I’ll be honest: I’m not a huge James Cameron fan. I think he’s kind of a jerk, really. However, he’s made some great movies, and one of them is 1989’s The Abyss, a gripping story about creatures that lie beneath. And nukes. And a paranoid Naval officer. And possible annihilation by going too deep. For instance.
We see a nuclear submarine, the Montana, on its regular rounds when its radar picks up something weird. They have no idea what it is or where it’s from, but as it gets closer their lights and monitors cut out. Then they impact with something and try to surface, but nothing works and they send a buoy up right before crashing.
The Navy immediately comes out to investigate, and they enlist the services of a submersed oil rig crew to help them, as the wreck is two and a half miles down and they need special equipment. The foreman of the rig, called Deepcore, Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) doesn’t think his people have that kind of expertise and is about to decline when the Navy offers to pay them triple of what they currently make. Sold.
Enter Lindsay Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), Bud’s soon-to-be ex-wife and the designer of the oil rig. She’s pretty mad about Bud working with the Navy, and she’s famous among the rig crew and their support ship, as in they really, really love her and call her all kinds of pet names (Yeah, no, they don’t–she’s pretty hated). Lindsay subs down to the rig and starts in tweaking her creation. She also insists on calling Bud “Virgil” and the two of them spar like angry mountain lions.
When Bud and his crew investigate the sub, there are no survivors. There is, however, a hurricane on the way, and something makes the crew’s lights and radio cut out. One of them panics and mixes his oxygen tanks improperly, sending him into a coma.
Lindsay makes a tour of the outside of the rig, fixing anything that’s out of place, and lo and behold, her lights go out. She’s not in the dark for long, though, because what looks like a purple jellyfish pops up next to her submersible. She’s gobsmacked but doesn’t know what to make of it.
There’s no time to ponder, because things are a little bit tied up at the moment. Two of the crew members are experimenting with breathing water using a pet rat. It’s a little freaky but becomes important later. Also, the rig has a couple of Navy guys aboard, and one of them, Lieutenant Coffey (Michael Biehn) has smuggled in a nuke. He’s showing symptoms of psychosis and likes cutting his own forearm when no one’s looking. Nice fella.
Oh yeah, and then there’s that hurricane that’s going on topside. The support ship is getting tossed around, and the tether to the rig is going way too slack. When Bud tries to get them to let out some more of the line, the crane collapses. Everyone braces for impact, sighs with relief when the crane falls on the sea floor, and then flinches when they realize it’s plunging into an abyss and they’re still tethered to it. Fortunately, they don’t make it all the way in, but there’s still the matter of the crazy lieutenant with the nuke stashed in the back room.
Then there’s the creature that wafts in and out. Lindsay makes contact with it a couple more times, and it’s definitely not hostile. In fact, it seems to like her. At one point it sends a column of seawater in to explore the rig, and when it sees Lindsay it molds itself into her face.
These moments of tranquility are few and far between, though, because Lieutenant Coffey finally snaps. This culminates in his having an underwater bumper car battle with Lindsay and Bud, only using submersibles. Then Bud has to disarm the nuke, which means plunging further into the black void of the abyss.
The Abyss is a long movie that builds verrrry slowly. The creature doesn’t even show up until an hour in, and even then it makes a quick exit. For a while, anyway. The alien isn’t the real conflict of the film, though, but that yawning abyss the rig is teetering on the edge of. Plus the fact that the rig is cut off from their support vessel and running out of oxygen. It’s such a well-paced story, though, that it maintains interest, and when it’s time for the payoff, it’s a big payoff.
That said, there’s an air of weariness and annoyance about the cast for most of the film’s running time. Does that make any sense? It’s something I’ve been noticing with actors in movies, especially lately. No matter what type of scene an actor is playing, their level of satisfaction with the production will show on their faces. It may be subtle, but it will definitely be there. A good example of this is The Mod Squad with Claire Danes–I remember one critic remarking how apathetic the cast looked throughout the movie. On the flipside, in the first Harry Potter movie, Daniel Radcliffe’s awe and wonder at all the new experiences he was having as a first-time actor played into his character being introduced to the magical world of Hogwarts.
In the case of The Abyss, no one is having fun. None of the cast seem happy, or excited, or intense, or anything. Everyone has this “Are we there yet?” kind of expression.
There was a reason for that: Principle production was very taxing. James Cameron wanted realism, and forty percent of the film was shot underwater. Some of it took place at the Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant in South Carolina, some at the Bonne Terre Mine in Missouri, and still more at San Pedro, California. In all, nine locations were utilized.
The unusual conditions caused all kinds of problems, not the least of which was sets not being ready on time, plus they were constantly leaking. The actors and crew had to breathe pure oxygen for hours in their hotel rooms after being in the compressed-air atmosphere. Michael Biehn told Aljean Harmetz that of the five months he was in South Carolina he only did three or four weeks of actual work. It was incredibly exhausting.
James Cameron was also something of an authoritarian during filming. He chalked it up to concern for the safety of his cast and crew, but there was a rumor floating around at the time that Ed Harris was so fed up he wouldn’t be promoting the film. His experience was arguably the toughest of any of the actors’ so this idea wasn’t far fetched, but today Harris considers The Abyss to be one of his favorite films of his career. “I met some great people,” he later said.
It’s over thirty years since The Abyss was released, and it holds up wonderfully, because it’s an amazing achievement, featuring very early CGI and terrific performances. The atmosphere is wet and slimy and grimy, with the ever-present sense of being under pressure. It’ll satisfy those who are looking for an undersea experience, although it may make one want to take some deep breaths and reach for a towel.
For more of the Out To Sea Blogathon, please see Debra at Moon In Gemini. Thanks for hosting, Debra–this was a great idea. Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you tomorrow for the O, Canada Blogathon…
The Abyss is available on DVD (not true widescreen, though) from Amazon.