25 Years in The Abyss

James Cameron's underwater epic may have been too sappy to be deemed a classic—but that's because, for once, the director didn't bother to hide his politics.
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20th Century Fox

Twenty-five years after its release, The Abyss remains an oddity in director James Cameron’s filmography. But the fact that it's an oddity seems like an oddity. The underwater sci-fi epic, about a team of commercial drillers who stumble upon a deep-sea alien civilization, wasn't a flop by any means. It made more money than The Terminator and came very close to matching Aliens at the box office. It holds a higher critical rating than Avatar and Titanic (according to the almighty Rotten Tomatoes, at least). And yet it has utterly failed to reach the same levels of cultural saturation as Cameron’s other works.

Part of the reason it hasn’t endured may have to do with the ending of the film. The reviews at the time praised the usual Cameron panache and visual scale (most of The Abyss was filmed in the largest fresh-water filtered tank in the world at the time). Yet critics were almost universal in condemning the overtness of the film's anti-war themes and its Hands-Across-America finale, in which the aliens spare humanity from a watery end after witnessing Ed Harris's character send some lovey-dovey text transmissions his to estranged wife and sacrifice himself to disarm a nuclear weapon.

"The climax of The Abyss is downright embarrassing," said The Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson. USA Today called it "dopey." The New York Times called it "pretentious." "How many times can we be awestruck by Day-Glo Gumbies?" asked The Washington Post. "And why do these creatures always travel with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?" 

How fair are these assessments 25 years and a director's cut viewing later? The Abyss was certainly Cameron's most earnest and life-affirming effort up until that point (though Avatar may have surpassed it), largely eschewing the darkness of Aliens and Terminator. The film presents about as bright and optimistic a portrayal of extraterrestrial life as you can find in cinema. The aliens, basically giant underwater neon butterflies, are benevolent angels concerned for some unknown reason with our safety and enlightenment.

The movie’s most exciting scenes—such as the harrowing sequence in which the cramped environs of the deep-sea rig flood—make a strong case for The Abyss as a better disaster movie than a sci-fi one. And its most emotionally effective moments are entirely human, like when Ed Harris's Virgil Brigman breaks down while trying to revive his drowned ex-wife. But the urgency and claustrophobia created by the crew’s predicament dissipates too quickly as the movie starts pursuing its sci-fi aspirations.

And the ending? Well, it does require a sudden plunge into a Fisher-Price universe of peace, understanding, and Willy Wonka-inspired wallpaper, complete with a sort of Disney version of the warp sequence from 2001.

But the plunge seems less sudden when you realize that Cameron’s entire sci-fi filmography has been, basically, about trying to discourage warfare. Again and again in his non-Titanic works, military-industrial might fails to make right:

  • In Terminator, he imagined the global arms race backfiring with the instruments of war returning mockingly in human form.
  • Aliens, released a little more than a decade after the Vietnam War ended, portrayed a group of colonial marines—distinctly American in voice and appearance—wandering into enemy territory, heavily armed and overconfident in their perceived technological advantage. They were promptly routed (or more accurately, acid-burned and skull-punctured) by a technologically inferior rival. 
  • Terminator 2 featured an even deadlier robot than the first film, capable of perfectly mirroring human form and, Cameron seems to suggest, human nature.
  • In Avatar, once again, an American-style military force (featuring, in a nod to Born on the Fourth of July, a crippled veteran as its lead no less) is defeated by a native populations and pterodactyls in particular. 

What’s missing in The Abyss, (and certainly the eco-crazed Avatar) is subtlety. Yet if you don’t mind some heavy-handedness, the film remains as effective an anti-war vehicle as his other work. Like The Hunt for Red October, which would be released eight months later, it draws on Cold War paranoia and attempts to expand on Dr. Strangelove's fears about human error and communication in the era of nuclear war (albeit with a lot less humor than Strangelove). Michael Biehn is sufficiently creepy as the insane Navy SEAL Lieutenant Coffey, who, after being cut off from command and knowledge of the situation on the surface, decides that the logical course of action is to carry out his initial orders and nuke an alien civilization that he believes to be Soviet in origin. That plot line was plenty resonant in summer 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The message in Cameron's works may be simple, and the concepts not entirely original, but he has succeeded in speaking to a larger audience than most filmmakers with similar intentions. Of the top 20 highest grossing war films, only one, Oliver Stone’s Vietnam epic, Platoon, (which sits at No. 7) could be classified as explicitly “anti-war” (the top three moneymakers being Saving Private Ryan, 300, and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor). The next highest, Born on the Fourth of July, sits at No. 31. If we added Avatar to that list, it would rank No. 1 three times over.

Cameron's message has been both consistent and valuable, assuming you think its a message worth spreading. Consider his range of influence versus the competing reach of his evil twin Michael Bay, who has turned big-budget sci-fi into a vehicle for military promotion (see: Transformers). Yes, there is a contradiction inherent in making action-packed anti-war films. But if we’re going to have over-the-top blockbusters, we might as well appreciate the ones that preach peace and love. If The Abyss preached it a little too loudly, is that so wrong? 

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Daniel D. Snyder is a writer based in New Mexico.

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