Monday, February 22, 2010

The Abyss (1989)

run silent, run deep

The Abyss
and I go back a long way. I owned it twice on VHS (theatrical edition pan-and-scan followed by special-edition letterbox1) and recall that it was one of the first movies I had to replace on DVD. I'd say it was one of the first action movies I remember really enthralling me, but to be honest, I can't even remember the first time I saw it. The Abyss has simply always been there, looking back into me.

It was likely my mom who introduced me to The Abyss2. She always had a thing for naval action (there's a joke to be made there, but I'm not gonna be the one), in particular the 'Submarine In Peril'. I saw Das Boot long before I had any grasp on the history of WWII, and I remember several screenings of The Hunt For Red October. The Abyss, indeed, was PG-13 and so made for regular family-friendly viewing.

The funny thing about an old friend is that you can lose touch. For all the times I watched The Abyss as a kid, I can't remember the last time I sat down with it. One of the challenges of my James Cameron retrospective is to confront my 14-year-old self and try to recognize crap when I see it, even if it's beloved crap. To be completely honest, I almost didn't want to watch this movie again. It's among Cameron's least-discussed works, and what if it was terrible? To turn my back on The Abyss and leave it in my childhood would be heartbreaking.

Thankfully, I feel I can justify my deep-seeded love for this silly film.

For the uninitiated: The Abyss begins with the mysterious sinking of a US Navy nuclear submarine and follows the grizzled crew of a nearby underwater oil rig as they are recruited to aid in the rescue mission. From there a hurricane, some Cold War Russophobia, a psycho Navy SEAL and a miles-deep alien intelligence form the basis for what is formulaically a pretty standard beat-by-beat action movie; Cameron's skill as a conjurer of set piece and suspense combined with his passion for the deep blue, however, make for a uniquely exciting genre mosaic.

There are a handful of things, of course, that almost sink3 the project.

the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming

Most painful is the vein of righteous environmentalism that, in the Cameron oeuvre, begins here and runs straight through to Avatar. I can appreciate that the tree-hugging preachiness of the latter has made more than a few people wince; is it easier to swallow if set amidst the real-world nuclear paranoia of the Cold War? I suppose that's up to you. I'll say this, however: it'll be a long time before Avatar is dated. The Abyss dated itself in just a few years - although ironically, I'm pretty sure that every single mention of the actual Soviet Union was cut from the theatrical release (more on this later).

It's also worth noting that for all the anti-Russian sentiment on display here, Cameron was careful to give his heroes a more well-rounded take on the war - they don't hate Russians, they're just afraid of dying in a nuclear explosion. It falls on Coffey, Michael Beihn's crazy SEAL Lieutenant, to saddle the actual bigotry. In fact, it's Coffey's Cold War paranoia that drives the conflict of the film - there are at no point in the film any actual Russians, good or bad. Coffey, a personification of spiraling fear and distrust, is the film's only true antagonist.

After a close encounter with the Non-Terrestrial Intelligence, Lindsey tells Bud, "We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that." In addition to being one of Cameron's great potent quotables, this is a very tidy "theme!" line and also a fair summation of the very paranoia that's gotten the crew into this mess. It was the association of "Russian" with "hate and fear" that drove America down the rabbit hole. The Abyss functions, much like Avatar, as a plea that the human race look at the world (Earth or Pandora) with better eyes than it historically has.

20,000 leagues under the sea

In mixing all his nerdy fetishes, Cameron here tests his audience's suspension of disbelief more so than in any of his other features4. Rather than anchor his sci-fi trappings in a future setting, he presents them as elements of our real world; further, he deftly maneuvers between blatant fiction and edge-of-science experimental fact. Several technologies in the film are even specifically denoted by the characters as "experimental", right down the main setting of the underwater rig.

Get this: fluid-breathing is a one-hundred percent real, successfully tested medical practice, dating back well before the film was made. In the film, the scene with Beany the rat submerged against his will in the "fluorocarbon emulsion" was shot without effects. Six rats breathed liquid in front of the camera and they all lived.

At the time, however, it had never been tested on a human (it has since, I think, been successfully used on premature babies, though Wikipedia's article admittedly "contains too much jargon"). Bud's final act liquid oxygen dive remains a scientifically possible but entirely fictional adventure.

Twenty years later, that un-doctored shot of the rat breathing liquid is still difficult to take seriously, even though I know it's not an effect. Then on top of all this, Cameron has the gall to throw in aliens.

Now, the nerd in me loves this stuff. Not until Avatar, which functions really well as a kind of "Cameron's Greatest Hits", would Cameron ratchet up the nerd-quotient so high (and The Abyss's NTIs share a trait with the Pandorans in their biological commune with their natural environment). As far as I'm concerned, if Cameron had wanted to write in some ray guns it might've only been cooler, and he'd probably be the guy to make such a thing plausible.

But I have to admit I can see how someone might get turned off by the quality (and quantity) of fancy technologies on display.

up periscope, down periscope

As I've alluded, there are two versions of The Abyss. Just in case some of you were frustrated by the running times of Titanic and Avatar, take some solace in the fact that there was once a simpler time when even James Cameron would cut half an hour from a three-hour opus.

And according to James Cameron, James Cameron had final cut. After a lengthy dialogue with the studio heads and a couple rounds of test screenings, Cameron edited his three-hour Abyss down to 2:20. He later replaced the omitted footage for laserdisc and VHS release, and, at least for the duration of my adolescence, this became the definitive version of the film.

Remarkably, most of what's missing from the theatrical release are spare character beats, and together the two versions play like a textbook on how to trim around the edges of an overlong story. While it's always nice to see a new exchange within an ensemble of interesting characters, it doesn't necessarily add to the forward momentum. According to the DVD's text commentary, most of these cuts were made "for timing", and rightly so.

The big selling point for the special edition, however, was the notorious "killer wave" sequence. You'd think it would be difficult to cut a "Giant Tidal Waves Threaten Humanity" storyline from a film's climax and have the whole thing still make sense, but here you go. And as a special effects-loving teenager, boy did I love this fancy decoration.

Unfortunately, this is a piece of my past I am going to have to leave behind. In the extended cut, the NTIs unleash a system of giant tidal waves and freeze them poised over America's and Russia's coasts. In the theatrical edition, the NTIs wordlessly express their disapproval of nuclear weapons and then save our heroes, telling them to pass along their message. Not only is the tidal wave scene an unnecessary and overlong reiteration of a point already made, but by threatening humanity with aqua-destruction, the NTIs become complicit in the very same cold war which they are trying to end. It's antithetical to the point of the film and, frankly, I'm surprised Cameron ever wrote it.

men without women

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's introduction as Lindsey Brigman is a pair of heels clicking their way out of a helicopter, scored by a minor character's description of her as "the queen bitch of the universe." This is a cute nod to Aliens but also the beginning of a disturbing trend in which Lindsey's bitchiness is consistently referenced but never shown. Everyone on the rig grimaces at her presence yet she is "bitchy" only insofar as she is strong, willful and female.

My impulse is to judge against Cameron in this instance. Though True Lies is a low point in several respects, it reveals that he isn't immune to using "bitch" as a one-dimensional label. And introducing Lindsey in this manner, in a scene where the epithet has no lightning rod, reeks of an underlying misogyny.

However, I think setting the protagonist ensemble against Lindsey is a circumstance crucial to the launch of her character's arc. The fact is, everyone hates her because on the brig, they serve Bud and she broke Bud's heart. After Lindsey makes contact with the NTIs, her need to convince the crew of the both the aliens' existence and their benevolence parallels her journey back into their good graces. She forces them to look with better eyes.

Lindsey is called a bitch again later in the film by Bud himself, but at this point the circumstances have changed. In the aftermath of a submersible chase (like a car chase but with, you know, submersibles), Lindsey drowns in the ice cold ocean water and the crew attempt to revive her. Is there any greater resuscitation scene in cinema than this one, in which Bud literally slaps Lindsey back to life? Not a lot of actors can handle a lot of yelling and screaming without overdoing it, but Ed Harris (himself the victim of an unfortunate "Noooo!" just minutes earlier) is at the top of his game here.

"Come on, breathe, baby. Goddammit breathe!" he implores after everyone else has given up. He erupts: "Goddammit you bitch you never backed away from anything in your life now fight!" Smacking her across the face, as if the tension of their marriage is the better tool than the defibrillator for jump-starting her frozen body, he brings her back.

Here, "bitch" is used explicitly as a reference to Lindsey's strength of character. Is Cameron allowed to casually reclaim misogynist vulgarity (even as he gives it back again five years later in True Lies)? As a believer in the flexibility of language, I'd like to say yes, but as a critic wary of misogyny in popular entertainments, I'm not so sure.

Immediately after Bud brings Lindsey back to life, she saves him from his near-death experience. While Bud is the hero of the film, she serves as both his foil and his motivator, and their relationship is probably the most romantically complex Cameron has yet achieved5.

I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt here. As drawn, it's realistic that this dramatis personae would throw names at Lindsey the way they do. If the deckhand wants to call her a bitch, it says more about him than about her. At the very least, Lindsey is not a one-dimensional character worthy of the title.


The length of my own piece now mirrors Cameron's own bloated story, and I've likely revealed my nerd self a bit more than I'd intended on this site. But the Cameron retrospective is necessarily a personal project, and I cannot issue any disclaimers.

The fact is, even as I recognize that this is one of his sillier films (and it's not coincidental that this is his one previous work that Avatar most closely resembles), I love it completely. The silliness is ultimately endearing, with the strength of the cast, the structure and the formula all in support. The Abyss might not be Cameron's greatest6, but it sure is a nail-biter if you let yourself in. And I guarantee it goes down smoother than Avatar.

1.) Remember those nifty black clamshell VHS cases in which FOX packaged their letterboxed product? Ah, the good old days.[back]

2.) To my dear mother, avid reader who has commendably refrained from commenting so far on the blog: now's your chance. Do you remember introducing me to this movie?[back]

3.) There I go again.[back]

4.) Well, maybe not Pirhana, but that barely counts.[back]

5.) This isn't saying much, but it's saying something.[back]

6.) Is this the qualifier of an Apologist?[back]

This is the third entry in an open-ended series looking back at the work of James Cameron. I promise to start getting these up at a rate faster than one per month.


  1. I vaguely remember buying that first VHS tape, but I'm afraid I don't remember any details! I do love a submarine flick! John and I recently watched and enjoyed Operation Petticoat. From the Red October to Operation Petticoat's pink sub, I really like them all. Here's what's funny: I don't think I could tolerate the confined quarters of a sub. I don't no why I like sub movies so much. Maybe there's something in the water in New London!

    Mama Bess

  2. Thank you for commenting, Mom.

    It's too bad there isn't a more specific anecdote about us watching THE ABYSS, but then we watched a lot of movies, didn't we? Thanks for that, as well.

    (And yes, actually, it probably is New London.)

  3. I loved watching this again, post-Avatar. A really interesting continuation of a theme.

    It kills me, still, that anyone involved ever believed that the extended special edition was a good idea - that anything more was needed, period. I rewatched only the theatrical version this time around, but I feel like Cameron makes all his points without spelling them out at insufferable length.

    Ed Harris is the best. I do think this is my favorite role of his. And I really like your point about Lindsay being referred to, almost inexplicably and from the very beginning of the film, as a bitch. She clearly turns things around by the end, given how emotional the entire crew is during The Best Scene Ever, though you're probably right that it's more about their emotional attachment to Bud than to Lindsay. I just wish there had been a more gradual revealing of their respect for her.

  4. Maybe that's how you get gradual, realistic character development in a thematically dense, extravagantly plotted action movie: you extend it to three hours.