The Abyss

NOTE: This review regards the “special edition” released five years after the theatrical release. I’ve not seen the original cut, but knowing James Cameron, the difference is most likely another forty minutes of special effects to amaze a curious sci-fi audience.  As far as running time, the theatrical edition clocks in at two hours, nineteen minutes, whereas the “special edition runs for two hours, fifty-one minutes.

Bottom Line: Time consuming, not the classic I expected, but still pretty interesting.

“…when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you.” –Friedrich Nietzsche

Directed by: James Cameron
Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn

Leave it to James Cameron when you want an immeasurably large production. And the original cut was just the foreground for what became a grand piece. In most cases, a special edition is a DVD reissue with the addition of extras such as deleted scenes, cast interviews, and director’s commentary. Maybe a subtle six seconds of footage are added. James Cameron brings a whole new definition for this term. 1989 saw the original release of THE ABYSS, with not even two and a half hours of running time. Since then, this has been extended to just short of three hours, in a refurbishment quite unambitiously billed a “special edition”.

The plot is actually quite simple. Essentially, it’s a combination of Cameron’s sea passion and his sci-fi passion. Think TITANIC meets ALIENS. Or, if you aren’t quite familiar with either of those classics, for whatever reason, think of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, then elongate it to the point at which the (fewer) people aboard begin exploring the depths of the abyss, with some dazzling alien sequences evenly intertwined.

I hadn’t ever seen THE ABYSS before now. In fact, it and PIRANHA TWO: THE SPAWNING remained for a long while the only two Cameron-directed feature films I hadn’t seen. After deciding to rattle off the last two, I immediately jumped to renting the extension. I know Cameron can’t let me down, as my absolute favorite director (in a tie with Hitchcock and Allen), and I always want to watch as much as possible of a film, so I thought it to be a great idea. For the first forty minutes or so, it wasn’t. The “shallowness” (pun fully intended) of the exposition seemed overlong, and I’d assume it was because of the addition of new material. The informal language, as well, got to me. Then, I started to realize something odd. As the tension started building up, I felt that nearly every minute of the opening was necessary, and the casualty and sarcasm the characters were using pervasively was continuing, but strengthening the believability.

After all the great things I’d heard about THE ABYSS, I was a bit disappointed with it. Yes, certain scenes put special effects to a mind-blowing use, and my heart was racing frequently, but something seemed all too different about it. Maybe it’s because I’m a die hard Cameron fan, and this just wasn’t what I was used to. With films such as AVATAR, ALIENS, and (most notably) TITANIC, he has always seemed to have a unique strength to grasp a hold on an audience’s attention and stay that way for endless amounts of time. Even in a promising “special edition”, that ability just wasn’t here in this movie. On the other hand, it was a delight to experience his usual batch of very strong female characters, larger-than-life photography, and distinct sense of adventure. I found this to be only a hint stronger than what I would call a mixed bag, but it’s worth a watch. (If you have the time.)

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