Review: The Abyss (1989)

Director/Screenwriter: James Cameron
Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff
Genres: Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language and some scenes of action
Release Dates: 8/9/89 (Theatres); 3/5/02 (DVD); 11/30/16 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2h 20min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
Where to Watch: Amazon
Oscars: Won–Visual Effects; Nominated–Cinematography, Production Design, Sound

I wasn’t originally planning to watch James Cameron’s The Abyss when my brother and mother started watching it on Christmas Eve, but because it’s an Oscar winner (for Visual Effects) and features Ed Harris in the leading role, I couldn’t say no. For one, I’m trying to catch up on past Oscar winners (and nominees); also, Harris is continually watchable, even when the film isn’t all that good. 

Cameron certainly has a thing for oceans, doesn’t he? (See: Titanic) In one of his earlier films, he proved himself to be a solid director, although it’s no secret that the set of The Abyss was near-torturous for cast and crew alike. It was so bad that Harris avoids talking about his experiences in filming it. Fortunately, I didn’t know this until after watching the movie, which made it easier for me to enjoy it, rather than be cognizant of these issues while viewing. It’s far from a perfect film, but it’s easy to tell that a lot of work went into making it as good as it is. 

While it’s most known as a creature feature, it is actually a thriller for much of its runtime, as well as a mystery. This combination of genres mostly works, although the sci-fi elements require a high suspension of disbelief. The ending, in particular, is so ludicrous and comes out of nowhere that I was actually somewhat disappointed. It would’ve been more interesting to tie the more fantastical elements with other things touched upon in the film, although Cameron isn’t necessarily known for tying things together in a neat little bow. 

Actually, a fair amount of the non-sci-fi scenes seem fairly realistic, especially when depicting claustrophobia and dealing with close quarters on an ocean vessel. That said, the oft-discussed revival scene — with some over-the-top acting from Harris — is extremely farfetched, and almost as unrealistic as the scenes with the aliens. Also, another criticism is that the movie is probably longer than it needs to be by 20+ minutes. Cameron is also known for making lengthy films whose runtimes aren’t always warranted.

And, yet, The Abyss is almost always entertaining and watchable, even in its quieter moments. That’s thanks to some solid action and convincing work from Harris. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine, if not all that memorable, including Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the Harris’ character’s estranged (or ex?) wife. Their relationship is meant to be the emotional anchor here, although I didn’t feel all that invested in their relationship, even though both actors sold it. 

The Abyss‘ Visual Effects Oscar win was well-deserved, as it’s easy to see that the effects present were ahead of its time. Watching it on my family’s fancy 4K TV made it all the more amazing. The film was also nominated for its cinematography, production design, and sound, which are all impressive. There are some excellent instances of using sound — or the lack thereof — for cinematic effect.

The Abyss mainly succeeds at what it attempts to do: entertain and enthrall, even though it does have some flaws.