The Abyss (1989)

Introduction

The Abyss is a 1989 American science fiction film written and directed by James Cameron and starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn.

When an American submarine sinks in the Caribbean, the US search and recovery team works with an oil platform crew, racing against Soviet vessels to recover the boat. Deep in the ocean, they encounter something unexpected.

Outline

In 1994, the US Ohio-class submarine USS Montana has an encounter with an unidentified submerged object and sinks near the Cayman Trough. With Soviet ships moving in to try to salvage the sub and a hurricane moving over the area, the US government sends a SEAL team to Deep Core, a privately owned experimental underwater drilling platform near the Cayman Trough to use as a base of operations. The platform’s designer, Dr. Lindsey Brigman, insists on going along with the SEAL team, despite her estranged husband Virgil “Bud” Brigman being the current foreman.

During initial investigation of the Montana, a power outage in the team’s submersibles leads to Lindsey seeing a strange light circling the sub, which she later calls a “non-terrestrial intelligence” or “NTI”. Lieutenant Coffey, the SEAL team leader, is ordered to accelerate their mission and takes one of the mini-subs without Deep Core’s permission to recover a Trident missile warhead from the Montana just as the storm hits above, leaving the crew unable to disconnect from their surface support ship in time. The cable crane is torn from the ship and falls into the trench, dragging the Deep Core to the edge before it stops. The rig is partially flooded, killing several crew members and damaging its power systems.

The crew wait out the storm so they can restore communications and be rescued. As they struggle against the cold, they find the NTIs have formed an animated column of water that is exploring the rig. Though they treat it with curiosity, Coffey is agitated and cuts it in half by closing a pressure bulkhead on it, causing it to retreat. Realising that Coffey is suffering paranoia from high-pressure nervous syndrome, the crew spies on him through a remote operated vehicle, finding him and another SEAL arming the warhead to attack the NTIs. To try and stop him, Bud fights Coffey but Coffey escapes in a mini-sub with the primed warhead; Bud and Lindsey give chase in the other sub, damaging both. Coffey is able to launch the warhead into the trench, but his sub drifts over the edge, crushing him when it implodes. Bud’s mini-sub is inoperable and taking on water; with only one functional diving suit, Lindsey opts to enter deep hypothermia when the ocean’s cold water engulfs her. Bud swims back to the platform with her body; there, he and the crew administer CPR and revive her.

One SEAL, Ensign Monk, helps Bud use an experimental diving suit equipped with a liquid breathing apparatus to survive to that depth, though he will only be able to communicate through a keypad on the suit. Bud begins his dive, assisted by Lindsey’s voice to keep him coherent against the effects of the mounting pressure, and reaches the warhead. Monk guides him in successfully disarming it. With little oxygen left in the system, Bud explains he knew it was a one-way trip, and tells Lindsey he loves her. As he waits for death, an NTI approaches Bud, takes his hand, and guides him to an alien ship deep in the trench. Inside the ship, the NTIs create an atmospheric pocket for Bud, allowing him to breathe normally. The NTIs then play back Bud’s message to his wife and they look at each other with understanding.

On Deep Core the crew is waiting for rescue when they see a message from Bud that he met some friends and warns them to hold on. The base shakes and lights from the trench bring the arrival of the alien ship. It rises to the ocean’s surface, with Deep Core and several of the surface ships run aground on its hull. The crew of Deep Core exit the platform, surprised they are not suffering from decompression sickness. They see Bud walking out of the alien ship and Lindsey races to hug him.

Special Edition

A LaserDisc special edition was published in 1993 and a DVD version in 2000.

Film Inspiration

H. G. Wells was the first to introduce the notion of a sea alien in his 1897 short story “In the Abyss”.

The idea for The Abyss came to James Cameron when, at age 17 and in high school, he attended a science lecture about deep sea diving by a man, Francis J. Falejczyk, who was the first human to breathe fluid through his lungs in experiments conducted by Johannes A. Kylstra.

He subsequently wrote a short story[8] that focused on a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean. The basic idea did not change, but many of the details evolved over the years. Once Cameron arrived in Hollywood, he quickly realised that a group of scientists was not that commercial and changed it to a group of blue-collar workers.

While making Aliens, Cameron saw a National Geographic film about remote operated vehicles operating deep in the North Atlantic Ocean. These images reminded him of his short story.

He and producer Gale Anne Hurd decided that The Abyss would be their next film. Cameron wrote a treatment combined with elements of a shooting script, which generated a lot of interest in Hollywood. He then wrote the script, basing the character of Lindsey on Hurd and finished it by the end of 1987.

Cameron and Hurd were married before The Abyss, separated during pre-production, and divorced in February 1989, two months after principal photography.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director: James Cameron.
  • Producer: Gale Anne Hurd.
  • Writer: James Cameron.
  • Music: Alan Silvestri.
  • Cinematography: Mikael Salomon.
  • Editors: Conrad Buff IV, Joel Goodman, and Howard E. Smith.
  • Production: 20th Century Fox.
  • Distributor: 20th Century Fox.
  • Release Date: 09 August 1989 (US).
  • Running Time: 140 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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