Though it sank like a stone in its theatrical release last summer, The Abyss is not an abysmal movie. It boasts superb acting and the most realistic, emotionally gripping action scenes of any underwater disaster movie ever made.
It ought to have been superlative because it was created by sci-fi superstars James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd. Cameron and Hurd started out making B-movies for Roger Corman, the auteur of such trash classics as The Viking Women and The Sea Serpent. The duo’s own movies, The Terminator and Aliens, added wit and intellect to Corman’s romping, stomping aesthetic.
The problem is, The Abyss is both a good disaster movie and a disastrously ill-conceived sci-fi film about aquatic extraterrestrials — these aliens are too sweet to stomp anybody. Watery and translucent, they’re much more interesting to look at than Spielberg’s E.T., but because they’re not monsters they do nothing to propel the plot. Terror is the engine that powers Aliens and The Terminator; lacking monsters, The Abyss has no narrative drive. Its crises (caused by undersea landslides and such) are frightening enough, but the tension keeps dissipating instead of building to a dramatic end.
In the original cut, the aliens got some gumption at last, and forced humanity to quit the arms race by threatening our coastal cities with mile-high walls of water. Perhaps the filmmakers should have restored those scenes in this video version. Instead, it keeps the same dull finale theatergoers saw, one that only underlines the essential irrelevance of the aliens to the story. The Abyss ends with a whimper.
But it starts out with a bang that lasts for an exciting hour and a half. And that’s enough to make it worth taking the plunge. B