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Truly Great Movies: The Abyss (1989)

October 12, 2011

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche


This quote appears in the beginning of  both the Director’s Cut of the film and Orson Scott Card’s novelization of The Abyss.   Essentially, it warns that we must be careful when we confront the unknown.  We never quite know what it is thinking in turn about US.  

Nietzsche’s insight  is where the movie gets its name, and it is a surprisingly deep sentiment on which to build a James Cameron film.  Then again, when The Abyss was filmed in 1989, James Cameron’s star was just starting to rise.  His years from 1980-1995 would be his most interesting and introspective, before spectacle became more important than story.

the Deep Core crew investigates the U.S.S. Montana

The Abyss is a startling and powerful film on several levels.  It brings up and develops interesting questions about how far mankind should stick our nose into things that might not be our business.  It reflects on the perils of nuclear one-upmanship,  the wonders of exploration, and the common everyday issues of a troubled marriage.  That’s a lot to fit into a two and a half hour film, but it works. 

Reviewers at the time of The Abyss’s original release often commented that it felt too much like two separate films.  In truth, what starts out as a military thriller ends up as a sci-fi morality tale.  Yet, logically, the two lead naturally to each other.

As the movie opens, the crew of the underwater oil rig Deep Core is going about their business, utilizing relatively new technology to drill for natural resources in hazardous depths.  They are led by Bud Brigman (Ed Harris), the foreman of the rig, a blue-collar guy with a natural likability that makes him an easy and popular boss.  His band of workers include a rag-tag bunch of risk-takers with names like “One Night”, “Catfish” and “Jammer”.

Bud receives a mysterious call from the Navy, who is requisitioning Deep Core to retrieve a nuclear warhead from a sunken sub in the nearby Cayman Trough.
There is an element of time involved;  Soviet subs are on their way to the site, and the Navy sends a SEAL team to Deep Core to beat them to the punch.

Bud is less than thrilled with this idea.  To add insult to injury,  Bud’s estranged wife, Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who is the original designer of the rig, is less than thrilled that her “baby” will be overrun by a bunch of military goons.  She decides to keep any eye on things personally, arriving with the SEALS and decompressing for the journey to the sub.

Lindsey investigates the NTIs

The SEALS successfully retrieve the missile, but not before several members of both the military and civilian crews encounter strange beings that the leader of the SEALS, Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn) identifies as “NTIs” – Non-Terrestrial  Intelligence.  Quickly, the story shifts from a military rescue to a sci-fi encounter.

There are multiple conflicts.  The SEALS and the civilian crew of the Deep Core (including Bud, Lindsey and their staff) are at odds about how to contact and deal with these seemingly alien beings.  Lt. Coffey, who is also under the influence of the “tremors” (high pressure nervous syndrome, which is slowly making him insane) wants to use the missile to blow them out of the water.

This brings Coffey into direct opposition with the independent and stubborn Lindsey, the scientist who sees this new life form as a miraculous potential ally.

pioneering CGI

In the midst of the all the alien contact, Bud and Lindsey are slowly healing the wounds of a marriage that has been battered by adultery, misunderstanding and personality differences.   Bud begins to see Lindsey’s strengths as she opens the eyes of her fellow crew members, letting them see that all that is new and unknown isn’t necessarily evil.  Mastrantonio’s performance is the best of her career, taking Lindsey from one extreme to the next, unveiling her motivations and her morals with each scene.

The encounters with the “angelic” underwater beings are the highlight of the film, inspiring true awe and tackling very poignant themes regarding the meaning of Nietsche’s quote.  How we handle the unknown says much about us as a nation and as a people.

Eventually, Coffey tilts over the fine line into madness, leading to a thrilling underwater chase that has potentially deadly consequences for Bud and Lindsey.   The final half hour of the film is full of surprisingly personal and touching moments for a movie with such an ambitious scope.  I’ve seen it multiple times and find something new to marvel at with each viewing.

Ed Harris has said in interviews that he refuses to talk about his experiences on the film.  The crew and cast members were immersed daily in uncomfortable water depths that required decompression and doing their own stunts, so it is no wonder they were able to inhabit their roles with such precision.  All the actors, especially Harris and Mastrantonio, became their characters with an intensity and realism that make Cameron’s reputation as a harsh task master worthwhile.

Bud and Lindsey make first contact

For me, The Abyss is James Cameron’s most interesting and worthwhile film.  It was not only a game-changer in terms of technology (it is one of the first films to actively feature CGI to portray a main plot point), it was a leap forward in terms of storytelling.  A sci-fi tale can be meaningful and have a heart and a soul, to boot.  It’s a pity he seems to be losing his way with less important films like Titanic and Avatar.

I will still remember what it was like to be thirteen, seeing The Abyss in the now-demolished  Glenwood theater, with its plush red seats and giant old-school screen.  The movie was all-encompassing;  you could feel the cold metal of the rig and hear the drip, drip of the water as it seeped into the story.

So, DO look long into this Abyss.  You might be surprised at what you find looking back at you…

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