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The Abyss

"So raise your hand if you think that was a Russian water-tentacle."

The Abyss, which was first released 30 years ago today, was a great showcase for James Cameron the director, but maybe not such a great showcase for James Cameron the writer.

A nuclear submarine, the USS Montana, sinks near the Cayman Trough after an encounter with a UFO (unidentified floating object). With a storm due to hit the area soon, the military recruits the workers of Deep Core, a nearby experimental underwater drilling rig, to assist with the rescue and recovery operation. A SEAL team, headed up by Lt. Coffey, is sent down to rig along with its designer, Lindsey Brigman, who is also the estranged wife of Deep Core's foreman, Bud. But as the rescuers begin to search the wreckage they quickly discover, just as the crew of the Montana did, that they are not alone in the deep.

With a budget almost eight times the size of Terminator and three times the sizes of Aliens, The Abyss was James Cameron’s first venture into the kind of large scale filmmaking that he has since become best known for. As with many of his films, it suffered from an notoriously troubled production. Cameron's obsessive perfectionism, coupled with the difficulties of filming underwater, made the whole experience a living hell for everyone involved. Things got so bad that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris both suffered breakdowns and Harris reportedly punched Cameron in the face after he kept filming while he was literally drowning.

The Abyss was a (very) difficult film to make and can also be something of a difficult film to love. Out of all the Cameron films I enjoy this is the one I probably watch the least. The main problem for me has always been the characters. Bud and Lindsey are two of Cameron's least likeable protagonists and never really convince as a romantic pairing, despite Harris and Mastrantonio's best efforts. None of the supporting characters really stand out. There's not a Hudson or Vasquez amongst this lot. In fact, the various rig workers are often as forgettable as the blank faced Navy SEALs they are forced to work with. Cameron regular Michael Biehn, and his dastardly moustache, makes the biggest impression as the film's villain, Coffey, a man slowly going insane due to the effects of high-pressure nervous syndrome.

As a work of science fiction, it's rather hit and miss. Cameron was obviously trying to make a reverse Close Encounters of the Third Kind by having his heroes encounter intelligent life from below rather than above. His attempts to inject some Spielbergian childlike wonder into the crew's various encounters are mostly successful, and the special effects certainly impress (especially that famous water-tentacle sequence), but his aliens, dubbed NTIs (Non-Terrestrial Intelligence), aren't all that interesting and, in the end, prove to be nothing more than a convenient deus ex machina for fixing all of the heroes' problems in one go.

The Abyss is at its best when it forgets all about close encounters of the wet kind and just tries to be a really intense action thriller about a bunch of blue collar workers trapped in a tin can at the bottom of the ocean with an unstable sailor who has his hands on a nuclear weapon. As I said at the start, this film is a great showcase for Cameron's skill as a director. He might not have been able to successfully capture of magic and mystery of the deep blue sea, but he never lets you forget just how claustrophobic and terrifying this environment really is. He's backed up by an Alan Silvestri's score that, while a little too Back to the Future in places, is often genuinely unnerving.

Two versions of the film exist, the original theatrical cut and the bum aching 1993 Special Edition that pushes the runtime close to three hours. The SE adds more character moments and features different ending where (spoiler alert) the NITs threaten the human race with extinction until Bud and Lindsey's love changes their minds. It's rushed, horribly sappy and feels like it belongs in a completely different film altogether.

Notes and Quotes

--Legendary comic book artist Moebius did some concept artwork for the NITs.

--Cameron based the character of Lindsey on Gale Anne Hurd, who was his wife at the time and also the film's producer. They separated during production and were divorced by the time the film came out.

--Despite the odd dated effect here and there, it all still looks great after 30 years and will probably look even better when they finally get around to releasing it on Blu-Ray.

--Most of the film was shot in an incomplete nuclear power plant in South Carolina. Due to cost the sets were never dismantled until recently.

--Cameron first got the idea for The Abyss at age 17 after he attended a science lecture about deep sea diving. Afterwards he wrote a short story about a group of scientist in a underwater laboratory.

Lindsey: "We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that."

Bud: "Hippy, you think everything is a conspiracy."
Hippy: "Everything is."

Coffey: "It went straight for the warhead, and they think it's cute."

Lindsey: "Jesus Christ. It's World War Three in a can."

Bud: "God, I hate that bitch."
Hippy: "Probably shouldn't have married her then, huh?"

Lindsey: "Virgil, you wiener."

Bud: "Linds, I want you to stay away from that guy. I mean it."
Hippy: "The guy is gone. Did you see his hands?"
Lindsey: "What? He got the shakes?"
Bud: "Look, he's operating on his own. He's cut off from his chain of command. He's showing signs of pressure-induced psychosis, and he's got a nuclear weapon. So as a personal favour to me, will you try to put your tongue in neutral for a while?"

Three out of four dastardly moustaches.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig


  1. An impressive, spot-on review, Mark. This movie stayed with me for one reason and one reason only -- the Lindsey deliberate drowning scene. Completely freaked me out.

  2. I guess the Avatar sequels will also kind of be spiritual sequels to the Abyss.


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