Right, so I watched this a couple of days after it was dictated but the vitriol that would have spewed from me in a review at the time would have been a mess, then I forgot about writing one, so here goes, two and a half months after the fact.
The Abyss is a terrible film, and I don't know which of its many qualities bothered me most, so we'll run down the list. To begin with the acting is horrid and only mildly improves to bad as the film goes on. I actually thought the lead was an Ed Harris lookalike because I couldn't believe he'd give such an awful performance. Admittedly the terrible, corny dialogue would be hard for anyone to work with but everyone here has the charisma and emotional complexity of a paper towel. It's just a series of hollow emotional beats that feel designed to manufacture drama and prolong the torture. Then we get to the cinematography, with Cameron's camera constantly moving and giving different angles. It feels like an attempt to show off his sets and CGI (I felt the exact same way about the nauseating cinematography in Avatar) and I find it to be a constant distraction. It's particularly annoying here because it works against the claustrophobic environment of a submarine. Then we have the score, oh how I hate the score. To be fair, I hate a lot of scores, especially ones like this one that strive to be in your face, or ears I guess, and dictate emotional cues, rather than stay in the background and support the film's emotional cues.
So we have a horrid, to me, presentation, but maybe there's some value in the content. Maybe. The first problem is that the writing is awful. The dialogue is a big part of that, written as if Cameron's only familiarity with human interaction was movie cliches. Even when he's subverting them it's in such a safe and unoriginal way. The story, about these underwater miners drafted to find a submarine, is plodding and unengaging. I guess if, like Cameron, you're in love with the depths of the sea that might be enough, but he makes no effort to transfer that love to the audience, and frankly we see little of the wonders of underwater life. So we see alternating scenes of manufactured peril and stilted emotional progress, plodding for nearly 3 damn hours. It's unending tedium. I made the mistake of watching the long cut, and maybe the theatrical cut would be a bit more bearable, there's certainly plenty of useless stuff to cut, but it wouldn't make it a better film.
OK, so all of that is bad, but Cameron is trying to say something with the film, an important message about humanity's unending self aggression. Sure, and that's the one part that I could almost like, if it weren't so terribly handled. The first problem is that, for all his peace loving ways, Cameron can't help but be in love with militarism and aggression. The way his camera idolizes the soldiers and the way he attributes any defects not to the inherent objectives of military might and structure but to underwater insanity and lack of vision is maddening. The film has several action films that pander to the very human elements he's purportedly trying to criticize, and it does so without a hint of awareness. Then we have the way the message is built up. Everything, and everyone, is a plot device and it really makes any message he's building feel hollow. There isn't an organic construction or destruction of ideals, just a series of scenes and then "oh here's the big revelation, deep isn't it." The kicker, though, is his one departure from artificiality. His decision to use real world footage of human atrocities to highlight the climax of his simplistic message is the height of offensiveness. That scene of Ed Harris's magical alien encounter moved this movie from dull and bad to aggressively horrid. The self congratulatory ending just added to that.
Hmm, seems I still have some vitriol for the film after all.