In the Heart of the Sea
Greg Cwik on The Abyss: Special Edition

The Abyss: Special Edition screens at Museum of the Moving Image April 14 & 18, 2024.

Consider the jellyfish, feared pest of wiry-limbed children splashing in the sun-glinting waves at the beach; consider their baleful beauty, their iridescent simplicity. They have no respiratory system, no circulatory. They are boneless, brainless, bloodless, undulating things glowing like gentle stars sunk in the sea. They are made for metaphor. Do they feel? Do they dream? Those diaphanously drifting creatures are what I think of when we see the aliens in James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), out of darkness, coruscating, exhaling pretty, purple light, beckoning.

Cameron plunges into the benthic and tells a tale of underwater drillers who encounter curious beings in the depths where the sun doesn't reach, entities who possess the physical and metaphysical majesty of the Medusozoa (hues, here, of Ernst Haeckel, who made a series of lithographs about the beguiling beauty of jellies in the late 1800s), and whose intentions are similarly unknown. They are world riddles, but we never find out which world. Our characters term them “NTIs,” or Non-Terrestrial Intelligence. This is Spielbergian spectacle that flaunts groundbreaking special effects and anxiety-inducing suspense, but in its heart, the film is, even more than a display of formal dexterity and Jules Verne–like imagination, a sentimental romance—unconventional, yes, but totally honest, and that's what gives the film its shimmering spirit. Cameron was going through an acrimonious divorce at the time, which likely influenced Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's characters. As David Thomson says in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Cameron's real life-long subject is marriage. (In his entry on Harris, Thomson refers to his role in The Abyss as, simply, “the husband.”)

Being a James Cameron film, The Abyss is known for its technical braggadocio. The draconic director makes unrepentant demands of everyone in his cast and crew, who suffer for his art—he almost killed Ed Harris by drowning him and made poor Mastrantonio endure hours of being slapped while topless. The production was wildly irresponsible and insanely ambitious, and, in the end, Cameron and his long-suffering cast and crew pulled it off. The set was submerged in 55 feet of water (7.5 million gallons) in an abandoned nuclear reactor. Though the primordial CGI is what people still talk about, Cameron and co. use sundry clever practical effects (he did, after all, make his bones with Roger Corman), such as draping beads over the top of the tank to give the water the aphotic lightlessness of the sea while still allowing the viewer to see what’s happening. Mikael Salomon shot the film in Super 35, using all kinds of tricks with exposure, aperture, and intricate lighting rigs to bring to life Cameron's ambitious, uncompromising vision. The special effects were shot on 70mm and VistaVision, giving gorgeous clarity to the human chaos, a lyricism to the tension. While a little silly, the film transcends the usual gaudiness and wiseacre piss-taking of ’80s Hollywood blockbusters—of one-line-spitting manly men with bionic biceps shooting their way through a bevy of bad guys, films mostly bereft of love and sex—with its earnestness; and in its grandeur and pensiveness, it reaches cosmic heights, even in the deep darkness. Through painstaking control and pugnacious rule, Cameron realizes Coleridge’s notion of the sea as a “realm of unspoiled nature and a refuge from the perceived threats of civilization.”

Now, with the 171-minute extended cut of The Abyss remastered gorgeously in 4K and rereleased theatrically, aesthetically ravishing and lucid, the ocean clear and honest and the sweat shiny on frightened faces, Cameron rejuvenates his least iconic film (save for Piranha II, which he doesn't count) by adding more moments of people talking, people brooding, people bickering; slow, serene shots of endless sea, pretty and impermeable; and conjuring a heavier atmosphere of encroaching ruination, both above and below. The technical bombast retains its power, but the extended cut is concerned with more emotional matters. In the early, banal behavior of the working-stiff crew, in their interactions and the unsaid meanings behind innocuous utterances and the contradictory, incongruous interactions of lapsed lovers, there is authenticity. This is how Cameron gives the struggle of ragtag proletariats trying to survive an impossible scenario the grandeur of an ancient epic. Like Ridley Scott and Francis Ford Coppola, Cameron loves to go back and play with his films; but where Scott's Blade Runner or Coppola's director's cuts (The Cotton Club, Twixt, Apocalypse Now Redux and the final cut, and especially The Godfather Coda) are improvements, Cameron’s are hit-or-miss, with added moments of intensity not quite mitigating lame ideas (Newt’s parents coming across the derelict ship and getting face-hugged in Aliens, a decision which saps the subsequent scenes of suspense; Michael Biehn appearing as an apparition in Terminator 2).The Abyss extended cut is Cameron's finest, an unequivocal improvement that, at almost three hours, never sags; the changes add to and augment the spectacle not by adding more but by delving deeper into the vulnerability of humanity through the relationship of its two main characters.

The film now opens with a quote from Nietzsche: “...when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” This simple sentence instantly clarifies the new tone, or rather the spirit of the film as Cameron intended; the film, a half-hour longer, is now slower and more loquacious, yet still perpetually simmering with the threat of violence, both articulated and reticent, that, when it erupts, not just as dictated by Hollywood blockbuster regulations but because the reason and rhythm of every scene carefully accrues into inevitability, packs a much bigger emotional wallop. Peripheral scenes make the film more coherent, more emotionally developed. We get hang-around moments with the crew, working-stiff raillery that quickly convinces us that this is a coterie of people who know and care about and annoy each other. There's a country song that briefly unites the crew, and Bud (Harris) and Lindsey (Mastrantonio) argue over the dissolution of their relationship, the ineradicable love between them still palpable but now encumbered by the resentment of disappointment and broken promises. Their history is genuine, as when Bud is snoring, and Lindsey tells him to roll over, and he does so without waking. A seemingly inconsequential moment where Lindsey apologizes for “rambling” is intimately revealing about her feelings that, while unuttered, remain perdurable, like a bad habit. Establishing a believable past is essential when the big emotional scenes come later, and they stand beside Leo and Kate on a floating door only big enough for one.

It's not the aliens that we should fear, or even the sibylline sea with its fathomless phantoms, but the humans, the alpha male military man and ostensible protector of humans, too stubborn to admit he might be suffering from the underwater crazies despite being warned (by a woman). The unstable Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn) is a jerk earlier, as when Bud asks the soldier to take it easy on his crew and Coffey despotically rebuts, assigning himself ruler of this undersea dominion. He puts his ego before the safety of everyone else, proclaims war on an entire species, a real American hero. In a high-tech haven soon to be just another wreck, the violence comes from testosterone and good old-fashioned brute force. Coffey's reaction to experiencing the impossible is to start a nuclear war—an antagonistic aggression not so different from what’s happening up on the surface. The nuke is quintessential Cameron, who has always been obsessed with technology, how it is something that can be used for good, an exciting symbol for human progress, but is instead often a harbinger of doom, a product of human megalomania, from Skynet and settlements on alien planets to a big ship erroneously considered “unsinkable.” Here, he once again fetishizes technology while remaining cognizant of its terrible possibilities in the wrong hands. The good guys are oil drillers, an inspired decision in the inherent moral complications of such a vocation.

After Coffey’s departure two-thirds of the way through the movie, it becomes clear that the relationship between Bud and Lindsey is the soul of The Abyss, especially in the extended cut. The big-budget action and expensive effects are not used merely as tools for manufacturing escapist entertainment, but to tell a story about a broken couple who, thrust into an impossible situation, find that they still love each other. At different points in the film, each is forced to witness the other die, confessing their love with trembling voices, and each time love saves them.

Cameron’s reverence for the ocean’s sublimity is redolent of Herman Melville, who wrote:

“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.”

Except that in Cameron's film, the treachery occurs in pressurized rooms, over radio headsets and barked as orders from the mouths of men, and the sharks and cannibals come from land, with authority of the United States government. With Cameron’s recurring obsession with military technology and war restored, the 171-minute version of The Abyss is more apocalyptic, with the intimate stakes blown up to biblical proportions, but it is, in its grandiloquence, ultimately more hopeful. What does it mean when a filmmaker mired in a bitter divorce (his second, with two more divorces still to come) saves the life of his lead character with his wedding ring? Or when a man slaps his wife back from the dead? The backdrop of eternal escalation between the USA and USSR is mentioned briefly on a television program in the original cut, but now pervades the film with more dread and promises of oblivion, a symbol of the willful self-liquidation of the human race, and drastically alters the film as both big-budget entertainment and human melodrama.

The most significant change, which fundamentally alters the entire film, is the ending: the NTIs are revealed to be neither harmless, benevolent visitors, nor iniquitous invaders, but godly creatures who can, if they want, wipe out all life on Earth—not for fun, or out of spite, or Machiavellian power, but because, as they show Bud in a montage of news clips detailing the nature of humanity, our destiny is war, devastation, annihilation. The aliens, of course, aren’t wrong about the ouroboros of violence that is humanity. So why do they let us live? Because of Lindsey and Bud's love. The conclusion is both Homeric and sentimental. As much anger and resentment as there is between them, love persists. Love, these wise beings know, can save you; it makes you want to be better, makes you want to live, and as painful as it is when things go wrong, that inimitable power remains.

The Abyss is Cameron’s first big softie movie, a work of at times unbearable tension that finds stubborn optimism in life-threatening endeavors. The extended cut's extravagant, effects-heavy climax has the hallucinatory, ontological air of 2001: A Space Odyssey, made not by a grouchy, cerebral perfectionist but a grouchy, romantic perfectionist whose abrasive, tyrannical personality and obsession with technology belies the inner sweetie we see here and in his subsequent films. Love is the great redeemer.