Out of all the James Cameron movies, The Abyss seems to be the one that’s forgotten more often than others despite being quite an interesting science fiction mystery. In fact, the special effects on The Abyss could be considered the precursor to what was later done on Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
In other words, the movie is not only notable for its unusual story, but also for its achievements in the field of visual effects (for which it won the Academy Award). Fortunately for those who loved this underrated gem, there are other movies similar in concept or atmosphere.
Updated on July 10th, 2021 by Mark Birrell: Writer and director James Cameron made some of the best sci-fi movies of the 1980s and rounded out his groundbreaking accomplishments in the decade with the success of The Abyss. His earlier films, The Terminator and Aliens, still stand as must-sees for fans of any of his work but there are other similar movies that should be streamed by fans too, many of them sitting in relative obscurity and others being essential classics of the genre.
10 Sphere (1998)
● Available on Fubo TV and Showtime
Though a flop with critics on release, this star-studded adaptation of Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name has developed a more appreciative following over the years thanks to its unusual story.
The plot is very similar to The Abyss in a lot of respects as it follows a team of scientists as they travel to the seafloor to study a mysterious craft. Down there, they begin to experience horrifically bizarre events as they attempt to wrap their heads around the power contained within the ship, and fans of The Abyss‘ more intense moments should find their attentions grabbed throughout.
9 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
● Available on HBO Max
Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi classic can be considered a source of inspiration for just about every single movie set in space that was released after it if not every science-fiction film in general.
The movie has a looser kind of narrative structure that revolves around mysterious monoliths that are unearthed by humanity in–what was back in the late ’60s–the near future, with a secretive mission venturing deep into space to find answers only for the ship’s AI to turn on the crew. Fans of the darker elements of The Abyss will not be left wanting by the terrifying HAL 9000 computer and their deadly descent into paranoia and many of the groundbreaking effects remain stunning to this day.
8 Interstellar (2014)
● Available on FXNow
Christopher Nolan clearly drew from the inspiring designs of 2001: A Space Odyssey for his own space opera movie with a comparable–if more conventional–plot. It follows a team of astronauts following what seems to be an alien invitation to move humanity from the dying Earth to a new habitable galaxy.
Their perilous journey may take them into a lot of apocalyptically stressful situations but it never really strays into the domain of horror, echoing the more upbeat sentiments about contacting alien life shown in movies like The Abyss. Fans of James Cameron’s epic sense of scale will also appreciate the movie’s dedication to gargantuan IMAX shots.
7 Super 8 (2011)
● Available on Pluto TV, Prime Video, and Paramount+
J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is an homage to classic ’80s kid-led movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Goonies. The difference is that Super 8 focuses even more on its mystery elements while also integrating some action and horror sequences.
Set in 1979 in a fictional town in Ohio, the movie follows a group of kids making their own Super 8 movie. While filming a scene on a train station, they see a train derailing and an alien escaping from it. It’s a wholly different take on first contact than the one seen in The Abyss but one built out of similar influences.
6 Cube (1997)
● Available on Tubi, Prime Video, Vudu, and Pluto TV
For those who enjoyed the darker, horror-like elements of The Abyss, Cube will be the perfect movie to watch next. This sci-fi story is somewhat of a predecessor to Saw, but instead of focusing on horror, it hangs more on the mystery of what’s going on and why the characters are in their predicament.
The plot sees a group of strangers waking up to discover that they’ve been trapped in a strange structure that appears to be a cube filled with cells also in the shape of cubes that are all connected to one another. To get out, they need to get around the numerous traps located almost in every cell they get to and it’s an extremely smart use of the kind of confined metal spaces that movies like The Abyss helped popularize within the genre.
5 Alien (1979)
● Available on Fubo TV and Prime Video
Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi horror movie pioneered not only the claustrophobic environments that movies like The Abyss would end up utilizing but the kinds of characters also. The crew of the Nostromo revolutionized how general audiences looked at sci-fi characters, no longer needing them to be coldly professional scientists and instead accepting them as relatable workers who flawed personalities like every other type of person.
As the crew tries to figure out just what they’ve brought on board when an alien organism begins killing them one by one, and how they can kill it first, the movie makes its narrow corridors feel like a real spaceship just as, a decade later, The Abyss would use similarly detailed production design to convince the audience that the main characters were really in the depths of the ocean.
4 Prometheus (2012)
● Available on HBO Max
The crew of the Prometheus is much more scientifically-minded than the crew of the Nostromo but they still meet similarly grizzly fates. Fans of The Abyss will enjoy their more thoughtful approach to finding alien life as they investigate what seems to be an ancient invitation handed to humanity by aliens, even if the results of their exploration aren’t as positive, and the inspiring production design remains on point.
3 Contact (1997)
● Available on Showtime
Starring Jodie Foster, Contact is probably one of the most similar movies to The Abyss when it comes to the overall atmosphere. It doesn’t rush its events and takes time to uncover one mystery after another while relying on its sci-fi framing heavily.
Foster plays a SETI scientist who is fascinated by space and discovers evidence of extraterrestrial life. Thanks to her discovery, she is chosen to be the one to make first contact and its reliance on genuine scientific thinking didn’t prevent it from being an emotional and engaging experience like The Abyss.
2 Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
● Available for purchase on Prime Video
Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a classic that has often been compared to Spielberg’s later movie E.T. due to its topic of first contact and the director’s signature atmosphere.
The movie does keep the aliens shrouded in a certain degree of mystery for the most part but its biggest similarity to The Abyss is its sense of wonder during the first contact. Its significance in the development of science-fiction films has typically been somewhat overshadowed by the release of Star Wars that same year, but movies like Super 8 and The Abyss certainly wouldn’t exist without it.
1 The Thing (1982)
● Available on Starz
John Carpenter’s The Thing is equal parts horror and sci-fi with the whole movie being built around a burning mystery. It’s also a feast for the eyes for fans of practical effects as the various alien creatures in the movie have some of the best designs in the genre.
The story follows a group of American researchers in Antarctica who get into contact with a strange, parasitic extraterrestrial creature they call the “Thing” which imitates living organisms. Not knowing who’s human and who’s a convincing replica waiting to eat them, tensions run incredibly high and it’s a must-see for anyone who loved the paranoid elements of The Abyss.
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