes the dire warning of the latter, filters it through a fairly warm climax and then makes a gripping thriller out of it. That bizarre combination will likely forever confine it to the annals of cult classics instead of receiving the mainstream love of Cameron's Aliens and Terminator 2 (as well as some movie about a boat or some such), but The Abyss is a magnificent piece of science fiction that consolidates its various tones not perfectly, but better than you'd expect possible.
When a U.S. nuclear sub strikes an unknown object resting near the Cayman Trough, the Americans rush to recover the sub and its contents before Russians get to it and tear it apart for intelligence gathering. They decide that the quickest way to deal with things is to drop a Navy SEAL team onto a private business platform nearby to use as a base of operations. The platform workers, led by Virgil "Bud" Brigman (Ed Harris), initially refuse to place themselves in the way of anything approaching danger, until the military offers them all triple pay.
The SEAL crew is under the command of Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), who brings not only his squad but one of the underwater platform's designers, Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), Bud's estranged wife. So, as divers set out to recover the sub as well as investigate the mysterious object that sank it, the Brigmans must argue over their relationship. Mercifully, Cameron has enough wit and enough severity to never let these moments lapse into either melodrama or farce.
Soon, the crews discover that a strange presence is floating around the area, incandescent lights that dart faster than any animal or machine could possibly move. No one can guess what its purpose is, but its proximity to seemingly everything that goes wrong in the rescue attempt leads some to fear it. Coffey, suffering from nerve disorders because of the dive, believes it to be a threat and sets about exterminating it over the safety of the others aboard the platform.
What is it about the ocean that make it claustrophobic? The only way you could find something more expansive would be to move into outer space altogether, yet it always seems to be so confining. Perhaps it's because seeing a person, or a group of people, holed up in a tiny pocket of the sea is a story of isolation. The dives through the twisted mire of the submarine wreckage carry with them that subtle threat of getting lost and never finding the way back to the platform, while shots within the platform clang with the hollow echoes of all that metal, which reflects the harsh lighting until you're always staring into blinding rays.
Three separate plots all provide nail-biting thrills: the submarine salvages offer up early dread, but it's when the platform takes heavy damage in a hurricane and floods that Cameron dials up the tension. The best part of Titanic was always that sense of doom as Leo and Kate tried to escape the sinking ship, but it's got nothing on the terror here. After all, they're already underwater: any breach is fatal. Later, Coffey goes completely mad in his illness and threatens to take the whole platform with him.
There isn't a particularly weak performance here -- the crews, as in Alien, act as you'd expect workers to act -- but the three leads are all exemplary. Biehn doesn't snap in his madness but instead shivers and huddles with himself, assured in the knowledge that everyone is out to get him. It's too easy to compare Lindsey to the great Ellen Ripley, but both are intelligent women who are every bit as capable as the boys (and might just have a lick more sense, to boot). But it's Harris, that superb character actor who never seems to let you down even if the films he's in do, who carries it all home. There is a scene, late in the film, in which he must revive his wife; when the defibrillator appears ineffective, he pounds her chest screaming "Fight! Fight! Fight!" until at last, voice ravaged, he desperately pleas in a hoarse, broken whisper. Supposedly Cameron made them do this scene so many times and with so much vigor that both actors turned against the director afterwards, and indeed it seems as though there is no acting involved on-screen. But that one moment stuck with me the first time I watched the movie and it moved me again this time.
I admit that I watched the director's cut of this film, which came out in 1993, possibly making this an invalid entry into the 1989 series. However, I'm still counting it because the theatrical cut is an unfinished film. Now, people say that about a lot of cuts when the director had to cut some scenes, but I mean this literally: the whole alien aspect of the film makes absolutely no sense in the original cut. Here, however, we see them as both peaceful diplomats and deadly harbingers. Their message is similar to Klaatu's: stop fighting, or be destroyed by forces we cannot possibly combat. The CG elements of these beasts are dated, yes, but they hardly look worse than those found in the watershed Terminator 2 (though obviously some of these were added after that film gave Cameron the clout to finish this one).
Where the theatrical cut tacked on an anti-climactic alien subplot to a damn good thriller, this version gives it the meat it needs to make its point: that the infighting and sadism that rises in these stranded SEALs and crewmen when circumstances bring out their base instincts must be controlled and suppressed, lest it consume us all. It's still not a snug fit, but at least it makes sense.
There's hardly a flaw to spot in the film: the leads are all superb, and the story, fleshed out in its director's cut, is gripping and -- in the end -- inspiring. Holding it all together is Cameron's wonderful direction, which makes great use of every object that appears in the frame. The diving scenes have an unsettling serenity to them, while the platform shots convey the shrinking confines of these people's minds. I suppose The Abyss is a bit like Coppola's The Conversation: sandwiched between two lauded classics, it inevitably got lost in the public consciousness. Also like The Conversation, it's every bit as good as those masterpieces that surround it.