JamesCameron? has always had a talent for writing working-class characters, and here he surpasses himself with a motley collection of divers, oil rig workers, and truckers manning the DeepCore 2, the world's first submarine oil rig. A lesser movie would have succumbed to the temptation to make the DeepCore brand-new and high-tech, populated with the best and the brightest (compare "Deep Blue Sea", a movie with a similar setting which does exactly that). Cameron wisely avoids that trap, and portrays the DeepCore as a cramped, messy industrial workplace. The crew, a collection of homegrown, salt-of-the-earth types, goes a long way towards building that impression, and the supporting cast (especially Leo Burmeister as 'Catfish') does a wonderful job of bringing them to life. Consequently, the movie has a feel of honesty and realism lacking from many more polished Hollywood productions.
Of course, one of the main reasons "The Abyss" feels so realistic is that so much of it ""is"" real. Cameron is a director who always prefers to shoot 'real-for-real' (this is the guy who actually filmed footage of the wreck of the Titanic for inclusion in the movie of that name). In true Cameron style, since the movie was set underwater, significant portions of it were filmed underwater. The Abyss' production team, unable to find a filming tank big enough to hold the DeepCore set, as well as several other underwater settings, converted the empty reactor containment vessel and cooling tower of a nuclear power plant into two enormous filming tanks- both so large that the cast could be certified as open-water scuba divers while training in it. Nearly all of the underwater sequences in this film were filmed in those tanks, largely with the actual actors (stunt doubles appeared only in a few of the most dangerous shots). Cameron also comissioned a marine-equipment company to build special dive helmets with unusually wide faceplates, to allow the audience to identify the characters more readily.
What really holds the film together, though, are the performances of Ed Harris (Apollo 13) and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) in the lead roles of Bud and Lindsey Brigman, an estranged husband and wife who are thrown together against their will when a storm leaves the DeepCore stranded 2000 feet below sea level. Ed Harris, years before his "Apollo 13" academy award, gives a wonderfully grounded performance as Bud, a down-to-earth, unexcitable man thrown into a situation that would be more than enough to excite anybody. He simply radiates presence, and is immediately convincing as a man capable of leading his motley crew to hell and back (and, indeed, he very nearly has to do just that). Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is equally good as Lindsey, the DeepCore's designer, universally regarded as a "cast iron bitch." She accomplishes the nearly impossible by making Lindsey, initially a cold and unfriendly character, not only believable throughout, but even likable and sympathetic. The high point of her performance comes near the end, when she finds herself trapped in a leaking submarine. What ensues I will not describe for those who have not seen it, but thanks largely to her performance, it is one of the most unforgettable scenes in film history.
Underlying all this, as with most of Cameron's movies, is a subtle but deep theme, humanity's capacity for self-destruction (one of his favorites). The plot is set in motion by the unexplained crash of an American nuclear submarine, and as the DeepCore crew struggles to survive, events on the surface above them spiral towards nuclear war. As he notes in a fascinating essay on the Abyss DVD, after "Aliens", he wanted to do a movie with no boogeyman except the human race- the aliens in this movie are benevolent, and the danger they pose to us is just the danger that we pose to ourselves. The Cold-War-era setting dates the film, but the possibility of nuclear destruction is just as present now as it was then, and in that sense the film has lost none of its relevance.
This is the only movie I've ever seen that had a novelization better than the movie. But that isn't too surprising, since the novelization was written by OrsonScottCard?, writer of a significant fraction of my favorite books. I can't do a detailed review of the book, unfortunately, as I loaned it to my dad several years ago, and he lost it. If anyone comes across a copy of it, you should grab it. It's worth it. It's worth it just for the in-depth characterisation alone, which really helps you to understand why the characters in the movie do what they do. -AdamField