The Abyss (1989)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 April 2012 (6.15 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

As I write these words, Titanic – a film first released in 1997 and repolished in 3D – is once again number one at the UK Box Office. Whatever your thoughts on the merits of the record breaking watery disaster epic, it seems clear enough that James Cameron knows how to fashion a blockbuster. This wasn’t his first foray into aquatic adventure, however; arguably, he did it better with The Abyss, made almost a decade earlier.

Like Titanic, The Abyss scored major points for its ground-breaking special effects. The early CGI that turned liquid surfaces into water was really something at the time, though limited (it would be deployed to much better effect for the jaw-dropping action sequences of Terminator 2 in 1991), and it wasn’t enough to save the film from a bit of a commercial ducking. Filmed mainly in an enormous tank of water, this tale of a deep sea diving team that finds it isn’t alone in the ocean was criticised for being over-long, slow paced and downright dull, and in fairness there are long swathes of The Abyss where not very much happens.

What it does have is tension, the kind of natural suspense that comes from an appreciation of the team’s fragility. Hundreds of feet underwater and joined by a Navy Seals detachment that has its own agenda, there’s a permeable sense of threat, a gentle unease that slowly becomes more pronounced over the film’s running time. The aliens, when they appear, are quite different from anything seen beforehand and there’s a neat logic to how they manipulate water to move around. Not everyone in the team feels friendly toward the visitors, though, and meanwhile a rise in natural disasters above the surface is defying explanation and becoming more catastrophic in nature…

Unfortunately, the version shown here is the theatrical cut, which truncates the film’s conclusion and loses much of the logical sense that only becomes apparent in the expanded special edition (boosted by more than thirty minutes). It seems the original cut was approved by Cameron himself, presumably to remain as close to the two hour preferred length as possible but in the process excising much of the film’s point. A shame, though not a mistake he would repeat as Titanic broke the three hour barrier and sailed past every record for ticket receipts.

The Abyss: ***

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