"The climax of The Abyss is downright embarrassing," said The Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson. USA Today called it "dopey." The New York Times called it "pretentious." "How many times can we be awestruck by Day-Glo Gumbies?" asked The Washington Post. "And why do these creatures always travel with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?"
How fair are these assessments 25 years and a director's cut viewing later? The Abyss was certainly Cameron's most earnest and life-affirming effort up until that point (though Avatar may have surpassed it), largely eschewing the darkness of Aliens and Terminator. The film presents about as bright and optimistic a portrayal of extraterrestrial life as you can find in cinema. The aliens, basically giant underwater neon butterflies, are benevolent angels concerned for some unknown reason with our safety and enlightenment.
The movie’s most exciting scenes—such as the harrowing sequence in which the cramped environs of the deep-sea rig flood—make a strong case for The Abyss as a better disaster movie than a sci-fi one. And its most emotionally effective moments are entirely human, like when Ed Harris's Virgil Brigman breaks down while trying to revive his drowned ex-wife. But the urgency and claustrophobia created by the crew’s predicament dissipates too quickly as the movie starts pursuing its sci-fi aspirations.
And the ending? Well, it does require a sudden plunge into a Fisher-Price universe of peace, understanding, and Willy Wonka-inspired wallpaper, complete with a sort of Disney version of the warp sequence from 2001.
But the plunge seems less sudden when you realize that Cameron’s entire sci-fi filmography has been, basically, about trying to discourage warfare. Again and again in his non-Titanic works, military-industrial might fails to make right:
- In Terminator, he imagined the global arms race backfiring with the instruments of war returning mockingly in human form.
- Aliens, released a little more than a decade after the Vietnam War ended, portrayed a group of colonial marines—distinctly American in voice and appearance—wandering into enemy territory, heavily armed and overconfident in their perceived technological advantage. They were promptly routed (or more accurately, acid-burned and skull-punctured) by a technologically inferior rival.
- Terminator 2 featured an even deadlier robot than the first film, capable of perfectly mirroring human form and, Cameron seems to suggest, human nature.
- In Avatar, once again, an American-style military force (featuring, in a nod to Born on the Fourth of July, a crippled veteran as its lead no less) is defeated by a native populations and pterodactyls in particular.
What’s missing in The Abyss, (and certainly the eco-crazed Avatar) is subtlety. Yet if you don’t mind some heavy-handedness, the film remains as effective an anti-war vehicle as his other work. Like The Hunt for Red October, which would be released eight months later, it draws on Cold War paranoia and attempts to expand on Dr. Strangelove's fears about human error and communication in the era of nuclear war (albeit with a lot less humor than Strangelove). Michael Biehn is sufficiently creepy as the insane Navy SEAL Lieutenant Coffey, who, after being cut off from command and knowledge of the situation on the surface, decides that the logical course of action is to carry out his initial orders and nuke an alien civilization that he believes to be Soviet in origin. That plot line was plenty resonant in summer 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.