Sunday, January 10, 2010

It Looks Into You: James Cameron's "The Abyss": The Director's Cut


"When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you" is the quote by Friedrich Nietzsche that opens the director's cut of "The Abyss". There has never been a James Cameron film without a significant level of ambition, which is why he has been taken more seriously than 95% of the action filmmakers during the 25 years of his career. I watched this version of "The Abyss" for the first time two days after seeing "Avatar" (which I discuss in the other piece published today). I remember watching the theatrical version of this film, which is about 30 minutes shorter, on Pan & Scan VHS tape about 20 years ago and not being terribly impressed.

Obviously, that was probably not the best circumstances to watch this. I still would like to see this in the theater some day. It also did not help that the theatrical cut of the film does not quite make much sense (particularly in incorporating the aliens into the narrative), though I would also add the longer version has other problematic issues. What's undeniable about the film is both its ambition to be a love story and a political statement, as well as its technical achievement in filming an underwater adventure in actual water which produces some of the most stunning imagery to be found in any Cameron film.


"The Abyss" begins with an American submarine sinking after an encounter with an unidentified phenomenon. The main characters are Virgil "Bud" Brigman (played by Ed Harris) and Dr. Lindsey Brigman (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), estranged spouses, who are tasked with salvaging the submarine using the underwater oil drilling rig that he captains and that she designed. It is clear from the opening moments that these two have embittered feelings towards one another concerning the collapse of their marriage.

Since the U.S. military is using a privately-owned drilling rig for this operation, they also send down a Navy Seals team to supervise the salvage operation, led by Lt. Hiram Coffey (played by Michael Biehn), who begins to act odd from his first moments on the rig, possibly due to High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, resulting in delusions and paranoia. Much of the film is dedicated to this operation, as it runs into unforeseen obstacles and possibly encounters with alien intelligence. This is a film that takes its time in dealing with how to solve problems. Every problem must be worked through and every character pitches in as part of the team effort.


This was always the strongest part of the film for me, even when I saw the less coherent version years back. One of Cameron's strengths was showing the teamwork and camaraderie of a skilled crew, who speak to one another with a level of familiarity and each have particular skills to contribute. It also helps that he cast someone like Ed Harris as the captain of this crew. It may seem easy these days to cast Harris in what I call his "Iron Man" roles where he bosses around people who clearly respect him. But he is always believable in these performances, never relying on actorly tics. Usually, Harris is cast in supporting roles, but I have to credit Cameron for actually casting someone who looks like he would be the captain of an underwater oil rig.

I also appreciated Mastrantonio's casting as well. She is quite an attractive woman, but still an approachable beauty. Unlike most females cast as characters with the title of Dr. before their names, Mastrantonio comes across as smart and educated even when she goes into action woman mode commandeering an underwater pod. The relationship between Bud and Lindsey may feel broadly written at times (When does anything Cameron write not feel that way?), but the performances actually make me believe that these two characters were in love with each other. You can also understand why they could barely tolerate one other. This is a relationship between two people who both want to wear the pants in the marriage and do not want to relinquish that title.

The other central role, Lt. Coffey, is played by the underrated character actor Michael Biehn, who pretty much owes his career to James Cameron for casting him in "The Terminator". Though Biehn is quite good in the role, we also begin to see the problems James Cameron has in creating believable antagonists that carries over to his later films, which I will go into more depth for my "Avatar" review. In his first scene, Coffey listens as the symptoms of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome are described to him so that he can recognize them. Coffey responds by mocking the probability of this and generally acts like a standard grade military asshole. By the end of the same scene, when he is now alone, his hand begins to shake displaying his first symptoms. We have yet to approach the half hour mark of this movie before Cameron brands this guy both a jackass and a potential nutcase.


Much of the conflict in the middle portion of the film occurs when Coffey and his men retrieve a nuclear warhead from the sunken submarine and bring it onto the rig, against the protests of everyone else on the crew. It would perhaps had been more interesting and tragic if the character's actions had been as a result of following blind orders from his commanders combined with his lack of judgment due to HPNS. The problem is that Coffey's general asshole-ish behavior pretty much suggests from the very first moment that he is looking to blow something up just to watch it die. Cameron stacks the deck so much against the character that I became impatient upon his presence. When he finally dies due to his own stubborn stupidity, I felt quite relieved that I would not have to deal with the character for the remaining third of the film. The opportunity to present a dramatic fall from grace for a character blind to his own misjudgment is missed, as Cameron lacks the nuance to pull it off.

However, the problems caused by Coffey, as well as the mysterious storm above sea, create some of the better moments of the film. It was great to remember a time in film when difficult problems were dealt with a certain level of patience. When the storm above results in the cable used to connect them to the rig station on the surface being cut off, the crew not only has to deal with finding a way to get back to surface level, but also dealing with the dwindling oxygen supply. Despite all the technology that you see employed in this movie, there is a certain level of going back to basics to try to survive when most of the machinery has failed them. Cameron has often had a love-hate relationship with technology that often contradicts itself in the same film. In this film, it bothered me less because he fetishizes exploration vessels, as opposed to weaponry, as he does in his other films.

What I also appreciated about "The Abyss" was the patience to explore the beauty of water. Most of you have probably heard of the many stories about the great difficulty Cameron and his crew had shooting this film in a large tank. There are actually few stunt doubles in the film, as the actors themselves are in the suits swimming in real water. These are some of the most beautiful images Cameron has put to film. He may be a director known for his technical prowess, but many of the images of his other films still have a more blunt impact than the more meditative ones in this film.


In this movie, there are images of figures swimming in the depths, backlit by the spotlights from the rig or pods, that are quite painterly and show more of a sensitivity to image-making than Cameron usually does. The editing is quite effective in these scenes, having a measured rhythm to the cuts to allow the audience to absorb these images, but not holding on them so long for the sole purpose of admiring their beauty. I know this may sound crazy, but I think James Cameron is to water what Terrence Malick is to nature. It makes me want to seek out Cameron's underwater docs and reminds me that some of his other more memorable imagery comes from some of the shots in "Titanic" where water was most prominent in the frame.

If only there was a way for Cameron to explore his visual and technical ambition without having to write the screenplay himself. Much has been said about his deficiencies in the screenwriting department with people comparing his dialogue to George Lucas' "poetry". To defend him a bit (before I tear him down in the other review), Cameron actually understands the way people talk better than Lucas does. Lucas' dialogue sounds like he keeps a great distance from, say, all other human beings. As clunky as some of Cameron's dialogue can be, he does not usually resort to the wooden exposition that Lucas does, which often results in deadened live deliveries from bored actors. When Cameron writes the members this crew, he does have a way with the joking and verbal shorthands you would expect from people who work together and have formed long-term relationships from being around each other for so long. Let's face it, the crews he depicts (whether it's underwater, space, or military) are probably stand-ins for the large crews he works with on each of his films. That is probably why these moments rarely stick out as sounding phony.

That the central relationship between Bud and Lindsey is work-based, as well as personal, probably helps why I considered it more effective than typical stories about bickering estranged spouses. Despite that these two can barely stand one another, you always feel there is a mutual respect there. One of the strongest moments in the film is when they are stuck in a pod filling up with water and, because there is only one suit, Lindsey tells Bud to let her drown, swim her over to the rig, and try to revive her over there, which is a pretty impossible feat. In a quite drawn out scene, Bud tries to revive Lindsey with CPR and shock paddles before resorting to screaming at her and slapping her across the face telling her to "fight" like she always has in the fast. Sure, the scene is manipulative in every sense of the word, but I was, without a doubt, moved by it. How can you not look at Harris' face and not recognize a man truly in love with his wife?

But those are the story's more intimate moments. The problem is that Cameron wants this movie to have a big message, which is where we get to the aliens. In the theatrical cut of the film, the underwater aliens seemed to come out of nowhere and served little purpose beyond the discovery of something that had a superficial wonder to it. In the director's cut of the film, their motivations are spelled out. Letter by letter.


The last twenty minutes of "The Abyss" consist of the aliens saving Bud and dragging him down to their underwater world to give him a video presentation on why they hate nukes so much. I almost imagined an alien sitting in front of an underwater Avid cutting this presentation together. Basically, the aliens have been causing the storms above seas because they feel the Americans and the Russians are doing bad things by aiming nuclear weapons at each other. Let me say that, although I certainly can empathize with the message, Cameron also presents it with a stunning level of simple-mindedness and naivete from someone who should probably know better.

There is even a moment (after the aliens' intentions are revealed to all) when the guy in charge of the oil rig above surface looks to the top military guy standing next to him and proclaims, "It looks like you guys are going to be out of business!" Considering the businesses both men are in and how they often colluded with one another in the past two decades (as well as in this film!), I would say both of those guys are going to be in business even if the end of the world happens in 2012 like the Mayan calendar says.

Now, when I discuss "Avatar", we will get into more about the argument that movies like this do not deserve a serious discussion on politics due to their genre, which has been an issue recently. It remains pretty clear that James Cameron clearly wants to present a serious big message in his films, even if you find the message as ridiculous as I did, that deserves to be discussed. Why? Because even if you believe that a film fails in its intentions to engage in a serious issue, it must be discussed why you consider it unserious, particularly during a time when anybody can have a half-assed political opinion and have it treated seriously by our media. There are plenty of people out there who consider Cameron's messages profound. I believe it is important to discuss and, if you feel so, to take apart arguments from those that would consider this serious political allegory. Need I remind anyone that a few years ago, the opinions of those against the Iraq War were dismissed out of hand by those who thought it was beneath them to present a coherent argument when it was easier to say that anti-war activists were "anti-American" and "sympathizing with terrorists".

Perhaps, back in 1989, it was fine for Cameron to simply present his political messages with little depth beyond a call to get rid of all nuclear weapons, which will, in turn, bring about world peace. Nowadays, with some level of perspective, this comes across as ridiculous as saying things like Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War, as if he were some comic book superhero and there were not plenty of other social and economic factors in the Soviet Union that resulted in its downfall. I am aware that a movie will always simplify its message and never have the nuance of a genuine political debate, but it is the obviousness of Cameron's presentation that irked me and how it is imposed on an otherwise engaging underwater adventure in its last twenty minutes.


There were plenty of ways for Cameron to do this visually and with a certain level of subtlety, but the point he makes is hammered over our head with painful obviousness, as opposed to being developed over the film. Plus, you have to find it a little disconcerting that the aliens present their argument with the threat that they plan to wipe everyone out if human beings do not see things their way. Basically, their message is that they will bring peace if they have to kill everyone to do it. Cameron is not exactly looking to explore an issue here in all its complications and contradictions, as much as he wants to proclaim that he's right and whoever does not agree with him can fuck off.

It's too bad. Outside of that, "The Abyss" engaged me with its characters and Cameron's love for the depths of the sea. I would argue that, at its best, it probably holds up better than some of Cameron's more action-oriented extravaganzas. Even in its simplistic politics, it is clear that this was a somewhat more personal movie for Cameron that does not exist merely for the technical achievement so visible up on the screen. This is a movie that makes you feel in awe of the sea much like you feel in awe of space when watching "2001: A Space Odyssey". However problematic the film may be, you cannot take that achievement away from James Cameron's vision.

"The Abyss" was viewed on DVD via Netflix.

4 comments:

Jake said...

The Abyss is probably my favorite non-franchise Cameron film, and I'd even put it above T2. Barring its heavy-handed ending, its the most emotionally genuine of his films and almost as thrilling as the first Terminator and Aliens. And until Avatar, it contained his most poetic visuals. Still my favorite Ed Harris performance, and he's one of my favorites.

Jason Bellamy said...

The Abyss is by far my favorite Cameron film, and you do a great job articulating all that there is to love about it and all that makes it tough to sit through. I'm torn about the longer version, because while the aliens are better explained, they are also so over-explained that it's almost better for there to be no explanation at all.

But enough about the bad stuff ...

The main thrill for me is the tremendous sense of place ... the underwater rig itself, and then all those incredible underwater shots. Yes, the film is perfectly cast. Ed Harris' Bud is a guy who earns the grease on his hands. And even in the scene in which Mastrantonio's Linsey gets heroic, that works because she would of course be more experienced in that underwater craft. The main characters, particularly, have strengths and stay true to them. (As for the side characters, I love the moment in which they break out in song. Can't remember what they're singing to, but it always reminds me of the pool house scene in The Deer Hunter when the guys start singing together. What a great, simple way to show how the workers get along as a family.)

The scene in which Lindsey is forced to drown is among the greatest of all time. I'm not kidding. The concept itself is such a shock, and there's both desperation and romance to it. Bud lets out that tremendous scream and then ... silence. The next thing we hear is the faint sound of Bud radioing the base, dragging Lindsey behind him. Awesome cut! Tremendous cut!

Anyway, all the faults you've articulated are right on the money, too. But I had to give The Abyss more love. It still thrills me.

Steven Santos said...

Jason,

That song was "Willing" by Linda Ronstadt. Apparently, that scene with the intercom was never in the original cut.

As much as I point out the many flaws in this film, what it does, it does so well that it makes up for a lot of them. That scene where Bud tries to revive Lindsey blew me away as well, probably the most nakedly honest scene Cameron has written and shot. And the cinematography and editing are great achievements.

Although I knock the movie for its naive political messages, I still cannot deny that his ambition was heartfelt and was more than just about the technical aspects of the filmmaking. As I had mentioned, I would love to see this in the theater someday.

Craig said...

You terrifically capture what's great and not-so-great about this movie, which I did see in a theater despite some poisonous reviews. (One local critic called it a one-star "bomb," which I dismissed after about twenty minutes. The Abyss may be the first time I learned that film critics weren't -- gasp -- infallible.) The underwater beauty and terror coupled with the committed performances is at times overwhelming, especially in the final hour with the sequence you and Jason mentioned (probably the greatest "don't-die-damn-you" scene ever made) and the one that immediately follows, with Harris plummeting to uncharted depths. It takes chutzpah to echo 2001, and skill to nearly pull it off.

To the problems you discussed, I would add that Michael Biehn is miscast as Coffey. I liked Biehn's abashed heroics a great deal in The Terminator and Aliens. Here, in a crucial, tricky role, he stumbles badly. The other actors range from good to great. Cameron even gives a memorable part to a rat.

You're right that The Abyss is a personal big-budget film, and I respond to it much the same way the rest of you seem to, dopey aliens notwithstanding.