The Abyss

You might remember this 1989 James Cameron movie.

Yeah that one. I caught up with it about halfway through last night, and I don’t think I’d seen it in maybe a dozen years. I remember having wanted to like it as a kid, as I was into stuff like aliens and Atlantis, but I also remember feeling as though the underwater intelligences were hardly emphasized, almost as an afterthought, and that the main plot revolved around some boring adult drama stuff blah blah Cold War. And also that the ending was horribly unsatisfying.

Man, I was right, especially about the ending. Okay so the final plot point is that Ed Harris needs to go like four miles deeper than their submarine already is, by himself, in just a diving suit whose helmet won’t implode because it’s filled with pink breathing fluid instead of air. They claim that it’s similar to the stuff you breathed “for nine months” in the womb, but I thought oxygen was supplied by the umbilical cord? At any rate, down he goes, until he’s greeted by one of these non-terrestrial intelligences who just kind of glows and blinks at him for a while before taking his hand and leading him to this grand underwater city.

Earlier we had seen what we assumed to be a ship belonging to these guys, though it was fluid and seemingly bioluminescent. One of the crew had suggested that “their whole technology” is based on manipulating water, so okay, I can suspend belief enough for that, it’s a cool idea anyway. So as Ed Harris and this alien are careening through this underwater city we imagine, Okay, maybe these skyscraper-like structures are made of water, whether they freeze it or otherwise fix it molecularly by ionizing it or something?, look, I’m not a chemist.

So these creatures provide a little bubble-room for Ed Harris to breathe in. Everyone up in the sub thinks he’s dead because his fluid was scheduled to run out of oxygen. They’re reporting this to the surface, where a big tanker thing is about to rescue them, when Ed starts typing more messages to them on his power glove. “Made some new friends down here” or something. “Keep your pantyhose on. You’re gonna love this.” Then there are all these tremors, and Chris Elliott is on sonar going “It’s everywhere!, it’s everywhere!”, until finally what appears to be the whole underwater city surfaces, its big skyscrapers revealed to be made of nothing more than purple molded plastic. Everybody just kind of grins at how pretty it is, seemingly not slightly fazed by it, then Ed Harris and what’s-her-name kiss, then the credits roll.

So you’re left wondering a million things: Did their whole underwater city rise up, or was it just some craft? Why is their city made of purple molded plastic? Where are the creatures at this point? Within some pressurized tank in the depths of the city/craft? Assuming that they evolved totally independently of us, and are essentially deep-ocean “aliens,” how would they survive surfacing like that? Surely they didn’t just send their city up to show everybody while they remained down there. Are they more intelligent than us? Have they known about us all along? If so, why is a brief encounter watching Ed Harris cough up some pink fluid impetus enough for them to finally reveal themselves? If not, why aren’t they scared shitless by us? And isn’t surfacing your whole damn underwater city kind of a graceless way to announce your existence? What the hell happens in the hour following the end of the movie? Everything I described happens in the space of about five minutes, isn’t that kind of rushed for events that are so significant? It’s just so lackluster. In real life we’d have just acknowledged their existence, then slowly started sending down gold records to introduce them to Billie Holiday and the decimal number system and other things that define us as a species.

And how am I expected to care about some paranoid Red-scared Navy guy with a nuke when there are god damn ALIENS around? What do you want this movie to be about, anyway? Subplots are supposed to be less overwhelming than that, just something to help give the main plot momentum, like Paul Reiser in Aliens wanting to become rich off the alien specimens. That subplot threw a monkey wrench into things like it should have; the nukes thing in The Abyss is just a distraction and an annoyance. It’s like sticking a globe-threatening meteor into The Exorcist; I’m trying to watch a movie about a damn exorcism here, take your stupid meteor elsewhere.

Independently evolved deep-sea intelligence is a great science fiction premise, why did it have to be wasted on such a crappy movie.

2 Replies to “The Abyss”

  1. Liam says:

    I too remember being really disappointed by it as a kid, I think it’s actually the earliest memory I have of being really let down by a follow-up movie. Not that it’s a sequel to anything, but after Terminator and Aliens I kind of assumed that James Cameron was a dude who would only make awesome films.

    I saw the Special Edition version a while back, there’s a lot of stuff the studio made him cut to make it shorter. There’s this whole running plot about how the aliens are threatening to destroy major cities around the world with tidal waves, kind of a “knock us back to the stone age before we nuke and/or pollute everything” plan, and Ed Harris going down there and doing a direct first contact somehow sorts it out and the politicians all agree to be friends and the aliens back off and that’s why everyone’s so chirpy at the end.

    But it’s still nonsensical and badly-paced and flat. I can deal with films being po-faced or vapid, but when they’re both that’s usually the kiss of death

  2. Jay says:

    Well it’s good to hear there was at least intended to be more substance to it.

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