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This movie won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

‘The Abyss’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 11, 1989

Chances are you've seen James Cameron's sea epic "The Abyss," because chances are you've seen James Cameron's space epic, "Aliens."

And "Close Encounters." And "E.T."

We're talking space in a tub, actually a converted 7-million-gallon nuclear containment building. We're talking astronauts in wetsuits, with underwater solo orbits by Ed "John Glenn" Harris. And we're talking aliens who don't exactly phone home but do call in for messages.

But hold the phone. The Ending, as many moviegoers and other philosophers will refer disparagingly to the Industrial Light & Magic finale, is -- like UFO sightings -- best ignored. Before this voyage plummets into Stevie Spielberg's locker, the human stuff is more than worth the descent, particularly the on-the-rocks marriage between hardy underwater rigger Harris and no-nonsense rig designer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

Part of a rescue crew searching for survivors of a grounded nuke-sub, they battle nature's elements (a hurricane named Fred, deep-sea diving sans aqualung) and mankind's elements (cabin-crazy partners and gung-ho Navy psychos) in what amounts to an epic encounter-group session. Harris, whose authority grows geometrically with each performance, seems likely bait for an Oscar nomination, as does Mastrantonio with her Margaret Thatcher-to-Lazarus odyssey.

Todd Graff (the funny trash-toter in "Dominic and Eugene") brings in seagoing relief as the rig's friendly paranoid, and players Michael Biehn, Leo Burmester, Kimberly Scott and others shore up their performances; look also for a "straight" cameo from Letterman loonie Chris Elliot (you keep waiting for him to look at the camera and say, "Daaave, it's me.").

Speaking of awards, producer Gale Anne Hurd and Cameron (the team that also gave you "The Terminator") has assembled a navy of technical talents, including editor Joel Goodman, production designer Leslie Dilley, and directors of photography Mikael Salomon and Al Giddings. The gee-wow factor is firmly in place -- although visual effects producer Laura Buff, visual effects supervisor John Bruno, Dream Quest Images and the aforementioned Industrial Light & Magic seem to have been supervised by Mickey Mouse.

But we weren't going to talk about the special-effects hokum. We were going to enjoy the cabin-feverish suspense of "Abyss" in which, underwater, no one can hear you blow bubbles.

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