Film Review of “The Abyss: Special Edition” (1989)

abyss

© James Pyles – DVD cover for the 1989 film “The Abyss”

I hadn’t intended to watch a film on Sunday evening, but saw a DVD of the 1989 film The Abyss and said, “why not?”

Actually, this is the special edition, so it’s expanded quite a bit from what folks saw in the original theatrical production.

The movie opens aboard the USS Montana, an Ohio-class U.S. Navy sub. The sub encounters some strange light apparition near the Cayman Trough and, caught in its wake, is dragged across a rock formation, fatally damaging the sub.

With Soviet ships closing in to salvage the nuclear submarine, the Navy commandeers a private, underwater drilling platform operating near the Trough that’s led by Foreman Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) and crewed by a bunch of roughneck oil drillers.

Brigman’s estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the drilling rig, accompanies a group of Navy SEALs commanded by Lieutenant Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn) down to the rig just before a hurricane hits, in an attempt to reach the Montana and search for survivors.

As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that the SEALs have another mission, retrieving and arming one of the submarine’s nuclear warheads. This was a part of the film that still confuses me. What did they think they were going to do with it?

Topside, the sinking of the Montana is only one of many events that is steering America and other powers toward global nuclear war.

After the rescue operation finds no survivors, and with the hurricane making it impossible for anyone to return to the surface, Coffey takes one of the rig’s submersibles and retrieves a warhead. Unfortunately, the crew needed that craft to disconnect the umbilical to the surface platform. When the hurricane hits, it rips the rigging off of the surface vessel, dropping it into the Trough. This drags the rig to the edge but not into it.

During the initial rescue mission, Lindsey, in a submersible, experiences a power failure and sees a strange object emitting a soft light. When it leaves, her power is restored, and she later calls the phenomenon a “non-terrestrial intelligence” (NTI).

The NTI apparently can manipulate sea water and sends a sort of water tentacle into the rig. It behaves mainly with curiosity and the crew even appears amused by it. Coffey, who is suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome (yes, it’s a thing), is becoming increasingly paranoid, and whatever plans the Navy had for the nuclear device, he decides to drop it into the Trough, thinking the object is some sort of Soviet submarine.

As it was being dragged toward the Trough, the rig was damaged and partially flooded killing several of the crew and some of the SEALs.

As Coffey steals a submersible taking the armed warhead with him, Bud and Lindsey give chase. Only two SEALS remain on board, one being captured while the other is sympathetic with the crew and offers to help.

Coffey manages to send the warhead over the edge, but his craft is pulled in as well, and is crushed by the tremendous pressure.

Bud and Lindsey’s craft is critically damaged and begins flooding. Bud is the only one wearing a diving suit and Lindsey opts for undergoing deep hypothermia in the ocean’s depths hoping to be revived when Bud gets her back to the rig.

Impossibly, that actually works and she seems to suffer no ill-effects.

The remaining Navy SEAL helps Bud don a diving suit equipped to provide a liquid breathing medium which will enable him to dive into the impossible depths of the Trough to disarm the nuclear device.

He undergoes tremendous shock, but is tethered to reality by Lindsey’s voice over the radio. The SEAL talks Bud through the disarming process, but he doesn’t have enough oxygen to get back up in time. He texts Lindsey that he knew it was a one-way ticket and that he loves her.

At the last minute, a group of NTIs rescue Bud, take him aboard one of their alien craft, and provide him with a breathing space. In the extended version of the film, they show him television broadcasts of the impending war and the general violence of humanity. Using their ability to manipulate the sea, they send huge megatsunamis that threaten every coastal area of the world.

Then they stop, showing Bud his text messages to Lindsey, indicating that his love for her and his willingness to sacrifice his life to save them changed their minds.

In the last scene, the aliens lift the entire rig plus several other ships to the surface, now that the hurricane has passed.

Happy ending.

Okay, the whole “I hate you” to “I love you” between Bud and Lindsey because of an extraordinary event echoes just about every romantic comedy I’ve ever seen and was pretty predictable.

I was expecting the movie to be darker, with the undersea creatures being menacing. This was more like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” but underwater. It also had the flavor of Gene Roddenberry’s original concept for Star Trek; an encounter with aliens that resulted in peace for all humanity. At least that’s what the film’s ending implies.

Filmmaker James Cameron seems to love working with actor Michael Biehn, since we also see Biehn in his films The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986).

I love a good, underwater adventure. This was was pretty good, but for some reason, I keep feeling it’s missing something. Maybe I just wanted the aliens to be more edgy.

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5 thoughts on “Film Review of “The Abyss: Special Edition” (1989)

  1. When you think about aliens, you generally have to consider that they travelled a long way to get here — neglecting, for the moment, cross dimensional travelers — so their motivation for travelling so far had to be a strong one, either benign or destructive. They wouldn’t come all that way just to be wishy-washy and conflicted, or to use your term, “edgy”. So that makes them likely to fit one of two extreme patterns: either angels or demons. Post-WW2 scifi of the 1950s tended to be pessimistic and view them as dangerous high-tech enemies. Roddenberry’s vision of the 1960s was an optimistic one, looking for hope and assistance from first-contact high-tech aliens like the Vulcans. Of course, he didn’t envision an overly simplified monochromatic view, so he peopled his universe with complex and conflicted races of pseudo-humans who could play out questions of human conflict on an exaggerated level, including not only the mostly-benign Vulcans but also violent Klingons and aggressive Romulans, and others with whom to negotiate like Andorians, Orions, Tellarites, Tholians, Malcotians and others. The United Federation of Planets was thus a reflection of the early optimism about the UN as a forum that could mitigate conflicts and foster peaceful negotiations and treaties. The Abyss chose to depict its underwater aliens as rather angelic in character, though dangerous nonetheless and capable of functioning as agents of judgment and destruction against human wickedness — despite their ultimately merciful decision. Your comparison with “Close Encounters…” was apt, considering that both envisioned variations of the “first-contact” between sapient species, though “CE” didn’t include the moral evaluation of human behavior. That aspect might be better compared to the 1951 version of “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, except that the aliens of the Abyss weren’t offering humans a choice about changing their behavior in response to an impending threat — though one might infer that their merciful withholding of destruction at least permitted such a choice once the full information about the incident would become widely known. But perhaps the film should be credited with not being excessively preachy about its several kinds of moralizations.

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    • It was only the special edition that leaned heavily on the aliens’ judgment of humanity. I think Cameron wanted to include all that footage in the theatrical release, but the film had to be cut down for time. As far as my desire for aliens to be more “edgy,” I think it was more the mood I was in when I went into watching the movie.

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  2. I saw this film in Westwood, near UCLA, when it came out and one of the perks of going to movies in that area was you usually wound up with some goodies. In this case, it was a special program (and I think I still have that floating around somewhere) with still shots and info about the film.

    I enjoyed the theatrical release a lot, possibly because of my early days working on rigs (on land, not underwater) and it was fun seeing that be a huge part of the film. The director’s cut was also nice because it helped fill in some of what the first release had cut out for time and overall made the film that much better.

    I liked how the “bad guy” in the film, Biehn was developed. He was just evil because someone needed to be. There were circumstances that drove him to that state and he was actually doing what he thought was right, though he was wrong and unable to see this because of the mental state he was in through no fault of his own.

    I like that kind of a protagonist much better. Much like Ed Harris’ character a few years later in “The Rock”. He was a good man driven to do a terrible thing for a good cause.

    I’d give the film a 4.5 out of 5.

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    • This is the sort of movie I would have gone to the theater to see back in the day, but by 1989 I was married with children and went to movies that the missus could handle. This wouldn’t have been on the list.

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  3. We had this on DVD and enjoyed it better than the theatre release (which we had on video) because it went back to the book. The special effects were really good though I think they could have made more of the NTIs, but then it would have been too much like Close Encounters (which I also enjoyed having seen two versions of that too)

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