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The Abyss: Special Edition, written and directed by James Cameron, 1989, 171 min.

Note: The Abyss was released into theatres in 1989 at a length of 140 minutes. Since then, the longer version with an extra half hour of footage has been released on laserdisc, VHS, and now DVD. When I refer to The Abyss in this review, I mean the Special Edition.

James Cameron is an ambitious director, with his own vision and a tendency to stick to it in the face of incredible adversity. It's hard not to admire these qualities on principle; too few directors struggle so hard to set themselves apart, with such successful results. I'll be criticizing The Abyss in this review, but this in the context of my esteem for Cameron's modus operandi. And even as I say that I think Cameron has lost his way completely, I'm looking forward to what he might do next. His latest two efforts, True Lies (1994) and Titanic (1997), were both painfully conventional in their own way, Terminator 2 (1991) perhaps less so, but all three share Cameron's budget-breaking ambition. A movie should not be judged on the basis of how much money it spent, but the information usually obtrudes on the sense of the movie in interesting ways. With The Abyss, Cameron exhibited the first signs of over-reaching his competence. In addition to contributing to an understanding of Cameron's career, The Abyss is a fascinating movie in its own right.

The film opens with a quotation from Nietzsche, pretentious but apt in the light of later developments. Then Cameron jumps directly into an exciting sequence onboard a doomed American nuclear submarine. It crashes, and the American military is justifiably interested in what exactly happened. But a storm is approaching and the only underwater rig close enough is a civilian drilling station. They get sent to the crash, taking onboard a special military team. Tensions ensue. We've seen this kind of military-civilian clash before, but Cameron puts this in the context of the mystery of what caused the submarine's crash.

The characters are sharply created, and provide a great deal of the humour in the movie, especially the cast of oddballs on the rig. Some of them verge on the stereotypical, and seem subservient to plot necessity, like the eccentric paranoid with his pet rat. Cameron at least respects them and their lives, in a way that belies their cheesiness, and over time we actually care about them. Even though their dialogue is often only utilitarian, their eccentricities shine through. The two main characters, Bud and Lindsey, a separated couple, are given great passion and verve by Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio respectively. Bud runs the rig, down at the bottom of the coean, but Lindsey designed it. She comes down to the rig with the military personnel, in order to make sure they don't screw things up on her rig. Bud is understandably a bit territorial, but several telling scenes indicate his continuing feelings for his wife. Their squabbling relationship becomes the heart of the movie, filled with gorgeous details -- Lindsey says, "Virgil, turn on your side" using Bud's real name, in order to stop him from snoring, and he does so obediently, still fast asleep -- and one of the most moving scenes in the film, when they are trapped in the leaky submarine. This famous scene is heartrendingly tense, with a line that sticks with me ("Breathe, damn you!") and a look of astonishing loss and desperation on Ed Harris' face.

In the theatrical release, the relationship between Bud and Lindsey was the point of the whole movie, and the apparent explanation for a resolution that seemed to come directly out of left field. Spoiler warning! In the cut version of The Abyss, it seems as if the aliens who had been living under water come to the surface for the sole purpose of reuniting the two. In the Special Edition, the love between Bud and Lindsey shows the way to an entirely other, more philosophical point. The added scenes (apart from the silly country music sequence) all build to a much different ending -- tension grows between the Americans and the Soviets, and the aliens come to the surface in order to end warfare among humans. Why do they choose to do so? Because of Bud's unselfishness, as he sacrifices himself to the deepest depths of the ocean to stop a bomb from destroying the aliens: "KNEW THIS WAS A ONE-WAY TICKET." Cameron makes an admirable point here, and he is a brave man to fashion a homage to Kubrick's 2001 (as Cameron has said in interviews) with such a cheesy romance plot. I don't want to fault him for his own sensibilities, because it is certainly a valid way of building a sf story, while Kubrick's intellectual approach was sometimes only emotionlessness. The concomitant lesson of anti-militarism in The Abyssis one of the most necessary things the human race needs to learn, and it is one that is too seldom heard. However, as much as I was cheering for Cameron's ethical subtext, I wasn't convinced. The aliens met human stupidity with the threat of force, as if the threat of force ever meant anything to the military mind other than another reason to band together and fight back. I approve of Cameron's utopian impulse -- as a jubilant civilian says to a military man at the end, "Looks like you guys are out of a job" -- but I wasn't persuaded by the human psychology of it.

That is the reason why I think Cameron should build more closely on his strength: exciting, intelligent action sequences. To my mind, The Abyss is the perfect movie, should Cameron have worked harder with the clumsy-fitting ending. Sections like the fall of the cable or the submarine chase are choreographed so clearly and filmed so effectively that even the most cynical, jaded moviegoer will be on the edge of their seat, guaranteed. Cameron has such a sharp grasp of suspense and how to wring the last drop of tension out of the audience (the cable hits the ocean floor -- "Whew!" -- and then starts to fall into the abyss) that I'm always disappointed when he tries his hand with other elements. In the case of The Abyss, the cheesy love story worked productively in the way it grabbed the audience's sympathy and made the drowning scene a masterpiece of cinema and Bud's sacrifice meaningful. I'm referring now to other films later in his career.

One small thing. I loved one particular line of dialogue near the end. Bud is descending towards the alien city, and says he is seeing lights. The military man who is running the communication immediately covers the mike and says, "He's hallucinating badly." Reality seems to be what you can accept, and this line is another indication that the narrowness of your world view can fatally hamper your ability to deal with new situations.

DVD Note: The Special Edition of The Abyss is now available on a two DVD set. This set is astonishingly crammed full of detail. Really, it's almost too much, especially since a great deal of it is text, which I find difficult to read in the confines of a DVD interface. The first DVD has both versions of the movie, the original theatrical release and the longer version, all on one DVD due to seamless branching. I wish more DVDs would include more than one version because lately I have been finding that DVDs with much-vaunted extra footage are often victim of material that was cut for a reason. In the case of The Abyss, Cameron has so much crucial story information in the Special Edition that the normal version is only good for instances when the viewer wants to see the action parts (and later get startled by an odd ending). The second DVD has a 60 minute documentary entitled Under Pressure: Making The Abyss, which tells a great deal about the production and the technical challenges which it faced. Like any movie to do with water, The Abyss had many struggles. The extras also include two other shorter documentaries, many pages of text (around 1000 pages, if I remember the figure correctly, including the full shooting script of the movie), tons of images and stills, cast and crew bios, and information about the vehicles used in the movie. There's one extra on the first DVD, which is a text commentary which plays as subtitles during the movie.

As I've said, I find it hard to read text when it's included on a DVD. My only other complaint about this DVD set is the lack of any information in the booklet about what is on the second DVD. The booklet, which shows the differences between the two versions of the movie in depth, should also have included a way of seeing what the options on the fancy onscreen menus actually mean and what can be found by clicking on something. Great content, less than stellar organization.

First posted: March 26, 1998; Last modified: January 20, 2003

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

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