Thursday, July 22, 2021

Blast From The Past Movie Review: THE ABYSS (1989)

Once upon a time in elementary school, I spent a weekend or two with my friend Robert at some lakeside property his family owned. And one thing we did a couple of the times we were there is watch the 1989 underwater science fiction film The Abyss. I hadn't seen the movie since then ("then" being in the 1995-1996 range), but it definitely fits the Myopia Movies timeframe--more than 10 years old and you hadn't seen it in five years, with the fact I saw it when I was 10-11 years old even more useful. So I suggested it for the podcast and we did it for this most wonderful season eight.

Here's the podcast episode. And now the review.

The Plot

It's the near-future year of 1994 and an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine the U.S.S. Montana wrecks in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico not far from Cuba. As Soviet and Cuban naval vessels gather, the United States Navy hires a group of deep-sea oil drillers led by Virgil "Bud" Brigman (Ed Harris) to use their underwater drilling platform to send in a SEAL team to rescue survivors. Coming along to make sure everything goes according to plan is Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), designer of the platform and Bud's estranged wife.

However, the mysterious forces of the deep ocean that caused the wreck of the Montana are still there and interested in these surface-world visitors...

The Good

*The acting is very good. I particularly liked Mastrantonio as Dr. Brigman. She does well as an engineer who's better with machines than people and can really sell grief and panic in a more subtle way than Ed Harris. Michael Biehn does a good job as the psychologically-deteriorating SEAL Lieutenant Hiram Coffey. I got some serious Caine Mutiny vibes off him, especially later in the film. And Todd Graff is fun as "Hippy," a conspiracy theorist who's quite attached to his pet rat.

*The script is well put together. The climactic events of the film are well-foreshadowed (I make a lot of "Chekhov's _________" comments in the Twitter-stream). Although an aggressive military man as opposed to a more peacenik kind-of scientist is the main conflict in the film, it's subverted rather than stereotypical--Coffey is suffering from a legitimate mental illness, the rest of his team seem like decent enough people even if (at first) they follow the orders of a man having a break with reality, and the anti-military clich├ęs (soldiers are unthinking order-following robots, they can only see enemies) are criticisms coming from flawed characters rather than being treated as the actual truth by the narrative.

*For a movie made in 1989, the special effects for the most part hold up really well. The underwater aliens (at this point we all know what's really going on) are very well-done, as is the famous "water tentacle." Only at the end do they falter even a little, and even then it's not bad.

*Even though I'd seen the movie before and generally knew what would happen--and spent much of the film live-tweeting it--there are sequences of legitimate suspense. Had I never seen the movie before or been more focused, this would be even more well-done.

*With the exception of some of the nuclear stuff, the science works. Per the almighty Wikipedia, director James Cameron got the idea for the film in high school while seeing a presentation on liquid breathing and that plays a key role in the climax. Another major plot point revolves around deep hypothermic circulatory arrest, which is also a real thing.

*The entire cast had to become certified SCUBA divers for the film and lot of the underwater stuff rings true (I got my PADI open-water diving license in middle school). Overhead situations (i.e. wrecks and caves), diving so deep you need to use special mixes of oxygen and other gases rather than compressed air, panicking underwater, and the need to avoid decompression sickness are all portrayed as the tricky and dangerous situations they'd be.

*There are some fun action sequences once Coffey starts to go totally insane, including what's essentially submarine demolition derby.

The Bad

*When Ed Harris is supposed to display deep emotion--worry, grief, etc.--he overacts big time. Although given the circumstances it's pretty obvious he'd be upset, he kind of overdoes it.

*A lot of the lesser characters aren't given that much to do. Several characters die in early on when part of the underwater rig is flooded and if they'd been better-developed, their deaths would have hurt more.

*The theatrical release was rather long and the director's cut (which I didn't watch) was nearly three hours. This is definitely a time investment and although it starts out great, it does drag a bit later. The director's cut might have some improvements--I think it elaborates on why the Brigmans are heading for divorce and how the wreck of the Montana is becoming an international crisis--but the length sounds pretty intimidating.

The Verdict

9.0 out of 10. This is definitely worth seeing again. I ended up ordering the DVD off eBay, since I would have otherwise had to get a full-on Amazon Prime subscription to watch it. Thanks Videodrome, the last video rental shop in Atlanta!

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