Picks and Pans Review: The Abyss

updated 08/28/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/28/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Not sure what the title means? Just think "the pits," and you won't be too far off.

Murkily written and directed by James (The Terminator) Cameron, the film takes place mostly underwater and is dimly lighted, fuzzily recorded and confusing. Imagine watching clothes through a glass door in a washing machine.

Harris and Mastrantonio are experts in deep-sea exploration. She's an engineer who designs equipment; he's a technician who uses it. They're married but estranged until they're reunited by a parade of cataclysms. First an American nuclear sub sinks after going off course while chasing a strange light. Then a Navy team, sent down to use Harris's oil-drilling platform to rescue or blow up the sub, goes crazy. There's a hurricane. There are a lot of mysterious maneuvers and battles involving deep-sea vehicles very hard to tell apart. And, of course, there are creatures who live deep in the sea and look like translucent E.T.s with manta ray bodies.

Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd (his ex-wife) also created Aliens, which this film resembles. The atmosphere is similarly claustrophobic. There are imaginative hardware and such creative notions as a pressure-countering, oxygenating liquid that deep-sea divers can "breathe." (A variation on the liquid has been used experimentally on animals.)

Mastrantonio, who goes down to the undersea platform to help Harris, snaps off a lot of macho lines, and the dialogue is full of corny exchanges that reek of rough-and-readiness: "This ain't no drill, Slick," Harris tells a vehicle operator. "Make me proud." "Piece of cake, baby," she replies.

In Aliens, though, it was never hard to tell who the bad guys were or where they were. Here the problems of telling who's who underwater are complicated by a jargon-laden script—full of talk of NTIs (nonterrestrial intelligence), SEALs (sea-air-land teams) and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles)—and editing that chops things into incomprehensible bits. When the creatures from outer space do appear, it's never clear whether they have been living on the bottom for a long time or have just stopped by to stock up on fish sticks.

It's painful to think that $43 million or so was squandered on this movie. In discussing the film, producer Hurd has quoted German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." She may have forgotten that it was also Nietzsche who said, "Hey, Brunhilda, why don't we just stay home and rent Top Gun again instead? Maybe a little sauerbraten pizza and a six-pack..." (PG-13)

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