Saturday, July 16, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Abyss (1989)

If The Terminator (1984) unequivocally established James Cameron's chops as a director of intense action and emotional stories and Aliens established that he could deliver a sequel to a beloved horror film with tremendous ingenuity, scope and heart, then The Abyss confirmed, as critic Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone, that the man was nothing less than “a world-class filmmaker.”

At the time of The Abyss’s theatrical release, however, some critics felt the jury was still out.

For example, writing for The Washington Post, critic Rita Kempley suggested the film waswet but not deep” and complained that The Abyss "asks us to believe that the drowned return to life, that the comatose come to the rescue, that driven women become doting wives, that Neptune cares about landlubbers. I'd sooner believe that Moby Dick could swim up the drainpipe.”

In general, audience response was also mixed regarding the merits of this Cameron film, perhaps because 1989 was the year of the “underwater” sci-fi film, and several efforts beat The Abyss to the starting gate, including Sean Cunningham’s Deep Star Six, George Cosmatos’s Leviathan, and Roger Corman’s Lords of the Deep.

By the time that the very expensive The Abyss arrived in theaters in August, there was a feeling of “been there, seen that” about underwater genre pictures.  Sometimes, going first clearly has financial advantages.  Indeed, The Abyss was only considered a "modest" hit commercially-speaking.

Another oft-heard complaint involves the abrupt nature of The Abyss's theatrical ending. Somehow, the original  climax seems to be less-than-the-considerable sum of the movie’s incredible parts. It feels like something is missing in the theatrical version of the film; that somehow the characters deserve more of an explanation about their incredible and wondrous journey.

It was likely not until the home video (laser disc) release of a “special edition” in 1993, that a large-scale critical re-evaluation of The Abyss began in earnest.

Restored to the film in this edition is a tense subplot that reveals more fully the international tensions between Russia and The United States over a downed nuclear submarine, as well as the  catastrophic extra-terrestrial response to those global tensions. 

These substantial alterations give the film some aspects in common with a similar plot in 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), it's undeniable, but they also more fully reveal The Abyss's thematic aspiration to reflect a 1980s "The Day The Earth Stood Still message of peace and love."

In terms of technical achievement, The Abyss has always been a masterpiece.  Although Cameron could have easily deployed cheap gimmicks to create the illusion of underwater environs and action, he went the route of authenticity instead.

Whereas Leviathan depicted underwater vistas via a dry sound stage and a "blue light" filter, Cameron shot much of his film in Gaffney, South Carolina at the abandoned Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant.  To fill the colossal tank there required some twenty-seven million liters of water, and actors had to spend long spells underwater  (at depths of forty feet) in heavy, uncomfortable gear.  Crew members often spent twelve-hours at a stretch in the tank and had to, literally, decompress before returning to dry land.  It was not an easy or short shoot, and tales of hardship on the set are legendary, even today.  Some behind-the-scenes people on the film even nicknamed The Abyss "The Abuse."

The Abyss is also an early Hollywood film to feature a major CGI sequence, namely in the trademark "water tentacle" sequence. 

This scene, which involves an alien probe traveling inside a deep sea oil rig, took some six months to create (setting back the film's release date even further...), with seven special effects companies (including ILM) working concurrently on it.  

As Empire Magazine reports,  "the set had to be photographed from every angle so the effects could be composited onto the live-action," and that was just one step in the process.  But as T2, Titanic and Avatar prove in spades, Cameron is almost universally at the vanguard of special effects developments in Hollywood, and The Abyss is an early example of his pioneering spirit and commitment to artistic vision.  The man does not compromise when it comes to his vision, and the result is an extraordinary body of work. 

But what makes Cameron a top-tier filmmaker, in my estimation, is his almost unmatched ability to (patiently...) mate special effects breakthroughs with searing stories of tactile emotion and humanity.  He abundantly understands the concept of film as "experience" and is able, through canny application of film grammar, to make audiences feel that they are right there with the dramatis personae in the middle of the catastrophic action. 

In practical terms, this means there's an energetic passion at work in The Abyss that can actually take one's breath away. 

It arises in large part because the human story has not been given short shrift.   Against the sprawling background of oceans, international warfare and awesome aliens, it is the humans that still matter the most.

This is the same equation Cameron would utilize in Titanic (1997).  Even though some character situations or details might seem trite (adolescent first love, for instance), he is able, through his meticulous attention to detail and clever use of technique to make us feel like we're experiencing the story for the very first time.  In other words, Cameron's films somehow disarm cynicism.  When he tells a story -- even one we think we are already familiar with -- it's new all over again; evidence of the axiom that it's not what a story is about that counts, but the style of the storytelling that matters.

Today, The Abyss remains a riveting, emotional roller coaster ride because it so brilliantly weds a personal story of marital/interpersonal redemption to a global story of a world still painfully devoid of that redemption.   The Abyss is awe-inspiring, with only a few lapses into overt sentimentality to detract from the overall viewing experience.

So raise your hand if you think that was a Russian water-tentacle.

In The Abyss, the deep sea oil rig workers of Benthic Petroleum are unexpectedly recruited by the U.S.Government to mount a rescue and recovery mission when the nuclear submarine, U.S.S. Montana, sinks in 2,000 feet of water. 

The government fears that the Soviet Union is responsible for the lost ship, and international tensions begin to rise over the alarming and unexplained incident.

Down on the oil rig, everyman Bug Brigman and his estranged wife and chief engineer, Lindsey bicker about the dangerous mission, and about their troubled personal life as well.  A Navy SEAL team, led by Coffey (Michael Biehn) leads the workers on a mission to the Montana even as a deadly hurricane approaches on the surface.  Suffering from HPNS (High Pressure Nervous Syndrome), Coffey grows increasingly paranoid and dangerous, and recovers a tactical nuclear missile from the Montana.  He is prepared to use it, should evidence of nearby Russkies be forthcoming.

Lindsey and Bud's rig is badly damaged in the storm, and while conducting repairs outside, Lindsey experiences a close encounter with an alien vehicle of some kind.  She believes there are NTI (Non Terrestrial Intelligences) living at the bottom of the nearby abyss, over two miles down.  Her belief is confirmed when the aliens send a "water probe" to explore the rig.  Seeing this entity, Lindsey and Bud speculate that the aliens can control water "at a molecular level."

To the increasingly psychotic Coffey, the presence of the aliens so close by represents a threat of enormous significance.  He rigs an automatic submersible to deliver the nuclear warhead to the bottom of the trench, to destroy them.  Bud and Lindsey attempt to stop Coffey, but their submarine is badly damaged in pursuit.  With only one breathing mask between them, Lindsey willingly  "drowns" so Bud can carry her back to the rig and revive her.  He does so, but only after extreme rescue measures.

As Lindsey recovers, Bud dons experimental deep sea diving gear and breathes a "liquid oxygen" compound so as to follow the warhead to the distant ocean floor and defuse it.   Bud succeeds in his mission, and encounters the aliens in a giant, submerged mother ship. 

Once aboard, Bud learns from the visitors that they have the power to wipe out all human life on Earth by creating gigantic tidal waves.  Given the increasing conflict between The Soviet Union and the U.S., they are tempted and prepared to do so. 

But the aliens have also been monitoring Bud and Lindsey's communications with one another, and have sensed something kindred and hopeful about mankind...

When you're hanging on by your fingernails, you can't go waving your arms around

In The Abyss, one harrowing scene -- amongst the most harrowing ever seen in a science fiction film, actually -- asks the viewer to contemplate at point blank range the prospect of drowning. 

The setting of the scene is a cramped, damaged submersible as Lindsey and Bud resourcefully cycle through and dismiss various strategies for survival.  Finally, Lindsey settles on the idea of drowning, and being revived at the rig a few moments later. 

In other words, she literally must die to survive.

Cameron's camera adopts a view of this debate and resolution at rising sea level and we watch, in unblinking close-up, as Lindsey, literally draws her final breath.   Like her husband, Bud, we watch her die, and it's a truly horrifying moment.  The feelings of increasing terror, hysteria, and claustrophobia generated in this moment are almost impossible to countenance, and the scene is a masterpiece of film making, as tense and dramatic as any moment in 1980s cinema.  If you boast any fear of drowning (or just not being able to breathe...), this scene will make your skin crawl.

In moments such as these, Cameron proves he is a master of technical precision (like Stanley Kubrick), but one who champions and cherishes immediacy and emotion over more cerebral meditations about human nature.  If we didn't care about Lindsey (and Bud), the moment of her drowning-- no matter how beautifully orchestrated -- would mean nothing.  The scene slowly and steadily creates an atsmosphere of dread as Bud and Lindsey attempt to remain calm, and talk out each possible escape plan.  The dread multiplies as each strategy is discounted, and only one devastating option remains.

Throughout The Abyss, Cameron also provokes such feelings of intense immediacy by using a hand-held camera, and actually -- seemingly -- chasing characters down long corridors (and usually away from rising waters).  

At other times, Cameron deploys the first-person perspective to great effect by putting the audience inside a diving mask, for instance.  In the scene aboard the ruined Montana that offers us our first (but mysterious) glimpse of the NTIs, for example, this is the very viewpoint he selects.  Again, the effect is simply to make us participate in the exploration ourselves.  It's as though we are peering through the mask, and hearing the sounds of our own, labored breathing in a scuba suit.  

The climactic knife-fight Coffey and Bud, Cameron also deploys the first person view effectively, as a light bar  swings dangerously between the two combatants, a third element that seems to unbalance the whole affair.  The result is that we feel that we are right there in the trenches, with Bud, fighting with him.

The subjective view also comes into play at two other notable points in The Abyss: when a group of blue collar rig workers are trapped in a flooded compartment and we watch -- through a sealed hatch -- as they expire. 

And secondly -- and most profoundly -- when Bud attempts to revive Lindsey following her drowning.

In this case, Mastrantonio famously walked off the set and was not available for a re-shoot of the scene, but regardless of the context, Cameron shoots the resuscitation scene from her perspective.  We are metaphorically dead as Bud hovers over us and seems to revive us.  It's almost like an out-of-body experience, but form brilliantly echoes content.  The "cast-iron bitch" Lindsey dies and is literally re-born in a new, softer guise.  Her new world includes a rekindling of her intimacy and closeness with Bud which -- when the chips are down -- is infinitely more important than the matters and minutiae of company business or petty interpersonal differences.

Importantly, Bud laters goes through the same transformative experience.  He himself seems to die at the ocean floor until carried off by alien "angels" who revive him in a kind of technological utopia.  They deliver Bud to Lindsey in a new, re-born state.  Like Lindsey, he is ready to renew their relationship, and indeed, renew his view of the world itself.

Don't cry baby. Knew this was one way ticket, but you know I had to come.

In The Abyss, Cameron lands characters we grow to love -- despite their flaws -- in extreme, immediate jeopardy.  But he does more than that; he forges a narrative that deliberately and intriguingly compares a marriage to international relationships. 

In particular, Cameron's film dramatizes two protagonists, Bud and Lindsey who were once in love but have now gone their separate ways over the vicissitudes and little hurts of day-to-day living.  Their marriage teeters on the abyss of divorce. However, through time spent together during this crisis, Bud and Lindsey are able to be "reborn" and  look at each other once more with "better eyes."

In contrast, the United States and the Soviet Union in the film clearly gaze at one another with eyes of "hate and fear" and are ready to blow up everything -- the world itself -- over petty ideological differences.  The aliens featured in the film thus see mankind at both his absolute best and his miserable worst.  And they save our planet from annihilation because of the potential suggested by Bud and Lindsey; by their human capacity to forgive one another and support one another through the darkest times.  Not that's it easy; but then marriage never is.  It's just that Bud and Lindsey don't give over to the worst angels in their nature, even when they are facing death, even when they are separated by 2,000 feet of water and darkness.

Again and again, romantic partnership (or marriage) is represented in The Abyss as being "the savior" of the human race.  At one point, when the oil rig is flooded, Bud is almost trapped in a compartment rapidly filling with water.  What saves his life in this instance is his wedding ring, one which he explicitly saved after first dumping it in a toilet.  Specifically, the ring keeps a bulkhead door from sealing, and gives Bud the opportunity to escape.  He literally owes his life to his wedding ring, and by extension, his marriage.

When Lindsey lay dying, all medical technology fails her.  Tenderly but firmly, Bud's co-workers implore him to let her go; to let her die.  But Bud refuses.  He won't give up.  Ultimately, brings her back from death because he knows she has "never walked away from a fight" in her life.  The husband restore the wife.

Later, Lindsey has the opportunity to return the favor.  When Bud makes his long descent into blackness (another scene of almost unbelievable, raw power), Lindsey speaks to him of their shared past and their shared dreams.  She speaks of "two candles in the dark," and this talk is the "soundtrack" that keeps Bud from slipping into madness.  She saves his life.  The wife restores the husband.

Twice Lindsey talks to Bud of being alone in the dark, in the black, and truth-be-told it comes off as a little cheesy.  One instance of such colorful narration would have been sufficient, and the scene smacks a little of overwriting.  But the point, again, is that Bud and Lindsey keep saving each other.  They keep renewing one another, because of their personal commitment.

Finally it is Bud and Lindsey's marriage that actually saves the world.  The aliens display Bud's "text messages" to Lindsey, including his specific naming of her as "wife."  This is the very part of the human equation the aliens find worthwhile; the emotional, intimate, loving attachment between two people who care deeply for one another.  No doubt the aliens wonder why humans can't bring the same love, understanding and forgiveness to larger groups; to whole countries.    Why can we so easily love our own family, but always be ready to destroy the family of another?

To some, the whole marriage metaphor of The Abyss may seem facile, but the more one considers it, the more it seems to work remarkably well. 

Let's face it, we're all livingin  an arranged marriage on this planet.  Capitalists live on the same planet with Communists.  Jews live on the same planet with Muslims.  Democrats live with Republicans. Gays live with straights.  Religious men and women live alongside atheists.  Getting along isn't always easy, and yet...we must get along.  

Cameron seems to be stating in The Abyss that man boasts a great capacity to love, but that he must learn to love outside his tiny circle of "family" and look to the global family instead.  As much as it's a throwback to The Day The Earth Stood Still, the film's message is particularly relevant in the 1980s, when the Cold War was heightened and America believed itself locked in an existential conflict with an "Evil Empire."

It's always easier to kill other human beings when we decide simply to look at them as "evil."  Coffey is a perfect example of this black-and-white thinking, and Lindsey notes that Bud -- and by extension the audience -- must look at the situation with better eyes than that. 

In terms of the Cameron Curriculum, The Abyss features several commonalities with Cameron's other work.  As was the case with Aliens (1986), The Abyss features blue collar heroes.  Here, Lindsey is the outsider (like Ripley), one who has abandoned the rig for corporate offices, but is able to return and see things that both the military and the workers are unwilling to see.

And again, there is a comment on militarism encoded in a Cameron film.  Here, Coffey is a soldier just following orders, but he nearly follows orders to the detriment of the world's survival.

Coffey suffers from psychosis, of course, but one has to wonder if that's actually Cameron's point.  It is truly a psychotic state to believe that -- by striking first in a nuclear engagement -- you can save the world.  There's a real madness inherent in that self-destructive thinking since nuclear war is unwinnable.  Coffey's psychosis also gives Cameron a rhetorical out against those who would say he is Anti-American or not supporting the troops somehow.  Coffey isn't just a regular soldier, he's a man who is actually "ill," and that condition can be seen as an excuse for his crazy behavior in the film. 

But Coffey's brand of psychosis is not limited, of course, to those suffering from HPNS. There were plenty of sane, rational, very intelligent people during the Vietnam War conflict and during the 1980s who believed America could simply nuke its way to world peace.  Thank goodness that theory has never been tested.

But the point, of course, as The Abyss points out, is that we are not helpless victims of this particularly dangerous brand of psychosis.  Although we hear characters in the film state again and again that "you just feel so helpless" when the world is on the brink of war, actions prove otherwise. Lindsey and Bud take decisive action against Coffey and, in the end, both sacrifice their lives to save the aliens two-and-a-half miles down.  We're not helpless to shape our fate, and we shape it every day, both by action and inaction.  The Abyss very much gets at that notion too.  We can repair our marriages and we can repair our politics, if only we try. 

It shouldn't take a mega-tsunami to make it happen.

This is the view of an optimist, no doubt, but also a dedicated humanist, perhaps the most dedicated humanist in the visual sci-fi arena since Gene Roddenberry.  Cameron clearly believes in our capacity to do good, even when it is easier to do evil, and his films inevitably involve characters making choices about a "higher" moral good than simple nationalism (Avatar is another example of this viewpoint).    In some sick way, people have twisted Cameron's aesthetic to be anti-American. 

Because, as we all know, Americans are never, ever wrong, right?

In both The Abyss and Avatar, humankind finds itself confronted with a wiser people than terrestrial man.  This wisdom is apparent.

The higher moral good, then, in these situations is to learn at their feet; not to destroy them.  But some people are unable to put aside arrogance, selfishness and hubris. 

To me, that's the real Cameron equation.  Not that man is bad; but that man can be great...if only he stops thinking exclusively about himself.  In The Abyss, man encounters angel-like aliens, but they are not the servants of some divine entity...but rather evidence that man too can grow up too and contribute meaningfully to the universe.

A technological pioneer, an exciting adventure, a story of palpable emotions, and a paean to humanity at his best, The Abyss is textbook Cameron.  The film dazzles and wears its heart right there on its sleeve for all the world to see.  That last bit might be considered a weakness in some quarters, but encoded in The Abyss is the opposite argument. 

Bud and Lindsey lead with their fragile, conflicted, argumentative but good hearts, and theirs is an example worth following.

Next Week: Avatar (2009)!


  1. Another excellent review. To coin a pun, it is DEEP.

    In a lot of ways, Cameron has changed filmmaking. Technically, certainly, but he has gone out of his way to tell great stories and explore science fiction themes on a large scale (as opposed to Corman, for example). In doing so, he explores themes--humanity, love, relationships, family, and more--that are traditionally explored in 'small films'--mainstream like Little Women or Notting Hill, or more artistic films such as those at Cannes. Science fiction doesn't ordinarily explore such themes, with a few major exceptions like the Star Trek franchise.

    Those themes that I listed above--humanity, love, relationships, family, and more--are frequently explored in Cameron's works. They'll appear again in Titanic.
    Sure, we've seen first contact with aliens against the backdrop of the cold war: The Day the Earth Stood Still, and 2010. Sure we've seen war against an implacable foe, with crazy people pushing for the war--the Slim Pickens character in Dr. Strangelove. Yes, we know what happens to the Titanic. But it is HOW Cameron explores the human elements in his work that sets him apart from other directors, even those who are pioneers technically (like George Lucas) or storytellers (like Steven Spielberg).

    I recall vividly the scene where they are working to bring her back to life. It was amazing, and that the actress (a name actress to boot!) was willing to bare herself was a surprise. Unlike in Starship Troopers, this wasn't an exploitative moment (and can you imagine what Cameron's version of Starship Troopers would be like? Oh wait--it was called Aliens. Hahaha...sorry).

    It has been too long since I've seen any of Cameron's films---not since Titanic, in the theater. That's a long time. Clearly I need to absorb his work again. I STRONGLY suspect that his work can handle repeated viewings to absorb everything he throws at you, because he operates on more levels than any other filmmaker.

    Isn't it interesting that the underwater competition from 1989--Deep Star Six, Leviathan, and Lords of the Deep--are pretty much all but forgotten now?

    I'm sure that by the time you get to Titanic, you'll mention that Cameron sort of developed a reputation for watery films, thanks to The Abyss and Titanic. I think that could be extended to the effects used for the aliens in The Abyss but also for the morphing Terminator villain of T2 (he did flow, after all!), to the water scenery from True Lies, Piranha II (not to be explored in this review series but definitely fits in with Cameron's water theme) and the blue people of Avatar.

    I had a quick comment--you dated 2010: The Year We Make Contact in parentheses as (2010). I believe the film came out in 1984?

    Finally, I had an observation: Corman is a near anagram for Cameron. But the extra 'e' in James' last name suggests e for energy or emotion, which his films are high in, and I think sets them apart from Corman's even more so than the budgetary differences.

    The Abyss was a powerful film. It well-deserves its high regard we have for it.

    Gordon Long

  2. Some fantastic observations in your eloquent and in-depth article, John. This is, without a doubt, my fave Cameron film and along with AVATAR his most humanistic. I remember when this came out and was struck by how great it was to see not just a depiction of aliens as looking truly alien (they were humanoid in shape) but ones that weren't just out to kill us all in a first strike. They had obviously been observing us for some time and felt that we were on the verge of destroying ourselves and the planet and needed to be taught a lesson. I would rank THE ABYSS right up there with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and CONTACT as films that put on emphasis on emotion and empathy over rah-rah, kill 'em and let God sort 'em out mentality of films like INDEPENDENCE DAY.

    One of things that always keeps me coming back to this more than the impressive CGI and pulse-pounding action set pieces is the interaction between the crew members on Bud's rig. This is where the Extended Cut really shines, offering even more little bits of business between the various crew members and man, were they so well cast. You really believe that these people have worked closely together for years from the way they relate to each other, the short hand between them and how easily they can get on each other's nerves. In other words, kinda like an extended family. It all character development that Cameron includes early on that lets us get to know and care about these character, esp. with what happens later on when they are all thrown in such intense peril.

    Another fantastic review, John. You really did this masterful film justice.

  3. Anonymous3:08 PM

    I have to say up front, I was very pleased to see this one up. I certainly love Aliens, but The Abyss easily ranks in my top favorite movies of all-time. I saw it in the theater and loved it then, and I prize my special edition 'Collector's Edition' DVDs even more with all of the extra morsels of story.

    One thing I particularly enjoyed, in addition to the deeper look at the global situation, was how we got more of a look at the workers on the rig, not just our main characters, giving the scene of some of them drowning more weight, as one example.

    I'm especially fond of the extended scene where the rig is relocated, with the spontaneous singing of Lowell George's "Wilin'" breaking out amongst Deep Core's crew.

    That song serves as a lyrical underlining of the theme of commitment that flows through the film like a current, such as the crew's commitment to Bud as their capable foreman, Hippy's commitment to his pet rat, and Coffey's commitment to his psychotic world-view (and truly - he is entirely committed.), to name a few.

    It might even be argued I think, that the plot turns on those parties that renew or re-engage in commitments forgotten, such as Coffey's naval brethren recommitting to a saner course of action, Bud & Lindsay recommitting to one another, or governments likewise recommitting to a measure of peace.

    Thanks once again for an insightful and in-depth piece of writing on a favorite film of mine.

  4. As I would have expected, a wonderfully in-depth examination of this film, John. THE ABYSS been a favorite of mine for quite awhile, especially after Cameron's preferred cut appeared. Before this, the film had such great sequences (action and emotional), but lacked a really consistent and meaningful finale. This film has some parallel with my own personal life. I wed my bride in '89, same year as when this film was released. Like this, I/we were rough along the edges. A couple we were not -- neither of us had had much real marital experience under our belts. The essential give-and-take skills of being married, had yet to earned. Like the theatrical cut, we, as a couple, weren't refined. The scenes and progression of Lindsey and Bud therefore went over my head (perhaps not my wife, though).

    However, by the time the refined '93 cut arrived, and four years into marriage, boy oh boy do Lindsay/Bud's byplay mean something to this non-newlywed. It made those later scenes wrenching beyond belief. I re-watched this again last Sunday and it's lost none of its power in the years since. That sequence in the flooding submersible is a classic action scene with its tension, but it's also absolutely dead-on as an example (in dialogue and demeanor) of two people who know each other (by experiences both good and bad) and who turned to the other, actively, look for a way to survive... literally as a couple. In clear and in small ways, each calms or tamps down the other's bad reactions and pushes them toward their strengths (like all good partners do). Watch the scene again, and listen to the condensed ways Mastrantonio's character focuses Bud, and he her. Cameron shorthands this brilliantly in that sequence, I think.

    (to be continued…)

  5. Part 2:

    The other thing I appreciate in Cameron as a filmmaker is how he's always striving to make it accurate and believable, even among all the technology (some he helped invent) he has in play. Again, going back to that drowning scene, Lindsay must use a real known reflex to help save her own life (as well as count on authentic for the time resuscitation techniques). That Mammalian diving reflex. And she's got to force herself to do something that goes against her body's reflexive response, intake water into the lungs. Perhaps a little of that going against humankind's selfish nature for a chance at something better. In this case, immediately and in the long run, more life. It's a huge symbolic step -- all manner of human instinct and panic will implore you not to do so. It's a ghastly, but ultimately a humanly daring move, however. Cameron very much is that human optimist you say he is.

    I have to mention the other character in this film that is so fun to watch is Michael Biehn. He's had a good, steady career. But, I've always thought he'd have had a bigger impact than he has. To me, he's always interesting to watch (remember his Johnny Ringo in TOMBSTONE?). As well, starting with this movie, I'd say he almost got himself typecast for Navy SEAL roles, this being his first (trivia test: name the other two films where he plays a SEAL... one even had him co-star with another actor from this same movie, in fact). Anyways, having this film in the curriculum is a real pleasure. Of course, it does bring up a sore point on a technical basis. It's just about criminal that this movie hasn't had a better disc release for DVD and movie fans. Over 20 years later, and we still don't have a widescreen anamorphic version of THE ABYSS in the U.S. (Europe, too)?!? It's not like a studio can't produce one -- China has the only known anamorphic disc (it's Region 6, though).

    A pleasure to read your thoughts about this one, my friend. So, too, the comments your readers contribute. Thanks for this.

  6. The aliens are the superior race of peaceful beings. Lindsey, Bud and the rest of the crew of the underwater oil rig are in the right because they perceive the aliens as mentioned – as these angelic entities of awe and wonder and, ultimately, something not to be feared. The military, as represented by the SEAL team, particularly Coffey, are in the wrong because they, due to their paranoia and warring nature, see the aliens only as a threat and/or some horrifying product of the Soviets. Coffey dies because he’s the bad guy, potential mass war is thwarted by alien intervention and said aliens are glorified for their enlightened virtue by both the main protagonists (the writing) and the overall visual, musical and emotional tone of the film. The world is saved, the rig team is saved and Bud and Lindsey reunite happily aboard the surface of the Na’vi colored alien mega-ship. The end.

    This movie is thematically retarded.

    First of all: the aliens. It was power failure that causes the USS Montana to crash and sink, power failure attributed to the nearby alien craft. In other words, what triggers the international-incident-turned-brink-of-war to begin with was merely some careless joyriding by the NTI’s. I use the word “careless” because at no point do these aliens bother using their ocean-wide powers of aquatic control to save the lives of the men aboard the sub and thus further prevent the very conflict between nations by which they then judge and determine that the only logical resolution is a massive tidal wave termination of all humankind. This brings up the next point in that these aliens posit a profound philosophical contradiction which, as far as I can tell, was written by Cameron without any sense of awareness, let alone irony or proper reflection. These peaceful, harmonious aliens set to destroy the human race (and, presumably, all other land life) because the human race is self-destructive. Wait a minute… what?! Who are these aliens, anyways? They sound less like enlightened beings and more like hypocritical assholes.

  7. What makes matters worse, a lot worse, is the character of Coffey. I want to make it clear that all of Coffey’s fears and suspicions concerning both the aliens and the naked sub nukes are fundamentally justified. Take for example the famous CGI water tentacle sequence: “It went straight for the warhead and they think it’s cute!” And he’s right. Coffey is absolutely right. The scene clearly shows that the alien water cam is set to probe the exposed nuke, and it’s not like their intentions are benign either; as follows, they decide it upon themselves to wipe out the entire planet in part by what they find aboard the rig. And yet the character Lindsey–the film, Cameron–preaches obnoxiously, “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.” Again, what Coffey sees is entirely sensible, but Cameron is insistent that the character’s fears are unjustified. So, basically, he cheats: High Pressure Nervous Syndrome. That’s right; Cameron uses a slight-of-hand plot device to convince us that the character, and all he symbolizes, is morally/philosophically unsound. It’s total bullshit. He quite literally has to transform Coffey into a raving psychopath in order for us to view the character as a villain.

    I get that Coffey’s pressure sickness is perhaps metaphorical for the driving mentality behind nuclear warfare, but such a message seems irrelevant and further undermined when the storied circumstances warrant an altogether different reasoning than the one championed; for there would be no legitimate reason at all to assume that these aliens, as presented to the characters, are celestial models of some PC-friendly, liberal utopia, other than the fact that they’re pretty and sparkly and accompanied by Alan Silvestri’s heavenly choir music. I guess my argument here is that The Abyss is largely cheap, ill-conceived and manipulative in its attempt to exalt one mentality while chastising another.

  8. Technically, it is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. The production design is a true achievement of ambition and scale, as are the visual effects. And putting aside my aforementioned issues with the story, the film still succeeds as an underwater sci-fi action thriller. When exploiting the environment for any means of creating suspense, Cameron leaves no stone unturned, but in the process is quite inventive from the largest set-pieces down to the smallest details. I totally agree with your analysis and appraisal of Lindsey’s drowning sequence, the flooding of the rigs corridors, Bud’s wedding ring life preserver, his one-on-one death match with Coffey and the overall clever use of POV perspectives. I’d further like to add the fantastic perspective shot of the power cable snaking down in view of the characters and the way the tension mounts as the tethered crane wreckage descends down on top of them, nearly misses with sigh of relief, only to then slowly tip over the cliff’s edge, dragging the rig along with it.

    And then there’s the fact that this movie gives us, as far as I know, cinema’s one and only, truly kickass mini-sub battle brawl that’s cherry-toped with an awesome spider webbed cracking, glass cockpit implosion. But even subtle little bits go along way – when disarming the warhead, Bud is unable to discern the two different colored wires because his glow stick renders them uniformly yellow, or the aching cold he feels when trying desperately to emerge from the freezing water without alarming a batshit crazy, chain clinking Coffey. I also think worth mentioning is Mikael Salomon’s cinematography (maybe the best thing about Spielberg’s Always and Ron Howard’s Backdraft and Far and Away) which beautifully accentuated Cameron’s metallic blue aqua world of pool lights, fluorescents and watery reflections, but without reducing its inhabitants (flesh tones) to some dreary, overbearing monochromatic scheme--often the product of today’s post digital grading. The film’s color pallet is bold and dynamic and takes on a whole new atmosphere the further we venture into the alien realm of ethereal pinks and purples. I can’t begin to imagine how astonishing this movie will look once given its long overdue Bluray release.

    For me James Cameron is kinda' hit‘n’miss (mostly hit). I admire The Abyss on all levels technical but am equally turned off by its undeserved, nonsensical self-righteousness. In that regard it closely mirrors Avatar, which I consider Cameron’s worst film, but Ill reframe from opening that can of worms until your next week review. Contrarily, I read your review for Aliens, agreed with everything you said, and further consider the film to be one of Cameron’s best three alongside The Terminator and the much underrated True Lies …now that is a film I’d definitely like to chime in on once you get to it.

  9. Hi PDXWiz,

    Excellent comment. Thank you, firstly, for correcting my mental lapse there regarding 2010! I think I briefly lost my mind, and corrected the year error so it reads 1984!

    Secondly, I agree with you about Cameron and the way he builds these epic, technicological films around a crucible of human values and emotions. For me, that's why his films really work. Occasionally they do err towards the sentimental, but nothing on the scale of Spielberg, who tends that way very much. (I should also say, I like Spielberg very much, I'm jus occasionaly bothered by how on-the-nose, sentimental, some of his movies get..).

    You're also right that The Abyss has risen above the other underwater movies of 1989. The others aren't well remembered today at all (though Deep Star Six is a lot of fun, in a monster-movie kind of way.)

    Excellent insights and comment!

    J.D,: I love what you wrote here, focusing on Cameron's sense of humanity regarding the aliens, and his ability to connect us to the characters. You're absolutely right on both counts. You mention Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact, and yes, The Abyss is definitely of that school, aliens of a friendly (if mysterious) equation who believe that communication with man is possible. The old "rah rah" kill'em alien films are fun too, but it's nice to have the yin-yang of The Abyss or CE3K.

    I also think that Cameron does a great job of making even supporting characters identifiable and ring true as people. He did the same thing with the colonial marines in Aliens, really. We get a vivid sense of who is in danger, and who we are losing, when fatalities occur. This facet makes the film(s) much more involving.

    Great insights, my friend!


    more to come...

  10. Hi Woodchuckgod:

    "I'm especially fond of the extended scene where the rig is relocated, with the spontaneous singing of Lowell George's "Wilin'" breaking out amongst Deep Core's crew."

    I'm so glad you brought up that scene, my friend. Yes, it is really a terrific moment in The Abyss, and one that just exudes "good vibrations." There's a casualness and charm to the montage -- a humanity, if you will -- that makes that sequence just come alive. The lyrics and visuals (and character information, as you brilliantly point out) all reflect the film's content quite ably. Just a terrific, "warm" moment in a film filled with peril.

    Very well said.

    Le0pard13: I absolutely love your dissection of the "drowning" sequence, with a keen eye towards the marriage equation:

    "That sequence in the flooding submersible is a classic action scene with its tension, but it's also absolutely dead-on as an example (in dialogue and demeanor) of two people who know each other (by experiences both good and bad) and who turned to the other, actively, look for a way to survive... literally as a couple.

    In clear and in small ways, each calms or tamps down the other's bad reactions and pushes them toward their strengths (like all good partners do). Watch the scene again, and listen to the condensed ways Mastrantonio's character focuses Bud, and he her. Cameron shorthands this brilliantly in that sequence, I think,"

    I wish I had written those words, my friend. They're absolutely true. It's not just the extreme peril of the scene, and the audience's ability to put itself in Lindsey or Bud's shoes that makes it work; it's that "couple" shorthand/communication between the two characters that registers so strongly. A great point.

    Man, and on top of that, you have found another instance of Cameron's metaphor about humanity (going against self-destructive impulse) in Lindsey's drowning:

    "And she's got to force herself to do something that goes against her body's reflexive response, intake water into the lungs. Perhaps a little of that going against humankind's selfish nature for a chance at something better. In this case, immediately and in the long run, more life. It's a huge symbolic step -- all manner of human instinct and panic will implore you not to do so."

    I love how you excavated that allusion, that telling of the larger story in microcosm. A really fine bit of analysis! (And I plan to steal it for all future reviews of the film...) :)

    Excellent commentary. These comments are all simply extraordinary...


    more to come...

  11. Hi Cannon,

    You have written a very detailed, very thorough 3-part critique of The Abyss on a thematic front, and it's always great to read an alternate viewpoint here.

    So, first of all, welcome.

    I enjoyed your commentary, even if I didn't agree with every word.

    Regarding the sinking of the Montana: It may not have been a careless joy ride, but rather the actions of an unmanned probe.

    This may have been the alien's first contact with humans, and they definitely made a mistake "flying" so close to the vessel.

    The sub's sinking and the death of the crew was a tragic accident...but an accident nonetheless. We can agree, I hope, that the aliens' intent was not to kill humans.

    In Close Encounters of the Third King, the alien beings abducted ships and planes and took away crews, destroying the lives of people and their families (who wonder what happened to them) in the process. And yet, peaceful contact is still possible between the aliens and the humans at Devil's Tower.

    Alien ways are not necessarily our own, and in both cases there was clearly no intent to do harm. Part of the "lore" of alien films like The Abyss or Ce3k is that such beings don't act in ways we fully comprehend, at least initially. But that doesn't have to mean that co-existence isn't possible.

    Regarding the nature of the alien threat: The aliens in the Abyss, based on the news broadcasts they began observing, may have (perhaps rightly...) realized that fear really motivates the human race to change. So they deploy fear (in the form of the tidal wave).

    Again, this tactic has clear precedent in the genre. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu and his laser-eyed minion Gort deliver a message of peace ("grow up," essentially), but back it up with a threat of total, global destruction. That's very much in line with what the aliens do here. I would argue the film is not so much "thematically retarded" (!) as it as an example of one brand of parenting in action.

    Parents sometimes need to discipline a recalcitrant child. Or, at mininum, threaten discipline. If the children are good at heart (as humans are good at heart, I believe and hope), the threat becomes enough to prevent bad behavior.

    We don't know and can't know if the aliens would have made good on their threat. But clearly, the aliens in these films are supposed to, in the minds of the filmmakers, represent higher, more evolved forces. Ones who have conquered many human flaws, but still have to speak to humans in a language that we understand, today.

    To be continued...

  12. Picking up where I left off...

    Coffey's fears are valid. But his actions are certainly not justified. I mean, a nuclear strike against an unquantified enemy? Before he endeavors to make an analysis of enemy capabilities? He doesn't even attempt to determine if the destruction of the Montana was an accicent or an act of war. Accidents are dreadful, but they can be forgiven, or at least understood, right?

    You don't strike back against somebody until you determine intent and motive. Coffey never takes that critical step in The Abyss. He goes straight from fear to the launch of a nuclear strike. It's bad military thinking, for one thing. If the nukes aren't effective against this unknown enemy, for instance, who is to say that the aliens won't take out all of America with a death ray or something, in a split-second?

    Coffey is right to have questions and concerns about the aliens, I submit, but he deals with them in a really paranoid, ineffective manner (owing, perhaps, to his illness.)

    The alien probe goes right for the nuke? Well, perhaps the thing is programmed to head to detectable power-sources. It's not as if the water tentacle actually interferes with the nuclear weapon. It doesn't activate it, steal it or otherwise bother with the thing. It just observes (until Coffey interferes).

    And, if I remember correctly, it didn't go right to the nuke anyway: it went to the human crew first and tried to establish visual communication (mimicking faces).

    Again, you can interpret observation and investigation as hostile intent, but so far we we know for absolutely certain, the water tentacke seems to be merely looking around, scouting things out.

    I absolutely love this paragraph that you wrote:

    "And then there’s the fact that this movie gives us, as far as I know, cinema’s one and only, truly kickass mini-sub battle brawl that’s cherry-toped with an awesome spider webbed cracking, glass cockpit implosion. But even subtle little bits go along way – when disarming the warhead, Bud is unable to discern the two different colored wires because his glow stick renders them uniformly yellow, or the aching cold he feels when trying desperately to emerge from the freezing water without alarming a batshit crazy, chain clinking Coffey. I also think worth mentioning is Mikael Salomon’s cinematography (maybe the best thing about Spielberg’s Always and Ron Howard’s Backdraft and Far and Away) which beautifully accentuated Cameron’s metallic blue aqua world of pool lights, fluorescents and watery reflections, but without reducing its inhabitants (flesh tones) to some dreary, overbearing monochromatic scheme--often the product of today’s post digital grading. The film’s color pallet is bold and dynamic and takes on a whole new atmosphere the further we venture into the alien realm of ethereal pinks and purples. I can’t begin to imagine how astonishing this movie will look once given its long overdue Bluray release."

    In a word...perfect. I wish I had written that passage :)

    I also count Aliens as among my favorite Cameron films, and definitely want to invite you back for the discussions on all these films (and anything else here).

    Based on our differences regarding The Abyss, we probably see Avatar quite differently.

    But that's absolutely okay. Give me something to think about, and I'll try to do likewise!

    All my best,

  13. Okay, so after giving it some thought I’m willing to ease up a bit on the aliens, particularly what they do that opens and closes the film. The whole The Day the Earth Stood Still motif does make more sense and fits better with the film than what I initially interpreted. And I further agree with your assessment that the aliens are truly alien in their nature and behavior in a way that engages the humans to expand their own comprehension for the sake of mutual advantages and a peaceful coexistence.

    As for Coffey, I’m certainly not making any excuses for what he does. I just don’t think he makes a properly thematic or allegorically effective villain, assuming that was the intent. Because the pressure sickness is random, so, too, is Coffey’s motivation. Therefore the lessons of his actions seem arbitrary because they’re more the product of mental instability instead of any clear belief that we the audience are meant to oppose. But it seems like Cameron plays up the latter anyways which is why I criticized it for feeling manipulative. If you remove the HPNS plot-point altogether then Coffey would simply be this guy with justifiable fears that some unknown alien force, or unexplainable water probe, is interfering with the critical salvage of nuclear warheads. In turn this would render Lindsey’s ideology plainly naïve, given the extreme circumstances. To this extent, I’m not criticizing what the aliens ultimately do, but rather how the characters react given what they know or don’t know and how we’re supposed to side with one view over the other.

    I must admit, however, that I have not seen this film in over ten years. So perhaps I’m lacking a fresh and proper holistic sense of how the movie and the characters play out scene for scene. Avatar I just watched last week. So, yeah, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

  14. Cannon:

    I don't know you that well yet, but I already like you. You argue your points logically and rationally, and make sound judgments.

    I agree with you that in some sense, Coffey's presence and point of view is at least somewhat manipulative.

    He's got to do irrational and bad things, in a sense, to move the mechanism of the story and keep things rolling, which is what I think you are responding to.

    This is definitely "a thing" with Cameron that's definitely worth talking about and debating: he operates on a big, emotional, operatic canvas and sometimes his characters resonate more on an emotional basis than an entirely logical one. I'll definitely give you that. I think the character of Coffey works in terms of what I outlined in the review (namely revealing the psychosis of those who think they can win a nuclear war), but I can readily see your point too. Maybe the deck, in this instance, is just a little too stacked.

    Looking forward to debating Avatar with you!

    Thanks for the great comment.


  15. I don't think Coffey's motivation is random at all. Isn't his motivation what his superiors order him to do? His mission was to retrieve a nuke from the downed sub and if need be arm it if the Russians got too close. When he starts to go buggy he perceives the aliens as a threat maybe even in his rattled mind he sees them as some kind of Russian foe. But I believe that Coffey's actions all stem from his orders and these are in turn warped by his psychosis. Sure, that part may be random but it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility that he would lose it, esp. when you consider the amount of pressure he's under, esp. when he's cut off from the chain of command later on in the film.

  16. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Warts and all, give me The Abyss over anything Cameron did afterwards (T2 excepted).

  17. Hi everyone,

    J.D. I don't really have a problem with Coffey, either. I do understand Cannon's point, about the character seeming kind of manipulative so as to make a social/political point.

    Personally, it doesn't bother me because I go to see Cameron films for their big, emotional, romantic ideas about human nature. I think Biehn is great as the character, whether the character is used manipulatively by Cameron or not. But I can see why he might seem grating to some.

    Hi David! Not a fan of later Cameron, are you? I'll be curious to read more from you in the days ahead...

    All my best to you both, and thank you for the excellent commentary.


  18. Outstanding.

    The ABYSS. One of my favorites.

    And you're right about the underwater scripts circulating Hollywood in the day and then beating The Abyss to the theatres.

    But James Cameron's film was far superior in every way and incorporated the kind of movie magic that is often rarely found in film today.

    And I must tell you, the Director's Special Edition opened my eyes to many questions. It was the far superiror version to see. It was an enlightening moment and one of the few instances where a Director's Cut was the difference between night and day. I mean- WOW!

    Re: your information about filming in that tank. Gosh, I remember when they were doing it how big a deal it was.

    Ed Harris and the cast are amazing and the cinematic grandeur of the film even in its intimacy really delivers.

    That harrowing scene you mention is terrifying.

    Some of his preachy political dialogue can get a little clumsy, but it's not too bad here.

    Finally, The Abyss, for me, is Cameron's most effective love story. Titanic is a close second and yet Avatar never worked for me the way The Abyss really delivers a believable character-driven tension in the way these two leads deliver. It's a beautiful film.

    Thank you.

  19. jkm,

    finally had a chance to read all of these wonderful comments.

    I agree with J.D. about Coffey's motivations, but also concur with Cannon that the handling of Coffey felt forced and awkward and politically-motivated by Cameron throughout The Abyss and that is where I feel Cameron's scripting gets clunky.

    Othwerwise, this is a truly amazing film despite some flaws and I can't wait for it on Blu-Ray.

    Once again, a wonderful write-up.

  20. Hi SFF,

    Great comments (as is par for the course!). I like your likening of the film to "movie magic," and of a kind we don't often see today. I agree. The film casts a spell, and a very emotional one at that.

    I agree with you that both J.D. and Cannon make strong points about Coffey, and how he is used in the script. But for me, the clunkiest part of the film is still Lindsey's narration to Bud. It goes on too long and repeates information; a sign of overwriting. It's one of those places where we say "okay, we get it...move on." And there are definiteliy are moments such as that in other Cameron films too. I think he leads with his heart...which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Nobody makes big, emotional, special effects epics like James Cameron!



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