James Cameron has made better movies--Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens--but The Abyss is an incredible effort in its own right, and monumentally superior to Cameron’s Oscar-winning Titanic.
The two movies have plenty in common--water, spectacular effects, weak dialogue, painfully contrived conflict--but whereas the first hour-and-a-half of Titanic’s love story is dreadfully boring, The Abyss is never tedious. Cameron continually hurtles the story forward with thrilling sequences of underwater action and stunning visuals.
Bud (Ed Harris) and his deep-sea oil rig team of divers, Catfish (Leo Burmester), Hippy (Todd Graff), Jammer (John Bedford Lloyd), Sonny (JC Quinn) and One Night (Kimberly Scott), are enlisted by the US government to track down a nuclear submarine, armed with active warheads, that mysteriously crashed fathoms below the surface.
They are joined by a team of Navy SEALS commanded by the overzealous Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn) and the oil rig’s designer, Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who also happens to be Dud’s soon-to-be ex-wife. After several harrowing adventures, they discover they are not alone, Steven Spielberg has shown up with a phosphorescent, sentient alien species who have come to Earth to warn us against nuclear annihilation. And Lt. Coffey, of course, wants to kill them.
Cameron’s genius is in realizing the impossible. When he wrote the script, he described effects that weren’t even invented yet. As a matter of fact, the “morph” technology he used in The Abyss was developed specifically for the film and became one of the most important advances in computer-generated imaging. Whether Cameron is “King of the World” is debatable, but he is a potentate of special effects filmmaking.