On today’s tape, The Abyss, James Cameron’s next film after Aliens. This is a presentation of the original cinema release on Channel 4, remarkable at the time because it was uncut, including one scene that was cut for UK cinema release.
It opens with the sound of sonar pings over the 20th Century Fox logo, and we’re immediately underwater on a nuclear submarine. It’s a scene that starts very similarly to an early scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the sub’s sonar officer is tracking a target on sonar that doesn’t sound like anything they’ve seen before.
Pretty soon, whatever it is passes very close to the sub, and in its wake, the sub loses power,and generally starts having severe problems until it sinks with all hands aboard.
Cut to helicopters landing on a floating ocean platform, Lots of soldiery types getting off with equipment, and the crew of the platform don’t seem happy.
There’s a nice shot of loads of army boots stepping off the helicopters and walking away, followed by a pair of feet in high heels. This is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio whose introduction in the movie is mostly from other people’s reactions to her. One of the crew says “Oh no, look who’s with them. Queen bitch of the universe.”
I’d question now why she would be wearing shoes like this. As we’ll learn, she doesn’t seem like the type who would wear shoes that are not the most convenient for the environment she’s going to. Perhaps she was brought at short notice from her office job where they have a dress code. Anyway, it’s a choice made for a visual shot, and the logic behind it is a little secondary.
Two kilometres beneath the floating platform is a submersible undersea oil drilling platform. The rig is run by Ed Harris, and the crew learn what’s afoot from a briefing by an army guy up top.
He tells them about the stricken US sub that was disabled near their rig, and they are the only team able to get to the sub in a reasonable time, because there’s a hurricane bearing down on them. They’re sending a team of marines down, led by Lt Coffey, played by Cameron regular Michael Biehn, and the drill crew have to help them get to the sub and find out what happened.
From the surface, Lindsey (Mastrantonio) calls Brigman (Harris) and berates him for letting the army take over her rig. When she rings off, he says “God I hate that bitch.” His colleage Hippy says “Probably shouldn’t have married her then.” It’s not a bad line, a vaguely funny way to establish their past,but Cameron really does love the word ‘bitch’ doesn’t he? See also Aliens and later in this movie.
There’s some expositional dialogue as Lindsey and the marines descend in their submersible, as she explains how long it’s going to take for them to equalise the pressure going down (8 hours) and returning to the surface (3 weeks!) They also talk about signs of hypoxia, mental instability caused by the pressure change. Trembling hands, muscle tremors. “One person in twenty goes buggo.” Biehn poo-poo’s her warnings saying they’ve all dived to depths like this. But as he’s unpacking, there’s definitely a shaky hand there.
Lindsey and Bud’s first encounter isn’t a happy one, as they both wind each other up. Bud is so angry that he takes off his chunky wedding ring and throws it into a chemical toilet. He instantly regrets this, and has to fish around in the thick blue goop to retrieve the ring. And if you watch the rest of the film closely, you’ll see that his hand is stained blue throughout the rest of the movie. It’s a lovely touch.
The crew and the army guys get ready to dive to the submarine to see what happened. As they’re setting up, we’re shown an experimental diving suit that uses an oxygenated flourocarbon liquid that allows you to breath with lungs full of fluid, letting you dive to much greater depths. They demonstrate this by taking Hippy’s pet rat (a recurring character) and putting it into the fluid, allowing it to breath. This is a scene that was cut from the UK cinema and DVD version of the movie, due to concerns by the BBFC that the rat was being treated cruelly.
While exploring the sub, there’s a couple of strange encounters. One of the drillers, Jammer, sees something glowy, and panics, messing up his breathing apparatus.
During the same excursion, Lindsey, in a submersible, also sees a strange glowing thing.
After the mission, everyone is a bit freaked out, and Coffey and his team are ordered to go to phase 2, so they take the main submersible back to the submarine, something which jeopardises the platform. They need the submersible to undock the umbilical cable that comes down from the surface ship, and a hurricane is coming in. I have to say, the exteriors up on the surface at this point are only a few steps away from a Crackerjack sketch with someone out of shot throwing buckets of water over the actors.
This is where the main jeopardy in the film starts, and I think it’s where the film really works well. The stakes are high to start with, and they just keep getting higher. The marines get back from their secret mission, the crew set about detatching the umbilical, but the hurricane has already set in on the surface and the umbilical is thrashing around, until the crane holding it can’t cope, and collapses. The tension here is brilliant, as the crew can only watch as the umbilical cable starts falling around them, and they know the huge crane is following, but they don’t know where it’s going to hit, until it comes crashing down a short distance away from them.
But then, just as that tension has released, the crane starts tipping forward, and falls over the edge of the eponymous abyss, and they realise it’s going to drag the platform over. The platform takes a real beating here, and there’s a ton of flooding, rushing to get to hatches, and Hippy has to take care of his rat.
To this day, I’ve no idea who Fiddler was, who dies when the compartment he’s in is flooded. Actually I find his name is Finler, and he’s played by Captain Kidd Brewer, who died shortly after the film, and to whom the film is dedicated, and who looks very similar to Leo Burmester as Catfish, who definitely doesn’t die here.
Bud himself almost gets trapped in a flooding passage, but manages to stop the door closing thanks to his wedding ring stopping the hydraulic door closing. It’s a brilliant callback to the earlier scene.
Once the immediate danger is past, the crew start making repairs, and while outside, Lindsey has another close encounter.
She’s convinced that whatever the creatures she’s seen are, they aren’t hostile. “Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.” I like that line.
Coffey, meanwhile, is busy. He’s brought back a warhead from the submarine, and is rewiring it. But Hippy uses his remote operated vehicle to see what they’re doing.
When Bud and Lindsey confront Coffey with the nuke, things get very heated, and Coffey is a hairsbreadth away from going full psycho on them. As the scene ends, and Bud and co leave the quarters, the camera pans down to show Coffey had his sidearm behind his back through the whole thing. I’m not sure his sidearm safety is top notch, though, as he has his finger on the trigger, but I’ll put that down to hypoxia. Biehn is really good here, as he is throughout. This really is his best performance, and it’s a shame he hasn’t had more opportunities to do this kind of work. And it’s interesting to consider that this movie could have swapped its lead actors, and it still would have totally worked. Harris and Biehn are that great type of actor where you don’t necessarily know ahead of time if they’re going to be a villain. They can play either.
Just after this scene, Biehn is watching the surveillance cameras, and listening to Hippy call him a “Grade A Squared Away Jarhead Robot”. You can see him thinking, and it’s not something simple like hatred or revenge, it’s a highly trained soldier thinking about his mission, and how to execute it in this newly hostile environment.
Next we come to a scene which literally changed the face of cinema. In the history of special visual effects, there are plenty of landmark scenes, and this one is pivotal in the use of computers to generate special effects imagery. A ‘water tentacle’ rises from the moon pool of the base, and starts looking round the base, when it finds Lindsey, Bud and others. Cameron very smartly begins the scene with a point of view of the tentacle as it’s roving the base, until it finds them, and there’s a lot of Spielbergian reaction shots before we get to see what they’re looking at.
Even today, this effect looks fine. It pretty much looks like you’d expect a water tentacle to look, and it’s very cleanly composited into the scene. All the lighting matches, and it moves fairly fluidly. Even when it mimics their faces, it still looks good. For such an old scene (this was 1989 remember) it holds up very well.
Cameron has said that he wanted to use CGI here partly because there wasn’t really any other way of doing it, and partly to assess the state of the art of CGI. He’s always been a technical filmmaker, and he started in effects himself, so he understands all the techniques available, so it’s no surprise that he wanted to push the limits of the technology of the time. And he’s said in interviews that this was a self-contained scene, which they could have dropped if it hadn’t worked. But it did, and it’s this work that gave Cameron the confidence to make his next film, Terminator 2, with its liquid metal Terminator, which he could hardly cut out if the effects couldn’t handle it.
Incidentally, historically, the team who worked on the effects for The Abyss described it as the last big optical show. Despite this showcase CGI scene at its heart, most of the effects in the film were achieved through the traditional means of optical printing and compositing. Digital compositing would become the norm very soon, and this film might mark the end of optical compositing.
“It went straight for the nuke and they think it’s cute” says Coffey to his men, and he decides to act. He rounds up Bud’s crew at gunpoint, and he’s particularly creepy about Lindsey. “This is something I’ve wanted to do since we first met” he says, and below the shot we hear him tearing something – it’s a piece of duct tape to put over her mouth. We’re relieved it’s not worse, but it’s still a notably misogynistic act, literally silencing the woman.
Coffey’s plan is to tie the nuke to big geek, Hippy’s remote camera vehicel, which has already been programmed to descend into the trench to try to get a glimpse of Lindsey’s aliens. Bud and co are locked up, unable to stop him, but rescue comes from an unexpected source. Jammer, the diver who was in a coma since his breathing apparatus was messed up when he panicked on the submarine, had woken up and overpowered the marine guarding their door. “I just figured I was dead back there when I saw that angel coming for me.”
Bud and Catfish can’t get to the moon poll through the base because Coffey has tied off the doors between them, so they have to swim between areas of the base underwater, without breathing apparatus.
They get halfway, and Catfish can’t go any further, so Bud goes alone to the moon pool, and there’s another great action sequence as Bud and Coffey fight, with Coffey having the upper hand as he also has a knife. Things are looking bad for Bud when we hear “HEY!” and Catfish is there to deliver a huge punch. Coffey thinks for a second about his chances against him, then cuts his losses and jumps into the submersible carrying Big Geek and the Nuke.
Now there’s a big chase. Bud swimming in a diving suit, Lindsey in the submersible, trying to stop Coffey releasing the ROV carrying the nuke. Kudos to Cameron for managing to make this as kinetic as it is without it seeming unlikely.
Bud and Lindsey eventually defeat Coffey, whose submersible loses power and drops into the trench, eventually getting crushed by the extreme pressure.
But now they have their own problem. Their sub is also damaged, and they’re quite a distance from the base, and there’s only one diving suit. So Lindsey, always the pragmatic engineer, says the only way is for her to drown, and for Bud to swim back to the base with her, and try to revive her. “The water’s only a few degrees above freezing, I’d go into deep hypothermia, my blood will go like ice water, my body systems will slow down, they won’t stop.” So she does, and it’s one of the best scenes in the movie. Mastrantonio plays it with genuine panic and fear. My only quibble is that I wouldn’t have wanted to wait in the sub for her to stop moving, I’d have preferred if they were to both swim out so at least Bud would have a head start.
There’s a lovely cut from inside the sub, and Bud screaming “Nooooo” to darkness, as we see Bud swimming towards us. We didn’t need to see any of the getting out of the sub, or most of the swim, it’s a nice bit of time compression.
Then, there’s a resuscitation scene. There’s a brilliant documentary about the making of this film, called Under Pressure, and it was made for the DVD release, quite a while after the film was finished, so the actors are able to be a little more honest about the experience. This was, famously, one of the most gruelling shoots in film history, so many of the scenes involving water, diving and generally being stuck in small spaces, and Cameron is reputed to be not the friendliest person on set. This resuscitation scene was the moment when Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio yelled at him “We’re not animals, you know.” The scene had been shooting for hours, and during this one take the camera ran out of film, and she just had enough.
I don’t like the climax of this scene, though. Bud won’t give up trying to revive Lindsey, and keeps going with the chest compressions, mouth to mouth and defibrilator, but the very end if this, he starts shouting “Goddammit you bitch you’ve never backed away from anything in your life now fight” and slaps her across the face. There’s the B word again. I’d have preferred a less violent approach, one that wasn’t so redolent of domestic violence. But that’s just me, a dreadful woolly liberal.
So now, with Lindsey saved, it’s down to the final act, as Bud has to don the fluid breathing dive suit we saw all the way back at the start of the movie, and dive down into the abyss to find the nuke and disarm it. This is really where the movie, in this theatrical version at least, kind of takes a left turn into a bit of a non sequitur. As Bud is diving, Lindsey has to keep talking to him, and my reaction the first time I saw it was that it was a bit risible. “I know you feel all alone in that dark, inky blackness…” didn’t feel like helping. There’s a bit more of this scene in the extended version, and I feel it works better given the time. Here it was slightly embarrassing.
There’s a genius piece of writing during the bomb disarming scene. During his dive, bud has been carrying a bright white flare for light, but it goes out just as he reaches the nuke. His backup light is a yellow chemical glow stick. So when he takes out the bomb mechanism and sees the two wires there’s a problem. “It’s the blue wire with the white stripe, not, I repeat, not the black wire with the yellow stripe.” Just brilliant.
Then, crisis averted, Bud doesn’t have enough oxygen to make it back, so he just waits, but his friends the underwater aliens come and get him and take him to their undersea world where they sing a song about how much it’s better, down where it’s wetter. No, wait, I think I’m confusing it with the Little Mermaid. In fact, they don’t do much with him at all. They give him an air-filled space to breath, show him his last message to Lindsey, and then take him home.
In the extended version, this whole scene is much longer, and plays into a much larger subplot in the movie, that of growing tension between the US and the USSR (remember this was 1989) and Bud sees news reports from all over the world of huge tidal waves growing out of the oceans and waiting, stopped, at the edge of major cities in the world. The aliens are showing how easily they could destroy mankind, and when he asks why they didn’t do it, that’s when they show him his message, acknowledging his sacrifice for them. It’s a way better ending for the film, and I’m fairly sure if Cameron hadn’t been under pressure from the studio to deliver a film of a certain length, its original theatrical run would have been far more successful. But at least we did finally get to see it. In fact, the extended version was released around the same time as this was showing on TV.
Instead, the ending we first got was this slight non sequitur, followed by the alien city rising up out of the water in another (I think) slightly misjudged scene, shot in bright daylight, where the beautiful bio-luminescence of the alien technology is lost, and it just looks like weirdly painted props.
So that’s The Abyss. I think the extended version is one of Cameron’s best films. Perhaps not quite up to Aliens or Terminator 2 but close.
After the film, recording continues for a time with the start of a programme called Violent Lives. Then the tape ends.
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