Truth be told, this is one of the films I’ve been looking forward to the most in the challenge, if only because my friend and Flickchart developer Nathan pretty much never shuts up about it. But Nathan didn’t give it to me for the challenge – he hasn’t chosen yet, so we’ll see what he comes up with now that one of his favorite casual recs for me is gone.

I’m sort of hot and cold on James Cameron – I think he can be pretty visionary in terms of technology, but he also often risks letting the tech in his film take over the story and characters, Avatar being the chief example of both stunning tech and lackluster/derivative story. Other times, the spectacle wins for me, as in Titanic, and both work together perfectly in Terminator 2. I was very curious to see where The Abyss would fall on the spectrum.


I will note that both my challenger Ben and Nathan suggested I watch the special edition cut, which adds about a half hour. I didn’t watch the theatrical so I don’t know what’s different. Anyway, in this cut, the first literal hour is a sub crashing into a deep chasm in the ocean floor and an oil drilling base being pressed into service to go try to get it out, which, okay, is a decent premise for an action film. But after a brief hint that something more is going on when the sub is going down right in the beginning, it’s an hour before we see anything that starts moving this from undersea adventure to alien invasion (?) film.

This film is really like six films in one. Undersea action/rescue, alien invasion (not totally accurate, but it’s hard to figure out what other word to use), anti-war message film, paranoid thriller, romance/marriage drama, cerebral sci-fi…it’s kind of nuts how many genres and tones are in here, and how often the story shifts course into something COMPLETELY different than it was before. I kind of love that when a film does it well, and I have to say, this one does it pretty well.


One thing Cameron unquestionably excels at is pacing. This film is three hours long (in the cut I watched), and it’s one of the few films in the whole challenge that I haven’t gotten at least a little drowsy during. A lot of action films these days go from high to higher to highest with little time to recover or rest in between, and that’s not enjoyable for me. Cameron knows when to ratchet the tension up, and when to release it and give us some breathing room. My only quibble with that is the first hour did get a little tedious, and there are some other parts that go on a little too long. I’m curious to see the theatrical cut now to see if I might actually like that even better.

The effects are excellent, and really show off again Cameron’s fascinating with underwater photography that would surface again in parts of Titanic. The alien creatures are magnificently beautiful, and the water arm moving through the ship is pretty spectacular. The ending may borrow a little too much from The Day the Earth Stood Still, but (don’t shoot me, classic sci-fi fans) The Abyss does it better and with more feeling. It’s also riffing off 2001: A Space Odyssey a bit, and it doesn’t do it better than that, but it is easy to imagine this being the kind of film Cameron would make if he wanted to make his version of 2001: An Ocean Odyssey.


Stats and stuff…

1989, USA
written and directed by James Cameron
starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how The Abyss entered my chart:

The Abyss beats Three Times
The Abyss beats Sicario
The Abyss loses to Army of Darkness
The Abyss loses to Cafe de Flore
The Abyss beats Little Children
The Abyss loses to The Man with the Golden Arm
The Abyss loses to Miller’s Crossing
The Abyss beats The Haunting (1963)
The Abyss beats Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Abyss beats The Godfather
The Abyss beats 13 Assassins (2010)
The Abyss beats Big Trouble in Little China

Final #768 out of 3640 films on my chart (79%)

It is now my #3 James Cameron film, my #3 Ed Harris film, my #9 Alien Invasion Film, my #15 Psychological Sci-Fi film, my #4 Sea Adventure, and my #9 film of 1989.

The Abyss was recommended by Ben Lott, a friend from the Flickchart group on Facebook.

A few quotes…

Alan “Hippy” Carnes: What is all this stuff?
Ensign Monk: Fluid breathing system, we just got it. You use it when you go really deep.
Alan “Hippy” Carnes: How deep?
Ensign Monk: Deep.
Alan “Hippy” Carnes: HOW deep?
Ensign Monk: It’s classified.

Lindsey: It’s not easy being a cast-iron bitch. It takes discipline, and years of training… A lot of people don’t appreciate that.

Virgil: Hippy, you think everything is a conspiracy.
Alan “Hippy” Carnes: Everything is.

Lindsey: I saw these things. I touched one of them. And… It wasn’t some clunky steel can… like we would build. It glided. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Oh, God, I wish you’d been there. It was a machine. It was a machine, but it was alive. It was like a… like a dance of light. Please. You have to trust me. Now, I don’t think they mean us any harm. I don’t know how I know that. It’s just… a feeling.

Lindsey: We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.

Lt. Coffey: It went straight for the warhead, and they think it’s cute.

Lindsey: I know how alone you feel… alone in all that cold blackness… but I’m there in the dark with you. Oh Bud you’re not alone… Oh, God. You remember that time – you were pretty drunk, you probably don’t remember – but the power went out in that little apartment we had on Orange Street? We were staring at that one little candle, and I, I said something really dumb like, that candle was me, and like every one of us is out there alone in the dark in this life… and you just, you just lit up another candle and you put it beside mine and said “No! See, that’s me. That’s me”… and we stared at the two candles, and then… well, if you remember any of this, I’m sure you remember the next part. But there *are* two candles in the dark. I’m with you. I’ll always be with you Bud, I promise that.

Virgil: Don’t cry baby. Knew this was one way ticket, but you know I had to come. Love you wife.

A few more screenshots…