A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that there's a fair amount of salty language in this ocean thriller. The camera exposes bare breasts in a medical-emergency context. Violent acts include death by drowning, hand-to-hand combat, and a threat of nuclear annihilation. Young viewers with fears of the water and/or claustrophobia might be uncomfortable with vivid portrayals of drowning and submersible environments. A scene -- not faked -- in which a domesticated rat is immersed in breathable liquid is a real don't-try-this-with-the-family-pet-at-home moment. The US military doesn't come off looking particularly good.
What's the story?
An American nuclear submarine bristling with atomic warheads encounters the deep-sea equivalent of a UFO and loses all power and contact with the outside world. As Cold-War tensions with the Soviet Union escalate, the US Navy conscripts the civilian oil-rig workers of an experimental underwater drilling platform to mount a deep-sea "rescue" expedition (it turns out to be more ominous than that) to the unresponsive sub, while a hurricane whips up the ocean surface. Things get worse; the platform is itself battered and crippled in an accident, and the commanding SEAL officer (Michael Biehn) becomes mentally unstable under the pressure -- even more so when the luminous, enigmatic, inquisitive UFO aliens return to check out the stressed humans up close.
Is it any good?
Lots of orchestral crescendos and awesome visuals in this huge-scale underwater epic. The film was so highly touted in its production phase that rival Hollywood studios had time to get lookalike (and inferior) marine sci-fi flicks (Deep Star Six and Leviathan, if you had to ask) already in theaters by the time perfectionist director James Cameron released THE ABYSS. Even then, Cameron was less than satisfied, and in DVD and VHS you can find both the original Abyss and a "special edition" that attempted to better blend the alien-first-contact story into the plot. Even so, it mixes like the proverbial oil and water. Cameron's realization of the characters' high-tech, deep-sea survival ordeal is so fascinating (and excruciatingly suspenseful) in its own right that the sci-fi element seems intrusive -- a Close Encounter of the Rather Unnecessary Kind.
Younger viewers who can even tolerate the likes of Jar Jar Binks will be more accepting of the aliens. James Cameron later dispensed with the UFO stuff to offer a vivid documentary nature feature Aliens of the Deep.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about ocean exploration and living underwater, and how much of the astounding aquatic technology shown here is the real deal, shot by James Cameron in one of the largest underwater tank-sets ever built -- not sci-fi CGI. Dwelling for long periods beneath the surface of the sea poses many of the same challenges as setting up space colonies. Ask kids what they would prefer -- manning a space station or a submarine platform? How would they have dealt with the unstable Navy SEALS here in a more constructive manner?
- In theaters: August 6, 1989
- On DVD or streaming: February 11, 2003
- Cast: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn
- Director: James Cameron
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
- Genre: Science Fiction
- Run time: 140 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: language and some scenes of action.
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