171 min., 1989
Directed by James Cameron
My rating: ★★★★
This is the most terrifying movie ever made.
* * *
Before we go any further I felt it necessary to warn you that there will be spoilers throughout this review. We have that spoilers button that we can use to cover ‘em up, but there is going to be a lot of them. I will also be talking about the Orson Scott Card novelization with spoilers. Just watch the movie first. TL;DR: The Abyss is fucking awesome. Watch it and come back here.
The ocean is a hell of a place. It can be wild and insane on the surface. It contains deadly creatures that will rip you to pieces, swallow you whole or even eat you alive. The ocean is full of fish shit. And the deeper you go down, the colder it gets and the more pressure builds up. If you go far enough down, the ocean will kill you from pressure alone. It’s so bad that if you go down you have to decompress for 8 hours, the length of your shift at work. If you go back up you have to decompress for three fucking weeks. Could you imagine sitting around in a decompression chamber for that long with jack shit to do? You wouldn’t need just a good book; you’d need a good library. Or if you’re behind on your Netflix queue . . .
Bud Brigman (played with an everyman type genius by Ed Harris) knows exactly how dangerous the ocean is. In a scene we find in the book, not the movie, as a kid he nearly drowned. His brother Junior ran in to save him, and he actually did drown. Just before his military family moves away he and his dad go to the site of his brother’s death one last time. Bud stares angrily out at the ocean that took his brother, and his father has some mighty strong words of wisdom: “She always wins. If she wants to.”
Despite a lifetime of hating the ocean he becomes a deep sea driller along with his wife (soon to be ex-wife) Lindsey (played with a stark intelligence by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). You don’t really get the depth of their reasons for divorce in the movie, but you can see it a lot clearer in the book. When it comes down to it, Bud is a people person. He’s in charge for a very good reason. He understands his crew, and he knows how to work them. He knows what he needs to do to get them to do something or to not do something. Lindsey is a bit too smart for her good, a bit too competent. When smart people get too smart they lash out at people they view as incompetent. She does this with the crew, and she does this with Bud. She knows he handles people well (and hates it when he does it to her), but sometimes she overlooks that and views Bud as a pussy, kowtowing to everyone else.
She wants him out of her life. He kinda-sorta wants the same thing except . . . well, he still wears the titanium wedding ring she gave to him. He can’t bare to see her leave him. He picks fights with her thinking that he’s going to show her how stupid she’s being, not realizing that it’s only reinforcing her anger with him.
It’s a good thing he held onto that ring, by the way. It’s one of the strongest substances known to humanity. More on that later.
The crew is amazing to see in action with two stand outs in particular. Hippie (manically played by Todd Graff) is the navigator of Big Geek and Little Geek, two ROV’s that document Lindsey’s Deepcore experiment. He loves a good conspiracy theory (which pretty much means he loves everything) and can’t work without his rat Beany crawling around his shoulders. The book reveals why he’s so attached. Apparently he used to own a snake, and he fed it rats just like Beany. However, his girlfriend at the time was cheating on him, and her side action accidentally stumbled on the snake. As a result he beat the snake to death. Beany was the last of the rats Hippie was going to feed to the snake. He’s had many Beanys since then (they only live for three years), but he can’t survive without this source of comfort from the worst period of his life.
And then there’s Catfish (played to manly, good ol’ boy perfection by Leo Burmester). You know the sort. Real laid back. Good to have a beer with. He’ll always have your back, and he always does a great job at work. His dedication to Bud is amazing. There is a scene where Bud has to swim to another hatch in an attempt to sneak into the ship’s moon pool. Catfish follows dutifully. When they find the hatch is jammed shut, Bud realizes he has to swim all the way to the moon pool. Catfish can’t do it. The swim took too much out of him, and he’s let himself grow a beer belly. Bud goes ahead anyway, and it tears Catfish apart so badly that even though he knows he’s not going to make it to the moon pool, that he will most likely drown before making it, he has to try. Good thing he does. More on that later.
This group of people play very well off of each other. So much so that, well, detour time. You all know how much I hate the ocean because it’s an insanely dangerous place to be. Anyone who goes into the ocean voluntarily must have a death wish. I have always felt this way, even as a child. I first saw this movie when it came out on VHS. I knew it would be terrifying because I knew it was essentially a horror story told from the depths of the ocean. Now, it’s a bit more than that, but that’s where my head was at then. But as I watched these characters working and fucking around and pranking each other and laughing and having a good time even though they were doing their jobs, I couldn’t help it. I wanted to be down there with them. I briefly considered a career in deep sea drilling before I came to my senses.
That’s how good a job these actors do. You feel just like another member of the crew. It’s a shame that it couldn’t have ended well for all of them.
Enter the Navy SEALs, led by the third most important character in this story, Lt. Coffey (sheer lunacy wrapped up in a tight yet binding skin played by Michael Biehn). Not too far from Deepcore a US sub was attacked and brutally sunk. By who? No one knows, but everyone’s got a pretty good idea it’s the goddam Russkies. But with a hurricane looming overhead there isn’t a thing anyone can do . . . except maybe the folks on Deepcore. The government comes up with a crackpot idea to send the SEALs down there to use the resources of the drillers in order to get to the sub and, in an ideal world, destroy all important documentation and tech the Russians might find down there. Failing that, they’re to use one of the nukes on the sub to blow it off the shelf and send it down into the abyss where no one can find it. Failing that?
More on that later.
Coffey is a no nonsense guy. He doesn’t let others interfere with his work. At first he seems like an asshole but kind of reasonable. And then his hands start to shake. The first sign of HPNS. People who suffer from this will eventually start getting paranoid and start seeing things, things that should not be happening to a man as dangerous as a SEAL. Does he do the reasonable thing and tell his fellow SEALs? No. He thinks he’s got this under control.
Coffey is an interesting guy mostly because he starts out so reasonable. He’s here to do his duty and to save the US from what he thinks are the Russians. He’s a problem solver. He gets things done. All good qualities, but the HPNS pushes him beyond this. As events get worse and worse for everyone on board, he starts literally going insane. Yet Biehn is so good at playing him that he does his best to show Coffey as trying to rein it in. It’s too easy to go over the top with a character like this. I could all too easily see Pacino fucking this role up with his usual angry yelling. No, Coffey is subdued even in his lunacy. He keeps it in, even when he’s flop sweating while arming a nuke. There is a great scene where he’s sitting, and under the table he is slowly, methodically cutting his arm. In the book it’s explained that the only way he can keep the madness at bay is pain. Pain helps him take it all down several notches.
Speaking of the book I have to say that Coffey is even more fascinating on paper. We get a look at him as a kid living alone with his mother. He viewed the world as an us-vs.-them kind of place. Us being his mom and him, them being everybody else. He doesn’t get worked up over much of anything. He takes a lot of things passively. There is a scene when the sociopathic neighborhood bully yanks Coffey’s pants down and holds a knife to his dick, threatening to cut it off. Coffey shrugs it of. Why? Because he views it as his fate. The very reason he has a penis is so it can be cut off in this moment. He doesn’t even begrudge the bully. However he later bashes the bully’s head in for something completely unrelated to this. A local shopkeeper had one of the bully’s gang arrested for shoplifting. The bully got back by making sure he was in plain sight of the shopkeeper while his gang beat the shit out the shopkeeper’s kids. Perfect alibi. The shopkeeper left town with his family, and now Coffey’s mom has to walk extra far to shop for groceries when she works so hard to keep a roof over Coffey’s head.
Yeah. Coffey was a very practical youth. When his mom remarried and he didn’t get along with his stepfather, he realized he had to find a new “us.” He found it with the SEALs, which is why he’s so dedicated to his job. Us vs. them.
As you can imagine things don’t go well for anyone. The big reason for this is that it wasn’t the Russians who sank the sub. It was actually an alien flashing through the ocean faster than any earthly being could go. It accidentally crashed the sub and killed everyone on board.
(Interesting side note. It’s never mentioned in the movie why the alien was moving so quickly. It turns out that in the book one of the aliens, the builders, who have been watching this planet since before life began here, discovered a Russian satellite made exclusively for war. They realized that this satellite could destroy the entire world, so they sent an alien up there to destroy it first. The alien died in the explosion, so the glider it was in was sent back home as quickly as possible. Whoops.)
When Coffey, Bud and their teams investigate, the builders are curious about them. They’ve never been able to study humans too closely because it’s rare for them to be down here. One of Bud’s crew freaks out when he sees all the bodies in the sub, and when a builder investigates him they realize how overcome with fear he is. They have the ability to send their molecules into the humans’ heads in tendril form, which does not translate very well in the movie, and they can use that to alter people. Since this is their first time, though, they royally fuck up and send him into a coma that they later have to fix (which is depicted in the book, not the movie).
One more thing to mention: everyone on Deepcore survives because of an umbilical attached to the Explorer, a ship topside. When the hurricane finally shows up they have to disconnect the umbilical from the bottom. Unfortunately for them Coffey chooses this moment to commandeer the only vehicle that can do this because he’s just been ordered into Phase 2. He has to go back to the sub, get a nuke and bring it back so it can be armed and used to send the sub into the abyss.
Because of this absolute disaster happens. It costs Coffey one of his own men (which has never happened before), and it costs Bud five of his men. It cripples Deepcore so they have to shut off just about every section of the ship in order to preserve warmth and oxygen, of which they now have only 12 hours.
Do you realize how fucking terrifying that was for me? Already I felt like I was a member of the crew, and if I wasn’t one of the unfortunate five (and the very thought of drowning at the bottom of the ocean is overwhelming even now) I’d be stuck down there, waiting 12 hours to die.
Bud almost joined his men. In one horrific scene he sees that four of his men are stuck in a flooding section, and he can’t open the hatch. He’s screaming for them to cut the tube from their side, but they can’t hear him. He has to watch his own men die before his very eyes. And then water starts flooding into his section. He runs through water that’s already up to his waist as the hatch he needs to go through starts to close. In desperation he throws his hand into the narrowing crack, fully knowing the door would only crush his fingers . . . but it doesn’t. His titanium ring. He lasts long enough for Catfish and Sonny to arrive and cut the tube on their end, thus saving his life.
It gets worse. Do you think Coffey got a good reception when he came back from getting the nuke? Hell no. Imagine when Lindsey finds out about it. Things get even crazier. Crazy to the point where Coffey has one of his men physically constrain her, nearly causing a mutiny from Bud’s men. Luckily Bud knows how to deal with people. He knows how to handle Coffey. No mutiny needed. He just needed to show his power over his own men, making Coffey realize that he’s outnumbered. Of his two men, one has a broken leg and is unreliable. The other is his only dependable man.
But they have something Bud’s crew doesn’t have. They have guns, and if Bud hadn’t left when he did, someone would have died for sure. Coffey had his behind his back and was waiting patiently.
Coffey also has something else Bud’s crew doesn’t know about. HPNS. And now that they’re cut off from the Explorer and the US chain of command, Coffey finds himself having to make some big decisions all by himself.
Which is unfortunate because the builders choose that moment to give everyone a very visible visit. A thick tendril comes in through the moon pool, and while it scares the shit out of everyone at first (to the point where Catfish grabs the only weapon he can, a mere flower pot, just to have something) they all make friends. They know that there’s an intelligence down here at the bottom of the ocean, and it’s friendly.
Coffey doesn’t see it that way. He sees it as an intelligent life with a greater technology than us. It’s clearly a threat. It must be destroyed. He attacks it, and that’s all the evidence the builders need to say, “Fuck the humans. Let’s get rid of them.”
It’s in that moment that Coffey realizes that he must destroy their civilization. Phase 3 would have been to set a nuke off down here to destroy everyone. Now he has his own Phase 4: strap the nuke to Big Geek and send it down into the abyss to destroy the builders. He has to steal the Flatbed first (which he’s already done before, so he’s cool with that).
This leads to some of the greatest action sequences put to film. James Cameron, this truly is your finest movie. Bud and Catfish’s swim to the moon pool is fucking intense. And hey, remember how Catfish probably shouldn’t have survived it? Well, he had a little help from a rebel builder. It fed him molecules of oxygen from afar. Good thing. Without Catfish’s sudden appearance during the fight between Bud and Coffey, Bud would not have survived.
Coffey still gets away with Flatbed, and Bud gets into a diving suit to jump in after him. Lindsey gets into another submersible to follow after. This battle is . . . I have no words. It’s intense. It’s scary. My blood pressure has never been the same.
Bud almost captures Big Geek. Much to his dismay he watches as it goes over the trench and into the abyss. He manages to get into the submersible with Lindsey, and the two of them have a titanic underwater battle that has yet to be done again as perfectly.
Uh. I didn’t mean “titanic” to be an in-joke. But I like the way it sounds, so I’m going to leave it.
After some astonishing maneuvers from Lindsey Coffey is left crippled and drifting . . . toward the abyss. None of the controls work, and he can’t stop his descent. He knows full well he’s headed toward death. The pressure makes Flatbed creak until the glass starts breaking, and—
Here’s another instance where reading the book helps. We get a peek inside Coffey’s head in his last moments. His rage with his mother for marrying his step-father is out of control. He hates that it had to be him down here at the bottom of the ocean fighting for the survival of America. And he despises the fact that he’s not going to be around for when his nuke destroys the builders.
And then Flatbed implodes. Again, another terrifying way to die in the ocean.
That’s not the end of Bud and Lindsey’s troubles. Here comes a scene that is almost unwatchable for me. Even watching it again today makes me rock back and forth. Sometimes I even make a weird whining noise in the back of my throat. The submersible is so damaged that it’s taking on water. They’re too far from Deepcore. All Bud needs is a socket wrench, and he can fix this fucking thing.
But he doesn’t have one. All they have is one suit. Only one of them can survive this. Because Bud can’t stand the idea of a world without Lindsey, and because if anyone can get his crew to safety it is her, he shoves the helmet into her hands and starts taking off the rest of the suit.
Lindsey’s got a better idea. It’s insane, but it does make some kind of sense. No, Bud is the stronger swimmer. He needs the suit. She’ll drown here. The hypothermia will slow down her systems but won’t stop them. All he has to do is swim her back to Deepcore and resuscitate her. She trusts Bud. He gets things done. He can do this.
This scares the mortal shit out of Bud. To be fair it scares the mortal shit out of me, too. And to watch as he dons the helmet with doom in his eyes . . . to watch as she kisses him through the helmet moments before she drowns . . . it’s making me uncomfortable just thinking about it.
Bud dutifully swims her back to Deepcore, and the crew breaks out everything they’ll need including a defibrillator. This is yet another scene that I can barely watch. I manage it, but usually through a veil of tears as each and every crew member realizes that Lindsey is not coming back. Catfish, with all the sadness in the world, touches Bud to reassure him. Bud almost gives up.
But then he gets angry. He screams at her, calling her a bitch. “YOU’VE NEVER BACKED AWAY FROM ANYTHING IN YOUR LIFE!” He slaps her in the face. Just to watch the raw emotion pouring out of Ed Harris . . . wow. It’s easily the best thing he’s ever done.
And sure enough Lindsey comes back.
The end, right? Everyone lives happily ever after, right? Wrong.
Bud feels like shit over not getting Big Geek before it went down into the abyss. That nuke is going to take out an entire race of peaceful aliens. He views it as Coffey declaring war against aliens the world can’t possibly win against. Bud can’t let that happen. He’s got to go into the abyss and disarm the nuke.
The problem: anyone going that deep isn’t going to make it. The pressure is too much for human life. The solution comes from a surprising place: Monk, the SEAL with the broken leg. He has technology on board, which he demonstrated with Beany earlier in the film, that would let a man get down to the bottom of the trench. Probably. It’s the deep suit, which is designed to fill up with liquid that humans can breathe, thereby allowing them to survive pressure that would ordinarily kill a person.
Bud suits up. In yet another terrifying moment he has to learn how to breathe in liquid. It’s uncomfortable, kind of like when Lindsey drowned. Remember that in the book he nearly drowned as a kid. He had water in his lungs. And the ocean took his brother. Can you imagine how scared Bud was in that moment when he had to learn to breathe liquid? But every human started out life breathing placenta, right? The body remembers, and Bud gets used to it. He can hear everyone, but he can’t talk, so he has a keyboard on his arm for communication. He then uses Little Geek to propel him into the abyss.
The movie doesn’t grasp this moment quite so much as the book. It tries, and it succeeds, but it’s just not as good as the book. As Bud goes down to the lowest point in the ocean he is the loneliest human being in the world. The ocean is too dark to see through down here. All he has is the light from Little Geek and his flashlight . . . at least until they implode. Faced with such darkness, Lindsey talks to him, trying to keep him feeling alive and feeling like he’s not so alone.
It’s fucking heartbreaking. I imagine that’s what an astronaut would feel like on a solo mission out to the dark side of the moon.
Here’s a part that has always had me wondering since I saw the movie the first time. Monk warns that the pressure might fuck with Bud’s head, warping his brain to bring on hallucinations and the shakes. He goes far enough to inject Bud with some sedatives that might help him level out. And soon enough, shortly after he breaks the record for the deepest dive, Bud starts falling apart. He’s vibrating and in obvious pain as the pressure becomes too much for him. Yet when he finally reaches the bomb and the remains of Big Geek, he’s okay. How did that happen?
In the book the builders saw Bud doing this insane thing. They admired his loyalty and his bravery. Even though the nuke didn’t have a chance of destroying them, they knew Bud didn’t know that. He was willing to sacrifice himself to save them. So they helped him by slipping some tendrils into his head.
Another part I didn’t get: Bud’s light by now is a green glow stick. It’s all he has left. He’s supposed to cut one wire with a particular color. If he cuts the wrong one, the bomb will explode. But in the green light both wires look the same. I figured that when he cut one wire, it was sheer luck that he didn’t explode. The book clarifies: the builders helped him make the right decision.
Only when the bomb has been disarmed does Bud realize that he doesn’t have enough liquid to breathe in order to get back to Deepcore. Not that he had a way to do so, now that Little Geek is dead. Lindsey, who understands Bud a lot more now, who has fallen back in love with him, is mortified. She came back to him, didn’t she? Why can’t he come back to her, goddammit?
Bud then types out what he believes will be his final message to the world:
KNEW THIS WAS
ONE WAY TICKET
BUT YOU KNOW
I HAD TO COME
LOVE YOU WIFE
And then he sits back and waits for death to take him, knowing he did everything in his power to save the builders and, as a result, the world.
But it’s not the end. Thanks to Coffey’s lunacy the builders have been considering destroying humanity. Now, due to Bud’s actions, they’ve decided not to. They’ve been building gigantic tsunami waves to wipe the earth clean of us, but now they’ve lowered the waves.
They take Bud in hand and sail him into one of the most beautiful sequences ever put to film. Special mention should go to Alan Silvestri, the composer of the score. It really shines through in this moment. The music and the imagery are awe-inspiring as Bud floats through the city at the bottom of the world. They take him inside and create an environment safe for him to survive in. They have a heart to heart. Humans aren’t out of danger just yet.
They explain to him why they chose him as their messenger and play back his last message to Lindsey. And now they give him their message: destroy all the nukes in the world. Put away childish things. Try getting along with each other, for Christ’s sake. Or else.
All right, if I have one complaint about the movie it’s that it is a bit too preachy with its message. It would have been better if Cameron was a bit more subtle about it. But I feel kind of like a dick for even bringing it up.
The city rises, bringing Deepcore with it, decompressing the humans automatically so we don’t have to wait three weeks for this movie to end. Big reunion. Big kisses. Happily ever.
The moment you realize that this crew is going to make it is a beautiful moment. You feel like laughing with joy just as the crew does. You feel like your loved ones survived a harrowing experience. It’s a movie that makes you think that maybe everything is going to be okay in the end after all.
It’s a tense movie. It’s emotionally involving. It’s beautiful. It’s scary. Which is why I’m baffled that no one thinks about it anymore. Everyone is feeling nostalgic for just about everything else. Why not The Abyss? Why hasn’t anyone expressed a desire to remake it? Not that I’d be happy about it, but still. This should be a revered classic. Whenever someone mentions it in conversation, everyone agrees that they liked it, but why is it not brought up in conversation more often in the first place?
One of life’s great mysteries, I guess. Cameron has done a lot of great things, but I think this is his crowning achievement. Read Card’s book and then watch the film again. It’s fun trying to experience Card’s observations in Cameron’s movie. As your physician I recommend that you do this immediately. Maybe we can bring this one back from the . . . uh . . . the brink. Yeah, the brink.Have You Read...?