The idea for this post came from a conversation I had with my father. We were discussing movies one afternoon and The Abyss came up in conversation. I had recently re-watched it and I actually liked it a lot better than the last time I had seen it. My father, on the other hand, was adamant in his opinion that The Abyss was a bad movie. I asked him, “Why?” and he was unable to elaborate on his answer other than the ending was terrible (see: Mass Effect 3). This got me thinking, what are some movies that I like that everyone else hates but I can elaborate on my position to convince others to go over to my way of thinking? I will be doing a few more of these reviews as time goes on because not much is happening in the coming weeks. These will be spoilery so I would recommend haste in your retreat if you don’t like surprises.
So, what exactly is The Abyss about? The movie features a team of oil drillers on an experimental rig underwater who is contracted by the Navy to perform reconnaissance on a crashed U.S. submarine, the Montana. The team of roughnecks is handled by a SEAL regiment, as they try to determine what caused the submarine to crash. It later becomes apparent that there are unidentified objects in the deep ocean that are interfering with the electronics (which caused the crash of the submarine earlier) and causing opinions between the people on the rig to be divided, with the drillers claiming that they objects are harmless, while the SEAL Team leader views them as a threat (as Soviet-made bogeys) and wants to destroy them. This leads to a conflict between the two groups on the confined rig, but the SEAL leader manages to launch a nuke to where the objects have been originating from. The leader of the drillers volunteers on the suicide mission to travel down miles below the sea to defuse the nuke, but it is revealed that the unidentified objects are actually controlled by NTIs (non-terrestrial intelligence) that have the ability to manipulate water. The NTIs rescue the leader and make their presence known to the world, saving the drilling team.
I know you can’t tell much about a movie by skimming a synopsis, but why do people not like this movie? Aside from being directed by one of the all time greatest visual directors working today: James Cameron, this film also boasts a heavy cast with Ed Harris as Bud, the driller leader and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his estranged wife, Lindsey. Michael Biehn plays the SEAL Team leader, who was quite scary in his role (more on that later). The rest of the cast all played their parts perfectly and the people who we were meant to connect with, we find are very likable. The diversity of the cast is there, they all have a good rapport and they never fail to take you out of the action. Also of note is Alan Silvestri’s (Back to the Future, Predator) score, which ranges from minimalistic, to primal, to majestic with grand sweeping flair. It’s a score that flawlessly complements what is on screen and is never overbearing, always remaining in the background to emphasize that feeling of uneasiness that permeates the picture.
The production of this film has to be mentioned here. You might have a better appreciation for this film once you realize how far the cast and crew went to bring this to the screen. The majority of the film actually took place underwater (in a large pool) where a mock up of the rig was placed. This required the crew to go through pressurization, which takes hours, if not days, at a time for each shoot. The pressurized environments, combined with the grueling shoots caused several actors to break down (one even stormed off the set during a crucial scene) and a few actors almost drowned. Ed Harris actually came so close to drowning that he had a nervous breakdown shortly after (he still refuses to talk about the film to this day). James Cameron also went through the same mishap, but a diver was waiting with a backup tank. Unfortunately, the diver had screwed up the position of the nozzle, so Cameron was not getting any air. Desperate, Cameron actually punched the diver in the face repeatedly until he let go and Cameron swam to safety, where he promptly fired the diver and the assistant director who was supposed to be monitoring the entire exchange. To be honest, no one had fun making this movie.
But that’s not to say that the film itself suffered. No, in fact, it’s quite accurate for a science fiction film. The premise of utilizing a private team of oil drillers for the government (in no way related to Armageddon) actually had a plausible explanation for this scenario. The Navy wanted a team to get into the area fast, and the drillers happened to have a mobile center close to the wreck of the sub. There was also the threat of Soviet patrols so there was a timetable for the recovery of the ship, and finally, a hurricane was moving over the area so the necessity of a site that could remain unaffected by the torrent was a bonus compared to whatever the Navy could scrap together in such a short amount of time. So, you have a decent premise, but what about the setting? Actually, the whole idea of an underwater drilling rig is very well imagined. It’s a very industrial looking place. There are no comfy couches, no liquor, no ostentatious flair that looks out of place. It’s a very cramped, claustrophobic area. In fact, the whole film has a claustrophobic atmosphere to it that you feel constricted by the close confines of the rig. It’s cinema making at its very finest. But another area where this film succeeds is the science. There is a crucial scene where Lindsey goes into deep hibernation brought on by freezing cold water, slowing her body functions but not killing her (Mammalian diving reflex) which is so realistic that it’s quite frightening to watch, and even saddening. This brings up the next scene where Bud and the crew are trying to revive her via CPR and a defibrillator, and Bud painstakingly performs CPR for quite a while (this is the hardest scene to watch because it is the most disturbing in its realism). This is significant because there are several sources that claim that continuous CPR (even for a long time) is beneficial and could mean the difference between life or death. Michael Biehn’s character is shown in the film as suffering from HPNS, or high pressure nervous syndrome, a real syndrome that affects the brain from being exposed for too long in an atmosphere with a higher than average pressure. The character accurately portrays all of the correct symptoms including shaking, sweating, and hallucinating that completely transform this stoic SEAL into a deranged madman. But the most interesting scenes have to be the ones where a liquid breathing apparatus is utilized for deep sea diving. The theory behind this is that a person wears a suit that is filled with a special fluid that can be breathed by the user, in order to traverse deep depths of the ocean in nothing but a suit, as the liquid provides pressure preventing the user from harm. This liquid actually exists and Cameron actually used it in the film. A scene near the beginning shows the effects of the liquid on a rat, and on the film, the rat is submerged in the liquid where it is shown to actually breathe it (much to the rat’s surprise). No digital trickery or props were used for this scene, it was completely, 100% real.
This brings me to my next point, the effects in this film are very good. This was one of the first films to utilize 3D CGI technology (for a water pseudopod) but were intermixed with traditional practical effects. There are several scenes in the movie where parts of the rig are flooded and there are actual people scrambling over the flooding sets. No wonder Ed Harris broke down. It looks real, it feels real, and it makes me long for when a film can rely on simple effects without digital augmentation. There is also a chase scene with submersibles (you don’t see that too often) that again, looks realistic because miniatures are used in the shots. A fight scene between Harris’ and Biehn’s characters is also particularly gripping because every punch is audibly felt, the swinging lighting gives an eerie quality, and the grunts and yells coming from both men emphasize the physical stakes. Just gripping.
But here’s where I mention the thing that kills the movie for most people: the ending. Which is really unfair because with the quality of material presented for 95% of the film, I don’t think you can judge it based off of its ending (and there I go, all hypocritical). However, there is a solution for this problem because there is another ending that is better than the original one filmed and released. When The Abyss was first released in theaters, the original ending featured Bud, having been rescued by the NTIs, to have been saved only because he risked his life to rescue them from the nuke and that he is capable of love and understanding, based on replayed visual messages to and from his wife. This is all well and good, but the special edition DVD fixed this kind of corny ending. In the new ending, the NTIs show Bud images of humanity’s potential for destruction, which explains why they were out and about near the surface to begin with, thus the destruction of the submarine Montana. The NTIs, worried about the impact humans will have on them, create a tsunami that threatens every coastline in the world. The NTIs, however, recede the wave after showing Bud that they believe humans to be capable of caring and self-sacrifice, based on his earlier actions, and spare humanity as they reveal themselves to the world and of the power they wield. It’s a much more profound and meaningful ending than the original, and a little more heartfelt, as it emphasized the dramatic nature of how close we were to waging actual war at the time. If you had to watch this movie, I would definitely recommend the special edition (no whining about sitting through a 3 hour movie, I sat on my ass for 4 1/2 hours watching Return of the King so you can watch this, you baby).
I get very nonplussed when people say that they hate this film. It has a great vision, a great cast, a powerful atmosphere, and it’s all realistically done. It isn’t one of James Cameron’s better films, if I’m being honest, but it is still a good film. Any fan of science fiction or adventure films will enjoy The Abyss because it is in the top of its league while retaining an air of mystery and curiosity that just sucks viewers in. Comes highly recommended.