The Abyss

the abyssAfter all these years — it turns 30 on August 9 — James Cameron’s The Abyss remains the most intense movie I have ever seen. Cameron is never happy unless he has a thousand plates spinning, each threatening our heroes and the very existence of human life itself, and the threat grinds on in mega-sequence after mega-sequence until we stagger out half-dead, played out, winded. The attitude here, if not the aesthetic (which owes more to Moebius), is clearly heir to the macho clenched-teeth posturing of Bronze Age Marvel comics — the adventures drawn by Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, John Buscema, where the gods themselves whale on each other inside a live volcano in eruption, or inside an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, or something. This is Clenched Teeth: The Movie. It runs, in the director’s cut, two hours and fifty-one minutes, and there are maybe a few seconds of downtime. Six, possibly seven. The rest is showdowns and light shows and drowning horrors and phosphorescent aliens.

This all might sound as though I don’t honor The Abyss. I do. From a distance, mainly in memory. Going through it, actually watching it, can be an endurance test. By about the two-hour mark, when things look bleak for oil-rig engineer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and the rig’s big dog and her estranged hubby Ed Harris is screaming himself hoarse for her to “FIGHT! FIIIIIGHT!” you might rub your temples and mutter “Jesus Christ, there’s almost another hour of this?” Ed Harris’ head explodes or threatens to explode about 27 times in this movie, by the way. I can imagine a lot of fist-holes in the walls of his dressing room on the set, if he had one. Famously, Harris offered the following to a Premiere reporter, probably through clenched teeth: “I’m not talking about The Abyss. And I never will.”

Michael Biehn is also on hand, clenching until he cracks several molars, as a Navy SEAL who is along for the mission (the oil rig is commanded to go find a sunken sub) and soon develops High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, which is another good name for this movie. Helpfully, Cameron has a few characters sit around and discuss the symptoms so we can recognize them in Biehn later. This is a film with a million Chekhov’s things — Chekhov’s wedding ring, Chekhov’s “hammer,” Chekhov’s hand tremor, Chekhov’s pink liquid that people can somehow breathe. A rat is dunked in this liquid and held under, for real, until it respirates the stuff. I never really bought this — for use on humans with human-sized lungs, anyway — and I don’t buy it now; we don’t seem to be much closer to people regularly chugging air than we were 30 years ago. For a long time I thought The Abyss was meant to be slightly futuristic for this reason, but I guess the film’s events are set in 1988, when we were having problems with Russia. Gee.

Those problems furnish one of the many moving parts that heat up the film’s sense of urgency. We seem to be on the brink of nuclear war (started because we think the Russians sank the sub), and the alien race, Cameron’s deus ex machina, intervenes to save us from ourselves. This point was muted in the half-hour-shorter cut that saw release in American theaters, but it’s all there in Cameron’s version. He was really, really concerned about the bomb back in the ‘80s, until finally in Terminator 2 he threw up his hands and showed us what nuclear holocaust would look like. Cameron put himself and Ed Harris and us through all this just to deliver the homely message: All you need is love. Seriously, the aliens are about to flush us down the toilet — before we destroy the planet that they share with us — but their hands are stayed by Harris’ heartfelt goodbye text to his wife. Like Bonnie Bedelia in Die Hard, Mastrantonio accepts her identity as Mrs. Clenched Teeth and falls in love with her blue-collar man anew. This sort of thing was in the air we breathed in the late ‘80s.

The Abyss has major flaws, but is still, and probably for that very reason, the closest Cameron has come to his blunt-force, beef-stew, crap-dialogue version of art. Terminator 2 may be the most pristine example of his overbearing aesthetic, but The Abyss sees him reaching for the stars — and not the stars above but the stars below the waves. And, man, does he ever maintain a crisis pitch for almost the complete running time, while Alan Silvestri’s score shrieks and ejaculates or a children’s choir sings to sell maximum awe. Cameron tightens the screws until their heads are stripped. The movie expresses extreme anxiety, claustrophobia, things catching on fire while submerged, mini-subs imploding in deep dark water with a crescendo of heavy bubbles. Cameron taps into something of the national mood at the end of the Reagan era, yearning for the past, afraid of the future, letting the present slip by. At the end, Ed Harris emerges from the abyss, looking beatific, enlightened. He has seen a superior race, and he knows it loves us. He will no longer clench nor scream. The Abyss is nutty as hell but almost as unguarded as a diary entry. Its intensity is genuinely felt and earned.

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One Comment on “The Abyss”

  1. Stacy Livitsanis Says:

    “Mastrantonio accepts her identity as Mrs. Clenched Teeth”

    Solid gold. One ambivalent reaction felt while watching The Abyss is yelling expletives at the reinforcement of women’s submissiveness to their husbands, while cheering and feeling exhilarated at just how bloody marvelous it is as a movie, the kind whose like we’ll never see again.


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