Combined Rating: 2.5/5
“Man looks in the abyss. There’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.” I was thinking of this quote from Wall Street, and how it might apply to James Cameron’s late ‘80’s underwater epic as characters enter a literal (if not figurative) abyss, on a mission to deactivate a sunken nuclear warhead. Turns out, there may indeed be something staring back, amidst the mysterious depths where no man has ever been. One can guess what it might be without watching the film, if one is familiar with Cameron’s penchant for the fantastical. Contrary to Lou Mannheim’s advice to Bud Fox (Wall Street “Bud”) about the dangers of a figurative abyss and how it may destroy the human soul, we find that in the present context, only delving headlong into it can lead man, and indeed mankind, to save itself.
For two hours and twenty minutes we are almost completely submerged in a claustrophobic entanglement of pipes and compartments of the undersea rig, peppered with pool portals that lead into the vastness of the deep blue, and ultimate black of the ocean. This is a highly volatile and pressurized environment where we can more palpably feel rising human tensions as multiple stories escalate and converge. Our token government bad guy (Michael Biehn) is sufficiently nuts and hell bent on destruction, necessitating incessant showdowns that continually put our bickering married, yet separated scientists Bud and Lindsay (Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) at mortal risk. But it also forces them to work together, reminding each of the other’s significant, singular skill, wherewithal, and heart. A series of contrived melodrama ensues where characters take turns dying, but not really…a testimony to our imagined collective willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good.
While lingering leagues below might feel, much like outerspace, bleak and daunting, Cinematographer Mikael Salomon paints the deep as warm and inviting…almost romantic in its lush neon hues and shadows, perhaps portending the intentions of our new, elusive friends. We don’t get much time to explore the nature of the aliens, or how/why they came to set up shop in a secluded sea trench, but apparently they’re American patriots first. Their whole raison d’etre seems to be reuniting our hero with his now reconciled wife, who believes he has perished. This has to be one of the most egregious dei ex machina ever contrived for achieving the happy endings we came to expect, especially in the 1980’s. Frankly, the 54th Massachusetts of Glory (another blockbuster of ’89) could have used similar help, but alas, their cause unfolded on the beach, not in the adjacent sea. Shame. Plus, that was history…this is pure “science” fiction, which is what James “Titanic” Cameron does best, at least when he’s watching the clock.
We’ve been talking about watching this one for so long that it was kind of built up in my mind. I was picturing an underwater adventure in the Marianas Trench with all kinds of unearthly sea creatures, both lovely and terrifying—sort of like “Avatar” but underwater (especially since both were directed by James Cameron). And there *were* some unearthly sea creatures, of a variety… just not exactly the sort I was anticipating. Truthfully, I was a bit confused on the finer points of the plot, and I can’t necessarily say why: maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, or maybe the film really was rather muddled. Scenes kept cutting between different crafts and different male characters that I couldn’t entirely differentiate, and I wasn’t super clear on anybody’s motives. I *could* look up all the details, as that would make for a nice and tidy review—but that gives a less accurate depiction of my real viewing experience.
So here’s what I actually got: after one submarine sinks, a different group of men (who? Why?) send oil workers Virgil “Bud” (Ed Harris) and his crew down to see if there are any survivors. (There aren’t.) Bud’s soon-to-be ex-wife Lindsay (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) apparently built the submarine they’re on, so she goes along to fix things that might break. Everybody thinks Lindsay is a royal bitch, but it’s clear fairly early on that Bud still has feelings for her. Meanwhile, a portion of Bud’s crew turns out to be Russian, or Russian sympathizers, or something, and they’re after a nuclear warhead that I think was on board the submarine that sank. Bud’s submarine is attached to an oil rig above ground that somehow gets dislodged and falls into the water, then slides down an underwater ravine (hence “the abyss”), tugging them down after it. While swimming around trying to fix things down there, Lindsay encounters a glowing creature (a precursor to the creatures from “Avatar”) that she presumes is extraterrestrial… so the film suddenly becomes a whole new genre. Then Bud sneaks up to fight the Russians for the nuke. The nuke sinks to the bottom of the abyss—I missed how, when, or why—but it still has to be disarmed. Lindsay and Bud trade death scenes and back-from-the-brink scenes, forcing each of them to realize how much they still love each other. And then, in what might be the greatest deux ex machina moment in cinematic history, a giant alien spaceship rises up from the bottom of the ocean, bringing Bud and his entire crew to the surface where they have a tearful, triumphant reunion.
It sounds like a mess, and—yeah, pretty much. This *might* be the reason why the film was so hard for us to locate: it’s neither streamable on Netflix nor on Amazon Prime. I think I see why. Even so, I still found it somewhat entertaining: the acting was great, and at least I liked the dynamic between Bud and Lindsay, even if I couldn’t keep any of the other characters straight. And, you know, the aliens were pretty.
Meal pairing: sushi seems appropriate, as it’s kind of slimy and other-worldly. We recommend shrimp tempura rolls with eel sauce, spicy tuna rolls, and edamame. Make sure you throw in some wine… this is the kind of film that’s better with alcohol.