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)!