An experimental undersea oil rig and its crew of rough and ready drillers are tasked with locating and searching for a lost naval submarine in a particularly deep trench. Due to a variety of circumstances, they are the only ones capable of reaching the sub and are made to accompany a trio of military divers to investigate and salvage the boat. Of course there is much more to it than that, one of which is the recovery of a nuclear warhead. Oh, and they make contact with an underwater alien intelligence, which may have been the cause of the accident.
Debate ensues between the military (of which one is suffering paranoia from pressure sickness) and the civilians about what to do as a massive storm far above has left them stranded and out of communication.
Supremely well acted and directed, the film employs early CGI techniques and delivers a powerful and moving story about first contact. A whole host of genres, from action and drama, to sci-fi and horror. Yet is does each superbly. A great cinematic experience.
That Moment In: The Abyss
Scene Setup: Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) has drowned, but due to the frigid temperature of the icy depths, she is still barely alive. Her estranged husband Virgil (Ed Harris) has dragged her back to the moonpool where the crew attempt to revive her.
Why it Matters: The crew. Most of the principle characters are in frame and each are flawless. It is clear these people depend on each other, love each other, and in this moment, need each other. Their emotional connection is moving to watch. Note how the respirator is seen from Lindsey’s point of view as it is removed from her face, cuing the audience that perhaps she is not yet lost. The camera then jumps far above and looks down on them all. Is this Lindsey in the proverbial out of body experience? Don’t give up, Virgil.
More: As many times as we have watched this moment, it is still difficult to get through. Ed Harris is an acting tour de force in this film and here is simply heartbreaking as he doggedly struggles to save the woman he has never stopped loving. There are a number of scenes throughout The Abyss that further showcase many of the actor’s incredible talents. The scene just prior to this is example. Virgil and Lindsey are trapped in a damaged, flooding mini-sub, slowing coming to realize the both can’t make it. Still, it is this moment, Lindsey’s rescue, that leaves the strongest impression. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, despite having no lines and laying limp throughout, is always the focus. She endures a tremendous amount of abuse from the crew in their efforts to “revive” her, and she is the largest presence in the scene, rightfully so. But we must return to Ed Harris. There is an ache in his voice that nearly transcends the scene. It cuts deep. “You never backed away from anything in your life. Now fight. Fight.”
The frantic come-back-from-near-death scene is nothing new in cinema. Who could forget Uma Thruman in Pulp Fiction? Or on the dinosaur island of Jurassic Park? Even comedy films like The Sandlot and Back to the Future II give it a try for laughs. Heck, James Bond revives himself (well, Vespa helps) in Casino Royale. What makes this scene in The Abyss any better?
In a word. Ed Harris. Okay, two.
We won’t go on about how this actor deserves far more credit than he gets (but we should). We’ll keep the conversation to The Abyss. It’s well known that Ed Harris will not talk about his experience filming this movie. The production was notoriously troubled, and Harris found the working conditions life-threateningly dangerous, reportedly nearly drowning, twice. He refused to do any publicity for the film and has not spoken about it in public since (He does appear in the 1993 Making Of documentary where much of the production problems are discussed. He is civil and mostly praises his fellow actors. The director describes Harris’s work as “amazing”). That director, James Cameron (Aliens, Titanic, Avatar) is well known for his abrasive style, but certainly gets his actors to perform. Here, Harris is a phenom, simply bursting with character in every frame. During the CPR scene, he channels a raw, guttural urgency that makes this the defining moment in the film.
That moment is the tipping point in the movie’s story arc. Until then, the relationship between Virgil and Lindsey has been volatile, despite the attraction. At one point, Virgil, furious over his estranged wife’s stubbornness, takes off his wedding ring and tosses it into the chemical toilet, only to clam down and retrieve it a moment later, wearing the blue stain on his hand for the remainder of the story.
While it is clearly homaging the adage “down the toilet”, the fact that Virgil feels his marriage is worth saving enough to reach into the basin to get back, if anything, the symbol of love, shows how the character thinks. He is a reactionary, initially explosive, then collected, methodical, and driven. This is conveyed in both the scene in the mini-sub and in the moonpool, though interestingly, while working to resuscitate her, it is reversed, shifting from the precise timing of CPR, to the fury and frenzy of slaps and screaming. His rescue of her is more for him than getting her to breath. It is, in every sense, saving her life, getting her to believe that he will do anything for her. Even sacrifice.
The motivation for the story are the aliens living on the ocean floor. They’ve made an attempt at contact, using their power for manipulating the water however they seem fit. When the film’s antagonist, Lt. Coffey (Micheal Biehn), sends a warhead down to the destroy what he thinks is a threat, Virgil decides someone must try and stop the detonation. The leader of the crew, it is his sacrifice.
It’s a one-way trip using untested liquid breathing technology. This creates conflict for Lindsey, especially now that she sees how desperately Virgil loves her. We feel it too and cannot help but wonder what we would do given the same circumstance.
The film shifts from ultra realism to sci-fi in the final act, but it does not diminish the story. As we mentioned, the Special Edition makes the journey far more believable and understandable. The aliens are beautifully realized and their world seems suitably foreign yet fitting well in the undersea environment. The message of the film, which we won’t reveal, is never ambiguous, exceedingly so toward the end, perhaps a little too much for our tastes. After the rollicking ride with the humans, experiencing the dramatic ups and downs, it is a difficult to switch our empathy toward creatures we have no connection with.
The Abyss is a real achievement in film-making and the contributions from all involved are obvious. Alan Silvestri‘s score is sweeping and yet carefully nuanced, with particularly nice work leading to the CPR scene and the finale. The Oscar winning special effects still hold up very well. But it is the acting that propels this movie. And that is best revealed in Lindsey’s rescue.