James Cameron was on Charlie Rose recently to talk about his journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Rose asked him about The Abyss, and about the short story he wrote in high school that would later become the basis for the movie. Cameron described it:
It was about scientists who are leaving a submerged base, kind of similar to what I eventually made into the movie. And they’re going down a wall on a dive, deeper and deeper into blackness, and they don’t come back. And the ones that are left behind wonder what happened and go after them. And one after another they keep going into the darkness, and they don’t return. And the last man goes, the last diver goes down to find out what happened to his buddies. And he gets to the point of no return, and his curiosity overwhelms his caution and he keeps going. And that’s how the story ends.
If only the movie could’ve been that simple. Instead, The Abyss is a big-budget, 1980s blockbuster, the plot of which was contorted in order to allow for elaborate set pieces and expensive, state-of-the-art special effects. The story goes: Amid Cold War tensions, an American nuclear submarine crosses paths with a mysterious, underwater, alien spacecraft (which looks a lot like the aboveground alien spacecrafts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Its radar system deactivated due to the UFO’s aura, the sub strikes a reef and crashes to the bottom of the sea, at precisely the same time that a hurricane begins swirling overhead.
In a plot twist befitting of the Reagan era’s obsession with deregulation and government downsizing, the military subcontracts the rescue of the submarine to a group of rowdy, blue-collar, deep-sea oil drillers. The captain of the rig is “Bud” Brigman, played by Ed Harris in a preview of his later roles in Apollo 13 and The Truman Show as guy-who’s-running-the-show. And the designer and engineer of this experimental oilrig is Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), or “queen bitch of the universe,” as she’s referred to by Chris Elliott’s Bendix. She and Bud are married, but separated, and despite hating each other, just can’t quite pull the trigger on the divorce.
In the process of diffusing a nuclear warhead, staving off hypothermia, struggling with co-workers who are going crazy from “high-pressure nervous syndrome,” as well as having a variety of encounters with benevolent underwater space aliens, the skin of which resembles a light-up Frisbee (translucent, with glowing nodules inside), Lindsey and Bud learn to love those wedding rings and fall for each all over again. Which makes you wonder if The Abyss is best interpreted as the re-marriage comedy fever dream of an egomaniacal, tech-obsessed filmmaker who’s working out the pain of a recent or incipient divorce. Kind of like an incoherent, naïve, sci-fi mash-up of Fitzcarraldo and Husbands and Wives.
Looking back at the movie a quarter-century later, it’s hard not to distract oneself from the film’s absurdities by taking it apart and seeing in seed form the tropes and themes and visual razzle-dazzle that Cameron would develop on an even more expensive and more enormous scale in later films like Terminator 2, Titanic, and Avatar. There’s the face-shifting funnel of water that’s clearly the ancestor to Terminator 2’s T-1000. There’s the deep-sea destruction of hulking metal vessels that resemble the RMS Titanic, and the magisterially cheesy face to face of human-to-alien interaction that Avatar reveled in.
The Abyss still looks good. Its money shots have held up well with the passing of time and with the development—thanks in great part to Cameron himself—of more complicated kinds of special effects. But, Lord, this move makes no sense. It forces a whole lot of over-the-top sci-fi boat drama onto what, at heart, could’ve maybe almost been a clever romantic comedy or, if he’d stuck to the original short story he wrote in high school and described to Charlie Rose, an existential parable. But that’s not Cameron. He can recreate the Titanic’s sinking and populate an alien dreamscape and travel to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, but irony, sarcasm, or tactful and disciplined minimalism? Those are the cinematic realms through which this director just cannot, ever, pass.