Weighing in at an extraordinary $50 million and up, The Abyss, writer-director Cameron's follow up to The Terminator and Aliens, is by far the most substantial of its contemporary pool of underwater action movies.
It gets things right at the start with the pre-credits ping of SONAR, and sets up its plot marvellously as a nuclear submarine is bumped by something unidentified and lodged on an undersea ledge. The navy hire deep sea oil engineer Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) and his estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the submarine rig which Bud captains, to go down into the abyss and check out the sub for survivors. To complicate things they get landed with Lieutenant Coffey (Biehn), a paranoid SEAL who reacts badly to the extreme depth and has to calm his shaking hands by carving chunks out of his arm. Mysterious creatures float around the submarine, and Lindsey thinks they represent a Non-Terrestrial Intelligence. Coffey, however, who has picked up a handy nuclear warhead from the downed ship, thinks they're filthy commies and, in between his ranting, plots to give the visitors a big not hello.
For its first two hours or so The Abyss is absolutely great action-man stuff, capitalising on everyone's fear of the deep and the dark. Shot under impossibly gruelling conditions, it is a damp, claustrophobic movie, full of frail people straining with thick iron bulkheads or being crushed by tons of rushing water as their tin cans rupture. There is one absolutely magical alien special effect involving a seawater pseudopod that explores the rig, but the main business of the film is unbearable suspense. It keeps tossing new problems at its heroes, and Cameron really punishes his cast as the dramatic contrivances pile up - at one point, the hero has to deal with his marital crisis, a raving psycho waving an atom bomb, a topside hurricane, possibly threatening space creatures, a leaky submarine, extreme cold, a diminishing oxygen supply, failing electricity and premature baldness, all at the same time.
Weirdly, the film's problem is that it revs up the tension so much that, like one character's submersible sinking into the high pressure of the titular Abyss, it finally bursts. The climax - as Bud descends to defuse the nuke and meet the aliens - just doesn't work. The inevitable reconciliation with Lindsey and the choked-through-tears communications when it seems one or both of the lovers is going to die simply provoke laughter, and the awe-inspiring special effects finish rings hollow as, nowhere else in this or any previous Cameron film, things turn out to be better than they seem. Cameron's strongest suit as a filmmaker is his hitherto unshakeable belief in the essential malevolence of the universe and the consequent resilience of his heroes and heroines, but here he turns soppy at the end. That major flaw aside, this is top-notch entertainment.