At the outset, this almost looks like a 1980s reboot of the 1960s TV series Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea.
There's a nuclear submarine. It encounters an alien monster. It crashes. Cue lots of shots of extras falling left across the set, falling right across the set, and various nostalgic commands getting barked at sub-ordinates in response:
"Hard right rudder!"
"Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!"
(alright that last one might have been from Tour Of Duty)
So far, this was pure retrotainment, and in my living-room I was cheering on for the hoped-for appearance of two silver-suited aliens (played by castmembers from the reboot of Lost In Space over in the next studio) with a brightly-coloured three-buttoned device that would need to be wrested off of them some 45 minutes thence.
Sadly, said shiny humanoids never blinked into existence with a puff of smoke. In their place instead stood Scrubs' Bob Kelso. Smiling at everyone before suddenly growling at them all to get back to work. Oh, well, he's good value too.
James Cameron's The Abyss is an absorbing action movie in which the tension never lets up. Like Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, it does require the viewer to check their brains at the box office (=DVD shop) (=bizarre Channel 4 ident) (=irritating phone sponsorship), but if you ignore the extreme amount of total nonsense that the characters get away with (and this film has an ocean of it) then it's gripping excitement all the way.
The episodic dangers, the claustrophobia, even the effects are almost all enchantingly believable. At several points in this watery disaster-movie I think I was slightly holding my breath. When two of the characters have to swim outside of their artificial structure (I still don't quite know what it was) to re-enter through a different air-lock, I found afterwards that I was wondering what had happened to their third crewmember behind them. Then I realised that the third crewmember was me.
If that's not great film-making, then I don't know what is.
The best scene is when Virgil and his estranged wife Lindsey are in a minisub (or whatever they call it) that is filling up with water. They only have one diving suit. So Virgil takes it, and hugs Lindsey as she dies in his arms. Awful, moving, fantastic drama. Utterly utterly ruined by having them later bring her back to life. Following this event, nothing else in the movie stands any chance of feeling risky.
Aside from because I missed this at the cinema where I was working in 1989 (it was released the week after I left), one of the reasons why I've been wanting to get a look at this film was to see director James Cameron's use of frame-rate. In the event I couldn't detect this, so I'm pleased to report that the film done its job well.
The title 'The Abyss' is a brave one, because it invites cruel puns on the word 'abysmal'. It certainly isn't, but neither is it very deep.
Mind you, what began as Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea finishes up as a weird mixture of 2001 and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
If you can sit through those two, then you're laughing.
Just remember to take breaks to breathe.