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EMPIRE ESSAY: The Abyss Review

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When the crew of an underwater oil rig are enlisted to assist in the rescue of an American nuclear submarine at the height of the Cold War, they discover a strange and mysterious force living in the deep and their rescue mission becomes an adventure into the wondrous and the unknown.

★★★★

James Cameron, it's said, is prone to nightmares. And people who agree to appear in his films tend to wind up sharing them. In the case of The Abyss, his fourth movie, the nightmare was of a towering tidal wave rolling across an endless ocean. But the nightmare he inflicted on his cast and crew would not happen on the sea's surface, but 40 feet under pitch black water in a half completed nuclear power station cooling pond in Gaffney, South Carolina. It was, in a precursor of the immense tank he would build for Titanic, the largest underwater set ever constructed. And it made Ed Harris cry.

Tales of the making of The Abyss (or "The Abuse" as key grips bleakly wisecracked) are legion. There was the over-chlorinated water that made actor's hair turn green then white. There were the crew dives so long and deep that hours of depressurisation was required. There was Cameron himself, dangling upside down in a depressurisation tank to relieve the pain inflicted by his diving helmet while watching dailies through an inches thick glass porthole. And there was Ed Harris, pulling his car over on the way back to the hotel after another day in the tank and suddenly bursting into tears. "Life's abyss," read the inevitable, sarcasticly daubed crew tee-shirt. "And then you dive."

But if the garish stories surrounding the Abyss' hellish incubation are entirely typical of Cameron, then the movie that emerged is equally so. Bombastic, spectacular, loud, ambitious and flawed, it's Cameron at his exuberant, crowd-pleasing best. Mention the word "subtlety" to
the crazed Canuck and he might well look at you as if you'd just suggested he and his sister get down and beat out the rhythm of love (after all this is the man who announced "Merchant Ivory can kiss my ass!" when quizzed on the period detail of Titanic). But no living director, with the possible exception of Steven Spielberg, works so hard to utterly involve an audience, put the budget on the screen and deliver a deliriously good time.

Essentially The Abyss bolts the wondrous lightshows of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to the humanist message of The Day The Earth Stood Still and transplants the resulting cocktail to a disabled undersea drilling rig thousands of feet beneath the ocean on the cusp of a fathomless trench where an American nuclear submarine has recently run aground. Trapped in a glorified leaky tin can with the oxygen running out, Cameron's cast of hardbitten grease-monkeys led by Virgil "Bud" Brigman (Harris) witness spectacular, ephemeral glowing creatures floating in the inky blackness while they battle both the rapidly expiring time and the increasingly schizoid American military, represented by SEAL Michael Biehn, who are bent on nuking the watery critters.

Grouchy critics whinged that Cameron's movie seemed to be more interested in technology than people and indeed this is science fiction at the nuts and bolts level. Cameron's camera drifts lovingly over the meticulously researched sub-aquatic sets delivering a kind of hard-core techno-porn. Mini-subs (designed by Cameron's brother, who not only pioneered the technology required for the Titanic shoot but essays the challenging role of "dead sailor with crab crawling out of mouth") glide around the drilling rig; live rats are submerged in oxygenated fluorocarbons (for real, much to the chagrin of the British censors who snipped the scene even though none of the five rodents dunked suffered any ill-effects) and in a CG sequence that was, given the newness of the technology, breathtaking, the water itself forms into a snaking, glistening tentacle.

Which leads us to the much maligned ending. Or rather couple of endings since Cameron, stung by criticisms of the original conclusion forced on him by the studio, released a special edition with an extended final sequence. In truth, neither of them are any good; the second only adding some cod-motivation for the underwater aliens' revealing themselves (that hoary old cliche: stock newsreel footage of concentration camps and H-Bomb blasts — well that'll justify the destruction of humanity then) as well as some distinctly dodgy tidal wave effects to conclude.

But like the majority of Cameron's work, there is a human element. Melodramatic and overblown perhaps, but it's there most obviously in the sequence where Virgil has to watch his wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) drown and be revived in front of him. Here he delivers the kind of cash-and-carry bulk buy emotion with which he habitually fills the screen. As we said, subtlety is not Cameron's forte; impact is.

The problem is that, direct rip-off of Close Encounters that it is, it requires the one emotion that Cameron simply can't put on celluloid: innocent wonder. As it would be if Spielberg tried to direct a 200 pound muscle-bound cyborg blowing seven shades of guano out of a police station, director and sequence simply don't gel.

Many audiences tumbled out of multiplexes bemoaning the final daft ten minutes rather than reeling at the preceding 136. Ironically enough it is The Abyss' attempt to go deep that is it's only flaw.