HomeAll postsJames Cameron’s The Abyss the extended edition: a review

James Cameron’s The Abyss the extended edition: a review

James Cameron's The Abyss

A review by Nalini Haynes

The Abyss was on the watch list for Archetypes and Imagery class so like a good little student I sourced a copy and watched the damn thing after being assured by my fellow students that it’s not a paranormal horror (the genre I thought was implied in the trailers and the reason I hadn’t watched it previously).

The action opens with a Russian submarine crashing underwater; one sailor pauses to rescue another so the hatch wasn’t closed in time and they all drown.

A helicopter touches down on a ship at sea. As some marines and a woman alight, the sailors say vicious sexist things about the woman without giving any cause. Later we learn that the woman is Lindsey Brigman, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and the estranged wife of Virgil ‘Bud’ Brigman, a popular crew member and team leader on the submersed oil rig, played by Ed Harris. Lindsey and the marines have come to help salvage – erm – ‘rescue’ the stranded sailors before Hurricane Fred strikes.

The sailors on the ship also make sexist comments about the naming of hurricanes, wanting them all named after women and not after men. I was very concerned that a certain tone was being set early in the movie but, luckily, this was set aside once the plot got underway.

Kimberly Scott plays Lisa ‘One Night’ Standing, the second woman in the Abyss; she’s just one of the guys, treated as an equal with specialist skills and no overt sexism.

The Abyss does not pass the Bechdel test because the two women don’t talk to each other without the menz around BUT the two women are great characters: both are really competent and essential to the team. As this dynamic unfolded, my hackles were lowered and we got on with the actual plot.

Shortly after Lindsey and the marines arrive on the submersed oil rig, the arrogant Lt. Hiram Coffey (played by Michael Biehn) shows signs of a neurological reaction to being so far underwater. This illness makes Coffey a threat to the team as he is now unreliable at best, in an extreme environment hundreds of feet below the surface while a hurricane is on its way.

Then shit gets real, as they say.

The Abyss extended edition is long at 171 minutes and not as fast-paced as we tend to expect from Hollywood these days; the Abyss is like a novel made into a movie in that there is exploration of issues, people struggling to achieve goals on screen rather than substituting a bit of dialogue and explosions for actual story. The tension builds with three sides to the story. Admittedly one of those sides eventually turns out to be a common trope in the 1980s but – guess what? The Abyss was made in 1989.

[Spoilers, sweetie]

The science was flawed. When swimming underwater it’s damn hard to push and manipulate objects because you don’t have traction to push against, you just push back; it’s a bit like in a zero gravity environment. If you open a door that has lots of water behind it, guess what? Your water-free compartment gets flooded REALLY QUICKLY. People die before machines are crushed underwater. I’m sure that actual oil riggers and divers could list a lot more flaws (I could list at least one more), but that’s a taster.

[Spoilers end]

As I mentioned earlier, the Abyss was on the watch list for a subject at university, Archetypes and Imagery. The lecturer couldn’t actually show it as planned because of technological difficulties; she was planning to show a bit late in the movie, so I won’t go into detail just in case you haven’t seen it yet. The Abyss follows the Hero’s (archetypal) Journey for both the male and female protagonists in that they’re pushed out of their current lives into this rescue mission, faced with seeing each other again after being separated for some time then they’re launched right into the unknown. I won’t go further into the hero’s journey because SPOILERS, SWEETIE.

According to JB HiFi, the Abyss hasn’t made it to bluray yet; we watched the DVD version. The image is about half that of high definition resolution; when the DVD started, it showed the cinema proportions with a HUGE black strip around the outside. Possibly only half the TV screen was used. We had to manually change the settings and zoom in to enlarge it to take up most of the screen. You can imagine the image was somewhat less than crystal clear.

The Abyss has a solid story that holds up even after all this time. I thought the trailers implied supernatural horror but the Abyss is more of a suspense story with some science fiction thrown in. Made by James Cameron, who made Avatar and Dark Angel, you can see the same tropes evolving alongside special effects. The extended edition is not fast-moving but it builds suspense and develops characters well. I enjoyed it.


Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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