THE ABYSS: How I Learned To Keep Loving And Stop The Bomb

A deep dive into James Cameron’s classic.

“What are you still wearing that for?” Lindsey Brigman asks her estranged husband, eyeing his hand. “I dunno. Divorce ain't final. Forgot to take it off,” Bud replies, sheepishly looking at his wedding ring, a metal band which illuminates not just the characters and the movie’s deeper themes, but also the economy and structure of James Cameron’s writing in 1989’s The Abyss.

That particular scene, however, didn’t appear in the film as released, only appearing four years later when the success of Terminator 2: Judgement Day afforded Cameron the opportunity to restore nearly 30 minutes of footage and finally complete a climactic visual effects sequence upon which the movie’s third act depended. The Abyss Special Edition had a limited theatrical run prior to its LaserDisc and VHS release, playing to houses packed with fans happily mouthing along with the familiar dialogue and weeping openly at its central scenes of death and rebirth, discovering the movie afresh through the expanded character development and extended, more satisfying conclusion.

I was one of them: the ’89 version was the first Cameron movie I saw, and while I instantly fell in love its blend of human drama and science fiction, there was a gnawing sense of things missing, of scenes that didn’t quite fit together properly, of a major thematic loop missing from the final act. Reading Orson Scott Card’s novelisation (written with such close cooperation the actors were using Card’s character backstory as their own) in which all these pieces fell into place, was one of my earliest insights into the realities of film-making, the way the finished product is a reflection of commercial concerns, production difficulties, on-the-day changes and editorial choices. Made with the aim of realising Cameron’s vision as fully as possible, the Special Edition was a joyful catharsis, the story finally playing out with all its nuances revealed.

When the Special Edition made its way onto a double DVD set, its extras included a text commentary track which, as that restored scene played, included the URL of a company in British Columbia which was making replicas of Bud’s ring to order. I got them to make one for me.

Chunky and unadorned, it perfectly matches The Abyss’ script’s description of “a massive band of pure titanium (something your fiancée might have picked out if she had a degree from MIT)”. Light but strong, its form follows function the way spacecraft fittings and race car parts do, the sort of precision engineering to which human lives are entrusted, such as an underwater oil-drilling platform like the one in which Bud and Lindsey are talking, Deepcore II.

She’s not supposed to be there: in the wake of the sinking of the USS Montana nuclear submarine, Deepcore and its crew have been loaned to the US Navy for a rescue mission which Lindsey, as its designer, insists on joining in case the experimental rig is jeopardised. Once aboard the Benthic Explorer mothership, she swaps the acceptable yet unthreatening femininity of her corporate garb (her opaque pantyhose and simple pumps contrasted with the SEALs’ fatigues and boots as they disembark from their helicopter in an unmistakably Cameron shot) for a coverall and sneakers, boards a submersible as pilot to the Navy SEALs and follows the rig’s umbilical cable to the seafloor.

“I didn’t come down here to fight with you,” Lindsey tells Bud, but they fight anyway. It’s the kind of fight any couple working through a separation has, with attempts to take the high ground, cajoling, and coded recriminations all levered on shared history while hurt and anger bubble under the surface. Bud attempts to get her to admit she still cares for him and can’t replace him, because, while he affects to have bought into the reputation Lindsey’s earned as “queen bitch of the universe”, he’s using it as emotional armour: in truth, it’s him who still loves, and can’t replace his spouse.

As they tour the rig he appeals to her memories of better times, using humour rather than manipulative self-pity, but Lindsey refuses to engage, her arguments as rational as her choice of a material valued more for its mechanical properties than its rarity value when choosing the wedding ring she sees he’s still wearing. He gets under her skin, though, and she kicks him out, slamming the cabin door and folding her arms just as angrily as he tugs the ring from his finger and throws it into a toilet. It’s but a moment before he returns, puts a hand down the pan, retrieves the ring and replaces it on his finger, blue chemicals staining his skin as he shakes his head at his own lovelorn foolishness.

It might seem odd to find this mushy stuff coming to the foreground of a story about subs, SEALs and high-tech hardware, and while it certainly wasn’t the deep-sea do-over of Aliens some audiences expected, it’s textbook Cameron: despite their broad examination of the tension between technology’s potential as a force of both humanity’s destruction and its salvation, every one of his scripts revolves around relationships, be they forming, failing or finished. Cameron’s strong heroines, including Lindsey, are rightly celebrated, but the emotionality his heroes display is an equally distinctive quality of his work: these are men who allow themselves to be vulnerable or unsure, who don’t take part in conventional masculine power plays, who explicitly reject the macho alpha stereotype.

The Abyss embodies this stereotype in Lieutenant Coffey, moustachioed commander of the SEAL team, who expects that the world should run according to his schedule and needs, who has time for neither civilian soft skills of negotiation and compromise nor women assuming authority. He bats aside Lindsey’s experience as a rejection of his expertise and her disdain for the military as a civilian irrelevance, but it’s his singleminded devotion to his mission which results in the Explorer’s umbilical crane collapsing into the sea, dragging the rig to the very edge of an abyssal trench.

As Deepcore floods, Bud finds himself racing through the torrent, desperately reaching out to stop an automatic door before it seals him off from the rest of the rig. It jams, his wedding ring caught in its jamb, giving Sonny and Catfish time to free Bud by disabling the motor, their human altruism overcoming a peril created by dumb, if well-meaning, technology. Once the next hatch is dogged Bud collapses and kisses the token of Lindsey’s love and intelligence, the ring which just saved his life, and pauses to take stock.

There’s elegance to the foreshadowing and payoff of these two ring-centred scenes, but they’re also providing a roadmap for the way love saves lives throughout The Abyss, moving steadily from the physical plane through the emotional and into the spiritual. By defining the conflicts between the occupants of Deepcore then isolating them from the rest of humanity, Cameron directly maps his driving themes of love, war and technology onto the characters, and every element’s pulling double duty in service of theme and narrative. The symbolism of the umbilical connecting Deepcore to its mothership is obvious, but there’s also the phallic nature of the Montana’s ICBMs packed with the very seeds of destruction, and the moonpool which, vaginalike, forms an opening between the safety and nurturing of Deepcore’s interior and the dark, cold dangers of the ocean beyond.

The contraction of scope also heightens the stakes: the characters are now fighting for survival, while the threat of the nuclear warhead Coffey has brought aboard Deepcore mirrors the escalating Cold War tensions at the surface, the unknown intents of the Russians in turn mirrored by those of the Non-Terrestrial Intelligences living in the abyss who inadvertently sank the Montana and now choose to reveal themselves to the humans intruding into their domain.

Lindsey’s delight in discovering an advanced alien intelligence is matched by Bud’s in watching her mind working, whereas Coffey, paranoia jacked up by the effects of depth and isolation, can still only see anything which is other as an aggressor (even more so when it’s phallic symbolism in the form of a cutting-edge CGI water tentacle which emerges from the moonpool) and determines to send the nuke to destroy the NTIs. Bud loses a physical fight with Coffey but Lindsey’s piloting experience wins their ensuing submersible battle, although both craft are left crippled at the brink of the abyss. Merely an arm’s length away, Bud and Lindsey can only watch through a bubble window as Coffey slips over the cliff edge, howling in impotent existential rage as his look into the abyss finds him wanting, crushed in its depths as the submersible implodes.

What greater love is there than surrendering your life for that of another? What greater expression of your love is there than entrusting them with your very life? How much more vulnerable can you be than when dying in someone’s arms? How rational can you be when the person you love lies dead before you? How hard will you fight to save them?

These are the questions at the beating heart of The Abyss, and it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that James Cameron’s filmmaking will never top the pivotal ten minutes the film takes to answer them: the established character traits, the performances, the directorial choices, the rhythms of the editing, the sound design and the realism of the production all combine in powerful cinema which only gains impact with repeated viewing.

Their crippled submersible flooding “like a sonofabitch”, the stakes are yet higher and more intimate, both physically and emotionally, as Lindsey rejects Bud’s offer of self-sacrifice in favour of a plan in which she drowns in the freezing water and he tows her to the rig to be revived. “You can tell me later,” she interrupts as Bud tries to express his love, the desperate kiss they share an act of affirmation and distraction before Bud must seal his helmet, only able to watch through his faceplate as she succumbs. His howl is not of rage, but pain.

Three times the defibrillator aboard Deepcore fails to revive Lindsey, and so Bud takes her life into his own hands, pumping her chest, breathing his life into her lungs, refusing to give up on her just as stubbornly as he couldn’t let go of his wedding ring. He screams, calls her a bitch to hurt her, pleads with her, dares her, bullies her back to life through sheer force of will.

There beside the moonpool, Lindsey is reborn, literally and figuratively.

“Big boys don’t cry, remember?” she tells Bud, brushing his cheek. Well, this big boy did, and still does every time, even while writing these words. His hand still blue, Bud looks at the woman he loves with open adoration of her bravery and resilience, tempered with the knowledge that he must now test her even as she tells him, “Next time it’s your turn, okay?”

Bud’s death and rebirth is much more symbolic. In contrast to Lindsey’s drowning, the amniotically pink fluid he takes into his lungs in the SEALs’ Deep Suit keeps him alive even as it deprives him of speech, infantilising him with its oversize helmet and pure whiteness. Remade by technology into a being able to survive the depths and pressures, he enters the moonpool and descends to the depths of the abyss in order to deal with the warhead at its bottom which still threatens both Deepcore and the NTIs.

Lindsey’s voice is his lifeline as he falls into the darkness, a mirror of his voice talking her back from her own black pit. It’s one of Cameron’s neat flips, the role-reversal multi-layered as The Abyss asks questions of Lindsey similar to those it asked Bud, and as she answers she peels away her own layers of emotional armour, exposing more of her true feelings as he falls, her words guiding him through tremors and hallucinations, reaching through his isolation with her own memories of better times and self-deprecating humour. It’s a gentler, quieter, monologue than Bud’s, built on emotions she’s kept locked away but can no longer control.

Bud’s deep dive resembles reports of near-death experiences: he departs the familiar safe world, enters the darkness and has something akin to an out-of-body experience, indicated by the use of progressively wider shots as he falls, in turn echoing the earlier shot looking down on Lindsey as she lay dead beside the moonpool. Finding himself moving towards a warm, bright light as he reaches bottom, Bud regains his faculties and defeats death itself by disarming the nuke.

This victory, however, is short-lived: low on oxygen, he cannot return, his symbolic death becoming literal. Lindsey tearfully appeals to technology’s potential fallibility in a bid to bring him back to her, but cannot deny the rationale of his sacrifice. Again, his acceptance of this fate is consistent with a near-death experience, as is the final declaration of love he makes before a winged being made largely of light appears, takes his hand and transports him to another realm: that of the NTIs, ethereal and angelic.

Here he is reborn again, coughing fluid from his lungs into the air-filled space the NTIs create and drawing a breath as deep as a baby’s first, but the NTIs’ have another reason for saving his life. They show him scenes of the military build-up on the surface, disrupted as they use their water-controlling technology to raise tsunamis on every coastline in an ominous demonstration of their power, justifying their actions to Bud with a reel of humanity’s violent atrocities. He can only watch, the everyman judged by and ashamed for the acts of humanity at its worst, as the sea threatens to wash the world away, pauses, then recedes as quickly as it rose, all at the NTIs’ behest.

“You could’ve done it,” Bud says. “Why didn’t you?” In answer, the NTIs flash up the messages Bud had sent Lindsey from a keypad strapped to his arm, primitive texts from the deep, concluding with three simple words:

LOVE YOU WIFE

Which brings us full circle, the way a wedding ring is a circle. It’s a circle not just of metal, but of trust, a symbol of eternity and unity, protection and affection, the opening at its centre a doorway to destiny. It’s the reason Bud wears his wedding ring even while his marriage is in its death throes: he believes in love, the way it pulls us together, drives us to do better, exposes the very best of our human qualities even when facing their very worst. It’s love that trumps hate and fear. It’s love that the NTIs believe make humanity worth saving.

The Abyss is full of thematic and narrative circles, from Lindsey’s description of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome precisely describing Coffey’s later symptoms to Jammer’s encounter with what he believes to be an angel leaving him out of play until the water tentacle cures him in exactly the same way Deepcore’s crew need no decompression before they emerge into the sunlight after the NTIs bring the rig to the surface.

It’s there, amid the membraneous spires of the alien city and redundant stranded warships that The Abyss closes one more circle. “They must have done something to us,” Hippy says. “Yeah, I think you could say that,” Lindsey replies, smiling as Bud emerges and they are reunited, Alan Silvestri’s strings rising as they kiss in the golden light of a Hollywood sunset, affirming a love which saved the world.

I wear my ring pretty much every day. The lacquer’s scuffed, but that’s just patina, and the machined-from-solid metal underneath is unscarred and perfectly round even after 16 years. It’s not a wedding ring. It hasn’t saved the world. The closest it’s been to saving my life is coming between clumsily-wielded breadknife and finger, but any time I reach a pair of closing elevator doors I imagine sticking my hand between them and re-enacting that scene, desperate to get to the woman I love, to save the people depending upon me, to make the world a less hateful, fearful place, one in which we work together according to our strengths, set aside childish things and embrace our full potential.

This, then, is the final circle The Abyss closes: life and love are worth fighting for.

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