I saw THE ABYSS on first release at the old Arbor Theater Four. If I recall correctly, the film was in 70mm and THX. I saw the extended, director's cut version of the film at the Paramount many summers ago, long before I began working for the theater.
The film is long and incredibly ambitious. The effects were cutting edge and utilized a brief CGI sequence involving animated, solid water. I remember that when I saw that effect I thought to myself that if an Aquaman movie is ever made, here's the way to display Mera's ability to shape and direct water as a weapon. I'm still waiting for that Aquaman movie. I'm not holding my breath.
The underwater sequences in the film are impressive and the film acts as a dry run (pardon the expression) for Cameron's later undersea quests involving the wreckage of the Titanic. The effects are a convincing mixture of full scale sets, miniatures and scale models. There are sequences that recall scenes from Cameron's ALIENS (the use of industrial, working equipment for action set pieces) and scenes that prefigure AVATAR (benevolent aliens).
The story concerns an underwater oil drilling platform manned by Ed Harris and his crew. When an American submarine is buzzed and sent to the bottom by an unidentified underwater bogie, a team of Navy Seals (led by Michael Biehn) along with the designer of the rig (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) are sent down to the rig and put in charge of a rescue and recovery operation. Complicating matters on the surface are an immense tropical storm and rising geo-political tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
Coffey (Biehn) the leader of the Seal team, begins to suffer from paranoia induced by the descent to the bottom and he recovers a nuclear warhead from the submarine which he plans to use against whatever sunk the American vessel.
Things escalate from bad to worse in a series of events that ratchet up the tension and suspense. The crew is trapped at the bottom of the sea with a madman and an armed nuclear weapon. There are several intensely claustrophobic moments before Harris begins his descent into the abyss to disarm the warhead and discover the truth about what lies in wait at the bottom of the sea.
The last third of the film plays like a cross between CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. The aliens that are revealed to be behind all of the mysterious goings on are definitely benevolent but powerful enough to cause planetary destruction if mankind does not stop fighting amongst itself in needless global conflicts.
Product placement includes Captain Crunch cereal and Coca-Cola soft drinks.
THE ABYSS is a fascinating film. The effects are the star but there's real human drama in the relationship between Harris and Mastrantonio. Cameron raised the film making bar with this one and has kept raising it throughout his career. This one's definitely worth seeing.