(Continuing the James Cameron Project… #7 is…)
Intro: If there remained any doubt that James Cameron had fully arrived as a bankable director, the movie posters dispelled it. “He made your heart pound with The Terminator. Then he stopped it with Aliens. Now writer/director James Cameron presents this summer’s most original adventure…” No actors. No pictures. No hints about the plot. Audiences bought The Abyss on just a title and a director.
And why not? Cameron’s success had bought him a truckload of studio goodwill, which he promptly cashed in, securing financing for his very risky and very personal project. While in school, a chance meeting with a commercial diver and a discussion of experimental fluid breathing led Cameron to craft a short story about researchers on the edge of an unknowable underwater chasm. After adapting the short into a mammoth screenplay, Cameron made The Abyss his last film of the 1980’s.
The Movie: A mysterious watercraft buzzes a US nuclear sub, knocking out its power and sending the sub deep into an ocean trench. With an approaching storm and concerns about Soviet theft, the military commissions a civilian team of undersea oil workers to mount a rescue. Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) and the crew of the oil rig “Deep Core” reluctantly welcome a team of Navy SEALs onto their vessel, only to find that Bud’s estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), Deep Core designer and alleged “queen bitch of the universe”, is along for the ride.
The team slogs through this ocean of plotlines to the sub, where all hands are dead but the nukes are blessedly intact. Before the team can call it a day, strange lights appear and dance around the sub, while some members of the crew, including Lindsey, have seriously close encounters. Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), suffering from a bout of pressure sickness, decides the lights are communists and that his SEALs have to blow the sub to keep it safe. This plan only succeeds in wrecking the Deep Core and drowning half the crew, while stranding the rest with little oxygen, less heat, and Coffey’s killer ‘stache!
The aliens take exception to Coffey’s profiling and make contact with a wicked water tentacle. Coffey retorts by going ass over the deep end (figuratively). He straps a warhead to a diving robot, intending to send it down to the Commie aliens and blow them up before they can, um… well, actually it’s not clear, but in his defense he has gone crazy. Bud and Lindsey can’t stop the robot, but they do stop Coffey by sending him ass over the deep end (literally), imploding his craft in the deep pressures of the trench.
An experimental fluid-breathing suit allows Bud to descend three miles into the trench to disarm the bomb and avoid an intergalactic incident. He does so, but doesn’t have air for the trip back. The crew mourns his loss, but the disco-aliens arrive at the dramatically appropriate moment to save him. Inside their underwater city, he watches as they threaten all of humanity with 2,000 foot tidal waves. Turns out they’re mighty displeased at all our shenanigans and nuclear holocaust and what-not. At Bud’s pleading, they let humanity off with a warning and surface their city, to a rousing musical crescendo.
The Scene: The film’s money shot is the water tentacle scene. Dubbed a “pseudopod” in the screenplay, the tentacle rises out of the rig’s moon pool and pokes around, eventually finding and mimicking Lindsey. Interestingly, the scene was intentionally designed to have little impact on the main story, so that it could be removed if the computer effects didn’t pan out. (More below) Left in the film, the scene provides vital proof that Lindsey’s aliens are real, leaving Coffey as the sole voice of insanity against her.
The Line: “Raise your hand if you think that was a Russian water tentacle? Lieutenant? No?” – Lindsey, speaking for all of us who want Coffey to shut up.
The Production: From the shark sinking in Jaws to the set sinking (twice) in Waterworld, the biggest challenge when shooting a water-based film is usually the water. Most of The Abyss was shot in an abandoned nuclear reactor in South Carolina. Crew members spent hours in tanks up to 55 feet deep, deep enough to need decompression before coming up. Cameron himself ran out of air once and had to risk an emergency swim to the surface. He was back five minutes later for the next shot. The actors performed most of their dangerous underwater stunts. Ed Harris nearly drowned. Mastrantonio also nearly drowned. Both allegedly refuse to work with Cameron again. Conditions were so rough that the film developed unofficial titles amongst the crew, such as “Son of Abyss” and “Life’s Abyss and Then You Die”.
Cameron’s work resulted in a three-hour epic that made studio bosses nervous. Worse, test audiences frowned at it. The complaints focused on the tidal wave sequence at the end of the film, and the heavy political message that came with it. It had to go. Later, when computer technology made it cheap and easy to accomplish, Cameron finished the sequence and reincorporated it into the film as his director’s cut, finally completing the film as he originally saw it.
Interesting note: While the fluid breathing Bud undergoes in the film is mocked up (poor Ed Harris had to hold his breath each take), the scene in which a rat is dunked into the fluid was real. Real rat, real breathing fluid. Not surprisingly, the film received a failing grade from the Humane Society. The rat spent the rest of its life paralyzed with mortal terror (probably.)
…A James Cameron Film: The usual suspects are here. Ocean obsession, nuclear holocaust, the theme of technology being both a savior and a destroyer. What I find interestingly un-Cameron is his choice of protagonist. Instead of a strong female lead, Cameron went with an estranged married couple as a co-protagonist. Ed Harris’s Bud is believable as a blue collar guy asked to save the world. Lindsey, on the other hand, is just categorized as a bitch. This could be seen as a sign of strength; she’s willing to push around the male hierarchy to get what she wants. After all, she designed the Deep Core at a young age in a male-dominated industry, so it stands to reason she’s got guts as well as skill.
Mastrantonio, though, never really touches these implied aspects of Lindsey. Instead of taking control, she’s simply grouchy and annoying, reducing her from a strong, vibrant character into simply “Bud’s love interest.” Whether this is Cameron’s direction or the actress’s choice, it undermines the usually strong feminine lead present in Cameron’s work.
Lasting Impact: The film’s biggest contribution is its remarkable water tentacle, a scene that proved the viability of computer effects as believable part of a live-action film. If The Abyss were remade today, at least 90% if its underwater and effects shots would be constructed inside a computer. This is a testament to just how far that little pseudopod has pushed mainstream effects cinema, for better or for worse.
Also, The Abyss was one of the last of another kind of film – the Cold War warning film. Although the aliens saved their Klaatu-like threat for the director’s cut, the theatrical version still strongly runs on Cold War paranoia and escalation. Less than six months after the film’s release, the Berlin Wall fell, ending that sub-genre and allowing the world’s alien observers to focus on more pressing issues, like warming our atmosphere for the eventual meat culling.
Reason for Ranking: While certainly not a bad film, The Abyss is the least engaging of Cameron’s blockbusters. Outside of Bud, the characters never fully develop, the sub-plot with Coffey fails to brew (heh), and the anti-nuke posturing in the special edition is heavy-handed. The Abyss feels like a lot of very good ideas that get lost inside their own ambition, and could only find a way out by breaking down a wall (The aliens surface and reveal themselves? Why? Aren’t they scared of our nukes?). The film has its fans, but when reaching for a James Cameron movie to check out on a Saturday afternoon, there are much better choices to grab for.
The James Cameron Project:
7. The Abyss