Viking Night: The Abyss
By Bruce Hall
November 5, 2013
Is there any James Cameron movie that feels more like a chip off the old block than The Abyss? Everyone puts a little bit of themselves into everything they create, but it’s not often a movie leaves you feeling like you’ve seen a literal, visual interpretation of the man who created it. More than almost any other film he’s made, The Abyss runs the gamut of everything that is good – and not so good - about what Cameron does. It’s dark, thrilling, powerful, visually arresting, occasionally confusing, often derivative, condescending, really, really long and before it’s finally over, almost defiantly stupid. It’s also the kind of movie that makes me glad there’s such a thing as movies, and it’s just as good – and not so good – in the same places it was the first time I saw it.
I have a hard time believing that working on a deep sea oil drill is any kind of fun, but don’t tell that to Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris). He’s the captain of one of these things. His crew is made up of the same motley, culturally diverse group of misfits and cut ups that appear in all science fiction movies about small groups of people who work dangerous jobs in relative isolation. They’re all on a rig in the south Atlantic, doing what they do when an American nuclear submarine sinks nearby, after a mysterious undersea encounter. This is happening at the height of US – Soviet tensions, so both sides find themselves in the middle of a standoff over the wreckage. Desperate to salvage the ship before the Russians can get to it, the Navy commissions Bud’s rig to ferry a Navy Seal team to the wreck so they can scuttle it.
Oh. Did I say it was Bud’s rig? That’s not really true; it belongs to a multinational oil conglomerate and it was originally designed and supervised by his estranged wife, Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). After learning about the incident, she flies out to the site and takes over the operation from Virgil. Sparks fly, and so does some of the film’s best dialogue. She’s icy and remote, and he’s all grit and steely resolve, just like Ed Harris should be. Both actors share good chemistry and their characters verbally slapfight in ways so rote they almost sound eerily natural. The best sci-fi is all about people, and The Abyss is really the story of Bud and Lindsey’s relationship…and also trying to stop World War III. Very romantic, if you like listening to engineers argue about who left the cap off the toothpaste.
But that’s not why you go to a James Cameron movie. The three man team of seriously dour looking Navy Seals led by Lt. Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn) is why you go. Since this is a military operation, and James Cameron thinks the U.S. military are a bunch of hairy goons, Coffey and his men are a bunch of hairy goons. And of course, their mission is a little more complex than they first let on, especially once it’s discovered just what it was that sunk that sub and brought the world to the edge of war in the first place. And Cameron, who never wastes a plot point on something trivial, gradually accelerates the film’s momentum by making you care about all of these people (except the hairy goons, because soldiers aren't human), and then trying really hard to kill them every 30 minutes for nearly three hours.