James Cameron has made a ton of money based on the simple mantra that size matters, be it the ship, budget, or shooting schedule. The Abyss is Cameron's third legitimate film, and no his inspired Piranha II does not count. Following the success of the Terminator and Aliens, Cameron had enough clout to secure a massive shooting budget and weather extensive studio editing pressures and notorious cost overruns. From my understanding, it was a miserable film set--a controlling director filming underwater on a leaky set would have that kind of effect.
The Abyss is a very derivative film, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. From the opening sequence where puzzled sonar operators aboard a US nuclear submarine detect a fast moving, unidentified swimming object, the film screams Close Encounters of the Oceanic Kind. Thrown off course by the encounter, the sub crashes and sinking its nuclear payload-a problematic turn of events given the crash site is so close to Cuba. The US military calls upon an underwater oil rigging team to help assist in the rescue (ok, so Michael Bay ripped off Cameron here). Brushes with the new species are mistaken as Russian interference by the Bends-suffering SEAL commander Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn, who seems to only be employed by Cameron), and near tragedy ensues.
The rig team is full of flat, cliched characters that could easily be named, Sonny or Hippy or Bud (oh wait, they are). I imagine Cameron recycled some characters that did not make it into the final cut of Aliens. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantino do their best to cultivate an intimate center to the film, but ultimately the divorced-couple-who-still-love-each other-but-don't-realize-it-until-tragedy-strikes lacks any real depth. But, this is not to suggest the film is not a pleasurable viewing experience. Cameron specializes at spectacle, and the Abyss is fun to look at. You need to admire the dedication necessary to film in millions of gallons of cold water.
When it comes to special editions and "director's cuts," I often default to the director's vision as the definitive version. But I have mixed emotions on the alternative ending (but then again, I had similar misgivings regarding the conclusion to the theatrical version). A bit too preachy (and derivative...The Day the Earth Stood Still). I shall refrain from further commentary, lest I spoil the ending.
A fine film. Not Cameron's best.