The Abyss (1989)

Directed by James Cameron

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The Abyss felt a lot like an underwater version of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It’s grand, operatic and similarly concerned with extraterrestrial life forms.  Or maybe what I’m thinking of is Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

While it does run a bit long, the film is both riveting, amusing and frightening, all until it reaches an unabashedly sentimental ending that is perhaps mind bending unless you roll your eyes at the whole thing.

It’s a story about marriage, the end times and madness, centering on a soon-to-be divorced couple, Bud and Lindsey Brigman (Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who happen to work together on an oil rig.  She’s the brains, he’s the brawn, that kind of thing.

They will be called upon to lead a rescue operation of a sunken submarine carrying nuclear missiles, and when a hurricane sinks their own vessel and cuts them off from the world above water level, they must save themselves and stop a military man whose gone stark raving mad and poses a threat to the fate of the world.  There’s also aliens.

That this all exists in one movie is ludicrous, but it didn’t feel quite so ludicrous while watching it.  I could only focus on how badly I wanted to take a deep breath, what with watching a bunch of people drown, nearly drown and then survive by breathing in a special kind of water.

It’s claustrophobic and tense, with the same effect as a film like Alien or Das Boot.  Then it becomes more of an Aliens movie before finally settling into something Spielberg-ian.  This is grand and impressive, and many of the more personal moments work just as well.  There’s a moment where one person appears to have died only to dramatically come back to life, and while that moment feels rote on paper, it’s kind of earned in the movie.  Cameron and company simply seem to take serious the things that could otherwise be predictable, melodramatic or simply absurd.

The film was also a mess to get made, as you might imagine considering just about the entire thing takes place underwater.  Characters swim long stretches without stunt doubles, and they appear to drown in ways that make you wonder how they could possibly fake this?  They often didn’t.

Ed Harris, for one, won’t speak about his time making the film, but from what I can find he nearly drowned several times and came to blows with Cameron for pushing the actors too far.

Those stories sometimes make films like this one a bit legendary.  It’s there in Apocalypse Now and some of the Stanley Kubrick films, these legendary undertakings that are a story unto themselves.  It’s very much a James Cameron thing to do, and you see it too in something like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, chronicled in the accompanying documentary Burden of Dreams.  His film was about a man who meant to haul a two story ship over a mountain, and Herzog reasoned they must do it for real too.

These things aren’t necessary to make a good film, but there are enough stories of certain directors getting to a point where they can get away with it, with being a bit crazy and demanding.  They want to make something as real as can be and so try to do as much of it as possible for real.

But movies are make believe, so it would seem unnecessary, and if it’s endangering the lives of the cast and crew, well that’s just kind of dumb.  But it’s also weirdly romantic, that this exists, this scratched and damaged filmic document of madness.  There’s something to that, maybe not something good, just something noteworthy.  If you subscribe to the idea that the raving mad few highlight something universal within all of us, well then there’s a lot of noteworthiness in cinema, it seems, that doesn’t always speak to the best of ourselves but does show what we’re capable of.

Up Next: Back to School (1986), The Birdcage (1996), Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

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