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James Cameron’s deep sea science fiction tale is one of those rare instances of a director revisiting a finished work and genuinely improving the film. The 1989 theatrical release was marred by an abrupt, confusing ending that was the product of Cameron removing almost an entire storyline to bring the film down to a more commercial 146 minute running time. This drastic surgery earned it some lukewarm reviews when it first hit theaters.
Four years later, Cameron re-released a 171 minute cut to theaters and then home video. This version not only restored the missing story elements but fleshed out the relationship between the film’s two core characters, Bud and Lindsey Brigman (Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). This greater texture and clearer story logic raises the 1993 cut heads and shoulders above the original.
The film centers around a high-tech underwater oil drilling platform designed by Lindsey Brigman and run by her estranged husband Virgil, better known as “Bud.” When a U.S. nuclear missile submarine sinks under mysterious circumstances, the Navy commandeers the platform, known as Deepcore, to investigate the disappearance. Bud goes nose to nose with both his wife, who’s angry that he caved in to the Navy, and Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), the tightly-wound Navy SEAL commander who doesn’t necessarily have the safety of Bud’s men as his top priority.
Coffey, already suffering from a depth-induced psychosis, goes over the edge when a sudden hurricane strands a crippled Deepcore at the bottom of the ocean and strange lights start appearing around the platform. The unhinged SEAL starts seeing commies around every corner, but the reality turns out to be more Close Encounters than Red Dawn. When Coffey gets his hands on one of the submarine’s warheads, he threatens to set off a chain reaction with effect far beyond the confines of Deepcore.
What elevates The Abyss above your garden variety science-fiction is its attention to character details, as the underwater world is populated by some vividly drawn, colorfully blue-collar individuals, from the weaselly and paranoid “Hippy” Carnes (Todd Graff) to Bud’s expansive right-hand man, Catfish de Vries (Leo Burmester). The emotional core of the film, the unraveling relationship between Bud and Lindsey is believable and, in the end, genuinely touching. This film firmly puts to lie the notion that Cameron cannot write convincing characters.
By all accounts, The Abyss was one of the grueling film shoots in motion picture history and, if you have claustrophobia or any water-based phobias, watching it could be the most grueling 146 to 171 minutes of your life. The film makes maximum use of its underwater setting and ratchets up to tension and doesn’t let go until nearly the end.
As accomplished as it is, especially in its longer form, The Abyss is not a perfect film. Cameron regular Michael Biehn doesn’t get a lot to work with as Coffey is a very thinly written character even before he starts to lose his marbles. Also, the “let’s join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’” ending is more than a little trite and juvenile if you think about it too hard.
Still, its ambitious scope, groundbreaking effects and rich characters makes the extended version of The Abyss one of the underappreciated films of Cameron’s career.
The special edition of the DVD, which features both cuts of the movie, desperately needs a new anamorphic transfer (maybe we’ll get one for Blu-Ray), but if you can find the two-disc version, it’s worth buying for Under Pressure, an hour-long documentary about the film’s arduous production. It’s one of the better “making-of” features out there.