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‘The Abyss’ (PG-13)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 09, 1989
Like the Titanic, "The Abyss" was a deluxe cruise till it went down. Deemed unsinkable, the undersea thriller had a budget that would choke a beluga. Director Jim Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd, creators of "The Terminator" and "Aliens," seemed unstoppable. And then they met their waterlulu.
The movie is a veritable chowder of chills. Like Red Lobster's seafood sampler, it offers a taste of everything from psychotic aquanauts to psychedelic jellyfish. When it comes to calamity, Cameron doesn't discriminate, confronting his heroic divers with marital problems, missile crises, leaky valves, WWIII and hurricanes. And then there are the NTIs (non-terrestrial intelligences), which "The Abyss" needs like a rowboat needs tires.
Nevertheless, it gets off to a quick start with the foundering of a nuclear submarine. Swept off course by some mysterious force, the sub comes to rest on the brink of the Cayman Trough, a four-mile-deep Caribbean canyon. A rowdy-but-lovable team of oil drillers stationed in Deepcore, a nearby underwater habitat, reluctantly joins a rescue mission led by a spit-and-polish team of Navy SEALs. As the clunky Deepcore, a claustrophobic's nightmare, is towed to the wreck, a hurricane cuts off its umbilical line to the mother ship and the roustabouts are as alone as newborn tadpoles.
Ed Harris plays Bud Brigman, the courageous rig foreman whose mellow style grates on Deepcore's project engineer -- Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his almost ex-wife, Lindsey. Dubbed "the queen bitch of the universe," Lindsey is the terror of the tightly knit nine-person crew. Like Ripley in "Aliens," she is a Fembo, an unfeeling, and therefore unnatural, female.
She rebukes a colleague for calling her Mrs. Brigman. "I didn't like being called that even when it meant something." Like Scotty on the Starship Enterprise, she's always muttering and puttering about her habitat.
"I've got four years invested in this rig. And three in the marriage. You've got to have priorities," she says to the honey-cup Bud, who won't give up on love and still wears his wedding ring. Inevitably, close encounters and shared dangers will bring the couple back together (inevitably because the plot, with its deus ex machina, is laid out like Hansel and Gretel's bread-crumb trail).
The Brigmans must not only shore up the flooding Deepcore but also stave off Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), the SEAL leader who succumbs to PIP (pressure-induced psychosis), takes a ballistic missile from the downed sub and starts waving it around like a handgun. Then, mistaking the friendly NTIs for Russians, he decides to nuke 'em.
Torn between fantasy and fear-baiting, "The Abyss" flounders between the creepy corridors inside and the godlike critters -- "Cocoon" fledglings? -- outside in their giant Melmac saucer. (How many times can we be awestruck by Day-Glo Gumbies? And why do these creatures always travel with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?)
About 40 percent of the movie, persuasively soggy, was shot underwater. But to their credit, Cameron and Hurd (his producer and ex-wife) always focus on the humanity, not the hardware, wedding emotions and effects, tears and brine.
So the neatly designed Deepcore boasts an ingratiating crew, an eclectic platoon of scruffy guys and gal. Standouts are Hippy (Todd Graff), the clowning paranoid; Catfish (Leo Burmester), the countrified welder; and One Night (Kimberly Scott), the best dang submersible pilot in the whole dang ocean. You know them, you love them, they're gonna get killed.
Now for the acting: With cheekbones like oar blades, Harris is the handsomely chiseled hero with a heart of gold. He proves that he still has the right stuff for a romantic lead.
The naturally evocative Mastrantonio at first seems burdened by her cast-iron role but then pets an NTI and is transformed. When Coffey insists the NTI ship is a Russian bogy and Brigman seems persuaded, the former bitch queen coos, "He sees with hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that." Next thing you know she is plumb proud to be Mrs. Brigman.
Cameron says he thought the yarn up while attending high school in Niagara Falls. Is there any wonder that it's wet but not deep? "The Abyss" asks us to believe that the drowned return to life, that the comatose come to the rescue, that driven women become doting wives, that Neptune cares about landlubbers. I'd sooner believe that Moby Dick could swim up the drainpipe.
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