Film Review: The Abyss (1989)


This unique sci-fi/thriller from James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) is an ambitious, uneven film about a group of reluctant underwater oil drillers who are enlisted by the government to investigate a mysterious downed submarine which turns out to be carrying nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, nothing goes as planned — a hurricane strikes, they lose all communication, and life support begins to fail. Stranded at the edge of an abyssal trench, they soon discover they are not alone on the ocean floor — that something lives in the abyss, and it’s not of this world.  While the drillers try to communicate with the extra-terrestrials, an accompanying Navy Seal begins to lose his grip on reality, threatening nuclear annihilation.

The characters are as thinly drawn as other Cameron creations, and many people find the alien twist a bit jarring, but you know what?  I like The Abyss a lot.  Cameron is a master of staging action and drama, never more evident than in the scene where Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, playing estranged husband and wife, must swim their way to safety with only one pressurized suit and air supply.  Mastrantonio elects to drown, banking that Harris can resuscitate her once they’re out of the water. It’s probably the most tense sequence Cameron’s ever constructed.

Harris and Mastrantonio do incredible jobs throughout the film, fleshing out their stock characters and giving them depth (no pun intended). Michael Biehn (Terminator) is also very effective as the neurotic marine, and burly Leo Burmester is charismatic as a fellow rig worker.

The Abyss creates a compelling claustrophobic atmosphere of paranoia, and is good for several moments of suspense and character confrontation, even if the final act becomes a little too much like “Close Encounters Under the Sea.”  The special edition version of the film adds to the running time and brings a layer of pretentiousness to the climax that is better to avoid.

Into the Dark - Film Review: The Abyss (1989)

The film was Oscar-nominated for its cinematography, sound, and art direction. It won the Oscar for achievement in visual effects. The movie’s watery pseudopod sequence is a landmark in the evolution of computer generated imagery, paving the way for other pioneering films like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park.

If you can find it, also watch Under Pressure: The Making of ‘The Abyss’. It’s almost as harrowing as the film itself, widely regarded as one of the most difficult and dangerous film shoots in movie history.

Rating: 4/5 ★★★★☆ 


About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (

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