Rixflix A to Z: The Abyss (1989)

Director: James Cameron // 20th Century Fox, 2:51 (Spec. Edition), 2:25 (Theatrical), color
Crew Notables: Alan Silvestri (score), Mikael Salomon (AAN, cine.), Conrad Buff IV (editing), Dennis Muren (AAW, sfx)
Cast Notables: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, John Bedford Lloyd, J.C. Quinn, Kimberly Scott, Jimmy Ray Weeks, Chris Elliott, Ken Jenkins
Cinema 4 Rating: 8

I don't swim very well. I drop -- Nay! I plummet to the bottom of any body of water. I do the proper type of kicking and I make the right arm movements, but somehow my trajectory in the water takes a sharp turn downward and soon I am plowing through everyone's feet. I'm fine at the bottom of the pool, because there is no further room for me to drop, and suddenly I turn into The Man From Atlantis (Hey! Where is that on DVD, huh?) I float the way that lead doesn't; the Mafia ties me to the feet of snitches to drown them in the East River. I swim like the United States conducts its police actions: messily and with many casualties, and at great taxpayer expense.

Despite my inclination to never go in the water, I love the ocean. Love movies about it, love TV shows about it; read about it all the time. I am obsessed with sharks to a degree that drives Jen to shake her head in consternation. And, yeah, I have been digging James Cameron's deep sea efforts of late, his documentary wanderings about the ocean floor into tragic wrecks and seeking out lantern-fish and whatnot. Small wonder then that I love The Abyss, his 1989 opus of oceanic deep sea trenches, tortured romance, nuclear politics and eventual contact with an aquatic alien force. Oh, yes... and then there's the drop, nay! The plummet...

While I get caught up in the incredible suspense of the first couple acts of The Abyss, it is Ed Harris' haunting plunge into the void that really gets to me. Some would call his sojourn a leap of faith. They can take a leap, for all I care. I'm sure that someone else would point out the Freudian or Oedipal connections to my interest in such a scene, but once they are done banging their mom with a cigar, they will listen to the most obvious reason that I love the scene: it friggin' rocks. Sorry to get so deep and analytical over it, but Harris' drop into a seemingly bottomless trench, while perhaps reeking of significance in a thousand ways to the filmmaker's
plot and subconsciousness , which I will recognize and even agree with to a point at a moment when I am not being snarky, is nothing but this adventurous leap into the lightless unknown for me. For nine breathless minutes, which makes me momentarily forget the two thrilling hours that preceded it and itself feels like the bulk of the movie to me, I am caught up in the plummet.

I know the mission Harris' character is on: to disarm a nuclear warhead
(a threat set into place a psychotic, pressure-trembling military automaton played with dead-eyed coldness by Michael Biehn) before it destroys both the trapped deep-sea drilling rig captained by Harris and the recently met alien aquatics who might live at the bottom of the trench. I know clearly every detail of what he must do, how he must do it, and the amazing equipment (a suit calculated to withstand intense deep-sea pressure and in which Harris must breath liquid as he dives), and have also been given hints of the aliens' presence in the ocean. And once Harris steps of the edge of the wall and starts his descent, I forget it all and practically hold my own breath for those nine minutes. Every single time that I watch the film. It outweighs every other element of the film and I am left gripped in incomprehensible fear and astonishment for the length of the scene. Small wonder then that the preachy finale, while I agree with its political sentiment, comes off as juvenile and ultimately disappointing.

When I first viewed the film, I feared that it would be yet another one of those body count films, where characters drop off in sometimes stupid, sometimes self-sacrificing ways until there is nothing left but the main hero and the antagonizing person/force. Sometimes this can still come off well (as in Alien or even Cameron's Aliens), but more often than not, it just becomes rote, by-the-book action filmmaking -- you can pretty much guess everything that is going to occur for the next hour-and-a-half. A surprise then that Cameron recognizes the story's importance of keeping his drill-rig team as just that: a team (and surrogate family) that sees each other through every variation in the plot. Sure, peripheral characters meet their doom, but the core of the group is their strength as a team. Rather than take the film down to just Harris and Biehn, Cameron takes the time to let us know that these characters will have each other's backs, and more often than not, this will see them through even the roughest patches.

There is another element that makes the movie for me: the jagged romance that nips around the edges of the plot. For the film is not just about a salvage mission for a stranded nuclear submarine; it also becomes a salvage mission for a damaged marriage. Perhaps the film sparked something deep in me due to my own travails in that department; strange that this film could be such a personal one for both my ex- and myself, and yet not enable either one of us to make the necessary steps to salvage our own doomed mission. Still pretty much newlyweds when this film came out (which was a first day of release must-see: I was a nut for Cameron at the time; she had a crush on Biehn), our bonds were already starting to unravel, Unlike Harris, surely, our marriage was a step off the wall that we never should have made...

1990 ACADEMY AWARDS: 1 Win (SFX), 2 other Nominations (Sound, Cinematography)


matt Fosberg said…

Just wanted to say there's nothing like old memories to bring a slight catch to your throat and make you blink a bit.

Well done.


Popular posts from this blog

Refilling the Flagon of Chuckles (or at Least an Extra Tall Improv Glass)...

Before We Take Off...

The Monster's on the Loose!!! Non-Chaney, Pt. 2: Werewolves Along the Wall

Guillermo Del Toro: At Home with Monsters at LACMA 2016, Pt. 2

Ignoring the Ignoramus...