When I went to the theater in 1989 to go see James Cameron’s, The Abyss, I did not know it was one of the most expensive movies ever made, or that it had gone horribly over budget, or that it had involved some of the most ambitious set-building in motion picture history, or involved a shoot so difficult and strenuous that multiple members of the cast suffered physical and nervous breakdowns. All I knew was that the guy who brought me the Terminator and Aliens had a new movie out, and that it was a fantastic adventure on the bottom of the sea, and that aliens were involved. That’s all I needed, and off I went. And even though The Abyss technically under-performed at the box office, it remains a magnificent triumph of science fiction storytelling, of motion picture technical expertise, and of sheer creative ambition that draws upon things like 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and takes them into a territory all its own, because only James Cameron ever would have the guts to try.
The story involves a lost American nuclear submarine, which encounters something mysterious in the deep ocean and goes down. Eager to recover its nuclear payload before the Soviets do, the U.S. government hires the crew of the Deep Core, an experimental underwater drilling station in the vicinity to salvage the sub. The government sends down a team of Navy SEALs to handle the nukes, and Dr. Lindsey Brigman, who designed the Deep Core. The platform’s current foreman is Bud Brigman, Lindsey’s estranged husband, so right off the bat, there’s tension aplenty between Bud and Lindsey, as well as between the Deep Core’s maverick crew and the buttoned-up SEALS, led by Lt. Coffey, who promptly succumbs to pressure sickness and begins losing his marbles. A storm topside leaves the platform severely damaged and cut off, while Lindsey, Bud and the crew begin to encounter strange alien lifeforms coming up from the deepest parts of the ocean to greet them. Coffey decides to nuke the aliens, and sets off one of the most intense chase sequences in movie history, which leads to Bud taking a one-way trip to the deepest, darkest part of the ocean.
There are two endings to this movie. The first, theatrical ending felt abrupt and offered an unsatisfying end to an otherwise outstanding and thought-provoking adventure. When an extended director’s cut was released years later, the original ending was restored, along with extra footage that create a much more well-rounded storytelling experience. The Abyss might never have achieved the financial success of some of Cameron’s other films, but I think it tries to tell the biggest story, and spends the most energy with its characters. More than any other Cameron film, we are invested in the utterly fantastic action, adventure and crisis scenes because we have the time to get invested in all of them, even the nominal villain Coffey.
We see this especially in one of the movie’s finest scenes, when Bud and Lindsey are trapped underwater and only have enough oxygen for one of them to get back to the platform. Their desperate plan: Bud will take the last of the O2 and will swim back with Lindsey, who will drown along the way, and he will revive her once safely returned to the platform. The thing with CPR scenes is that you know the human brain can only last about two minutes without oxygen, so as soon as a character fades to black, a countdown clock begins running in your head. And as Bud’s efforts to revive Lindsey grow more and more frantic, we know he’s out of time. He knows he’s out of time, and yet, he persists. I remember this scene in the theater, and you could have heard a pin drop as Bud does everything, including screaming at Lindsey and slapping her, to bring her back around, driven, ultimately by the fact that he realizes he still loves her. When Lindsey opens her eyes once again, the audience realizes how long it’s been holding its own breath, knowing that maybe this was going to be the first movie in which a CPR effort actually failed.
What makes this scene so great for me is that it sets up the moment of truth, which comes later, when Bud must make a one-way trip to the bottom of the ocean to deactivate a wayward nuclear warhead. Unable to speak, he must listen to Lindsey talking him through his descent, and he can only type back to her on a wrist-mounted keypad. Their conversation gets more heartfelt the deeper Bud goes, and we see at once a couple of things happening: the true rebirth of Bud and Lindsey’s relationship, Bud’s most heroic act, and a kind of dramatic test run for an adventure Cameron planned to take himself one day. (And in 2012, he would, becoming one of the only people ever to make a solo descent to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.) When Lindsey accepts that Bud can’t come back to her, we have a moment between the two of them that’s real, raw and earned. In its way, it sets up either version of the movie’s dramatic conclusion, though by the time it’s over, we realize that we care less about our scrappy heroes’ efforts to save the world than we do about our heroes’ themselves.
A final note: There’s more than a little bit of James Cameron himself in this movie; the nascent undersea explorer, the failed workplace husband, the technical genius. What sets The Abyss apart is that the making of this movie set in motion passions within Cameron that would ultimately become major scientific achievements of their own. Obsessed with surmounting technical limitations, Cameron proved a solo man can drop to the bottom of the ocean. His undersea expertise helped to halt the environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon spill. And given enough time, who knows? Maybe he’ll make another movie one day that’ll become some fresh way to better serve the world. He’s infamous for pushing people to their breaking point while making movies, but maybe—just maybe—if it helps to make the world a better place along the way, it’ll all be worth it. Easy for me to say, though. I’ve never had to work for the guy.