|James Cameron Director||previously directed Aliens|
The crew of an underwater oil rig are tasked with assisting a SEAL team to reach a downed submarine. Things go wrong. And they're not alone.
Industrial Light & Magic, who were responsible for the special effects on The Abyss, utilized revolutionary 3D technology to create the water tendril. Touch ups on bad renders were done with the first version of a new photographic editing tool: Photoshop.
7 More Quotes
Goddammit, you bitch! You never backed away from anything in your life! Now fight!
|Ed Harris||Bud Brigman|
|Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio||Lindsey Brigman|
|Michael Biehn||Lt. Coffey|
|Leo Burmester||Catfish De Vries|
|Todd Graff||Alan 'Hippy' Carnes|
|John Bedford Lloyd||Jammer Willis|
|J.C. Quinn||Arliss 'Sonny' Dawson|
|Kimberly Scott||Lisa 'One Night' Standing|
|Captain Kidd Brewer Jr.||Lew Finler|
|George Robert Klek||Wilhite|
|See Full Credits|
The Abyss is a 1989 science fiction movie written and directed by James Cameron. The film made ground-breaking use of computer-generated imagery, but day-to-day filming was made extremely challenging by the underwater setting.
The Abyss was a labour of love for Cameron, who had a long-standing interest in marine biology and underwater exploration. Coming off the surprise hit The Terminator and the huge critical and commercial success of Aliens, he chose to work on his own material.
His lead actors were Ed Harris, whose star-making role had been in 1983’s The Right Stuff, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Color of Money, and frequent Cameron collaborator Michael Biehn, who had worked with the director on both The Terminator and Aliens.
The film opens deep underwater near the Cayman Trough, as the USS Montana’s instruments pick up an anomalous presence. It accelerates impossibly quickly, then the submarine’s electronics go offline and turbulence forces it off course. The electronics come back online too late to prevent the vessel running aground on rocks.
Twenty miles away, the Benthic Explorer oil rig receives some unexpected visitors. The U.S. Navy needs to know what happened to their sub and to rescue any survivors, and the Explorer’s experimental underwater rig, Deepcore, is the only way to get there before the approaching stormfront of Hurricane Fred cuts off access. The foreman of the drilling crew, Bud Brigman, is wary, but his team is won over by the promise of triple overtime.
A team of Navy SEALs led by Lt. Coffey joins the crew on the Deepcore, along with Lindsey Brigman, the rig’s designer (and Bud’s estranged wife). Lindsey is fiercely opposed to using Deepcore for the rescue mission and accuses Bud of selling out by agreeing to it; he throws his wedding ring into a chemical toilet after their fight, but changes his mind and fishes it back out moments later.
The SEALs are confident about their mission; they bring with them high-tech equipment, including a fluid breathing system that they're happy to demonstrate on Hippy's pet rat, and strict military discipline, which the crew are less keen on. Coffey notices his hands trembling, a symptom of pressure-induced psychosis, but conceals it.
A team of divers, both military and from the Deepcore team, ventures into the wreck of the Montana, where they find the bodies of its crew. Coffey secures the vessel’s code book while Bud and Jammer look for survivors. Jammer struggles to remain calm when surrounded by the remains of the drowned, and when his torch goes out and a blue glowing light appears, he panics and slams his tank into a hatch trying to swim away, requiring immediate medical evacuation. Outside, Lindsey’s submersible loses power temporarily and she witnesses something passing at high speed.
News reports from the surface show political tensions rising even as the hurricane closes in, with Russian and Cuban vessels circling the area. Coffey reports Lindsey’s sighting to his superiors and is assigned a new mission - to recover the nuclear warhead from the Montana. The SEAL team take the flatbed back to the submarine.
Without the flatbed, the umbilical cord connecting Deepcore to the Benthic Explorer can't be detached, which becomes crucial with the onset of Hurricane Fred. A winch is destroyed and plunges underwater; it narrowly misses Deepcore, sliding down into the trench instead - and drags Deepcore behind it, still connected by the umbilical cord. The rig is badly damaged and starts to flood rapidly; several of the crew are killed, including Finler who drowns trapped behind a sealed hatchway despite Bud’s efforts to rescue him; Bud narrowly escapes the same fate with help from Catfish.
The survivors are completely cut off from the surface; Lindsey estimates that they have only twelve hours of oxygen left. While she is outside the rig attempting repairs, an ethereal vessel appears - clearly not the product of human technology. She approaches it, first with caution and then with awe. The photo she manages to take convinces the crew that it’s not a Russian submarine down here, but a non-terrestrial intelligence, or 'NTI'. Only Coffey, increasingly paranoid as his psychosis becomes more and more evident, does not share their sense of wonder.
Lindsey and One Night work together to program a remote-operated vehicle to descend into the trough and seek out the NTIs, but the NTIs find them first. A tentacle of water enters Deepcore via the moon pool and makes its way to Bud and Lindsey. It hovers in front of them, mimicking their facial expressions in a clear attempt to communicate. Then it starts to move, leading them to the nuclear warhead, until Coffey slams a bulkhead closed on it, turning the severed tentacle back into lifeless water.
Coffey is more and more convinced that this is a threat and that he is the only one willing and able to deal with it. He straps the warhead to the remote-operated vehicle that was programmed to descend into the trench; Hippy catches him doing so on CCTV, but the SEALs draw guns on the Deepcore crew and confine them in the kitchen to stop them from intervening. One of the SEALs has doubts about Coffey’s grasp on sanity, but the other remains fiercely loyal.
The crew are rescued by Jammer, who has recovered enough to leave the infirmary. Coffey has barred the access hatch to the moon pool, so the only way to reach it is through the flooded section of the rig. Catfish flags halfway through the gruelling swim, but Bud manages to reach the moon pool, where he finds Coffey contemplating the nuke. He painstakingly creeps up and tries to disarm Coffey, but Coffey catches him, draws his weapon and pulls the trigger - on an empty magazine, his ammunition having been removed by his more cautious comrade.
The fight begins with Coffey’s combat knife vs. Bud’s makeshift length of pipe, but descends to a hand-to-hand struggle in the water. The combat veteran gets the upper hand and starts to choke Bud out - but Catfish makes it to the moon pool after all, and comes to the rescue. Coffey manages to fleet into the submersible with the warhead while Bud and Catfish are freeing the rest of the crew. Bud pursues him, first in a diving suit and then with Lindsey in a second submersible, trying to retrieve the ROV and the nuke.
The chase escalates into an underwater dogfight, with both vessels badly damaged by the end. Coffey’s powerless ship tumbles over the edge and down into the trench, where it implodes under the pressure, killing him. Bud and Lindsey are in little better shape - their submersible is flooding, the power is out, the radio is down, and they have only one suit. They debate what to do as the water rises, and Lindsey insists on the logical solution - that he allow her to drown in the icy water and then revive her at Deepcore, as hypothermia should allow her to be saved within a narrow window of opportunity. They kiss, then Bud puts on the helmet and watches his wife die. He swims back to Deepcore with Lindsey’s body. The crew tries to revive her, but the defibrillator is out of power and manual CPR doesn't get any response. The others give up, but Bud refuses to stop trying, screaming at Lindsey to fight. Against all odds, she starts to breathe again.
Coffey may be gone but the nuke is still out there. Bud suits up, using the experimental fluid breathing system with assistance of Ensign Monk, and descends into the abyss. He is in contact with the crew via a text communicator, who watch as he breaks the world record for the deepest suit dive and continues to descend. The messages from Bud become increasingly unintelligible while Lindsey talks to him, trying to keep him sane. Then he reports seeing light below, light everywhere. "Touchdown." He reaches the ROV and the nuke, and Monk talks him through disarming it. They succeed, but Bud’s liquid oxygen is almost gone. He tells Lindsey that he knew it was a one-way ticket, even as she begs him to try and return.
The light intensifies, and an NTI appears and takes Bud by the hand, leading him to a huge underwater city that leaves Bud awestruck. He is deposited in a chamber and the water recedes, forming a safe corridor for him. There he meets the NTIs in person. They show him images of his own self-sacrifice and his last messages of love to Lindsey - the reason they have saved him.
On the surface, the storm passes abruptly and the sun emerges. Radio contact between Benthic Explorer and Deepcore is restored. The Deepcore crew have to report the loss of seven people, including Bud, and request assistance. Then a text message from Bud comes in - "Virgil Brigman back on the air. Have some new friends down here. Keep pantyhose on. You're gonna love this."
Instruments show something enormous rising up the wall of the trench - the underwater city surfacing. It carries with it both the Explorer and Deepcore, as the surviving crew climb out into the sunlight. Bud himself emerges from a passageway leading into the city, and is reunited with Lindsey and his team.
The film’s underwater setting presented challenges for everyone involved in making the film. The sets were built within a huge tank, and construction ran constantly behind schedule - the Deepcore set was still being worked on even while the tank was being filled with water. Filming underwater requiring careful lighting, communication systems to reach the crew on the surface, and a team of safety divers, not to mention scuba and hard helmet diving training for the cast. The audio team had to re-dub the respirator noises to be less obtrusive, and the effects team had to learn to operate puppets underwater.
In addition to practical effects, the film made extensive use of CGI; ILM pioneered new techniques on The Abyss that would go on to be used in the mainstream of VFX. The actors faced new challenges including acting in front of a blue screen and expressing awe at the sight of unearthly creatures when there was nothing for them to react to (except a junky rubber hose standing in for the water tentacle). Harris and Mastrantonio’s faces were digitally scanned and that data used to create the effect of the water tentacle mimicking their expressions.
The film was a notoriously difficult shoot. The technical difficulty of filming underwater made for an unpredictable schedule; the cast was required to be on hand at all times, and regularly spent hours in the water waiting for the chance to film one brief scene. This only worsened when bad weather destroyed the tarpaulin covering the tank, necessitating night shoots from that point on.
Particular lowlights included Harris running out of air while filming in the ‘fluid breathing’ suit at a time when his safety diver couldn’t get to him, and then being given a respirator upside down which nearly caused him to drown, and Mastrantonio storming off set after the camera failed during one of many, many takes of a particularly difficult scene, exclaiming "We are not animals!". On another memorable occasion, everyone on set was plunged into complete darkness underwater when the generator failed.
The Abyss was released to a mixed but generally positive reception and was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning the prize for Best Visual Effects. One common source of criticism was that the ending seemed to take an sharp turn away from the claustrophobic tension that characterised the rest of the film, which can be attributed at least in part to the extensive cuts made to reduce the film's running time.