James Cameron’s “The Abyss: Special Edition” (1989) deserves reappraisal …and a Blu-ray release.


Lost in the Abyss.

1989 was unquestionably the Summer of “Batman”. Everywhere you looked there was Batman-product; Batman cereal, a resurgence of comic book sales, toys, collectibles, and the late (great) Prince’s “Batdance” dominated the air waves. There were other big movies that summer; “Ghostbusters 2,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and “Lethal Weapon 2” (the latter two shared a screenwriter, Jeffrey Boam). Debuting at the end of the pack in early August was a troubled production from James Cameron, the director of “The Terminator” and “ALIENS”. This was James Cameron before his record-shattering successes with “Terminator 2” and “Titanic” (Best Picture of 1998), yet his reputation for exactitude, tenacity, escalating budgets and being every studio executive’s worst nightmare were already legendary. That said, it’s hard to argue with results, and James Cameron clearly knows how to make a movie. “The Abyss” (a story he first conceived of in high school) was about a submersible oil rig crew recruited for a dangerous search-and-rescue mission of a downed US nuclear submarine. That story alone could’ve made for a solid-enough action thriller, but wait–there’s more; the crew (along with a squad of trigger happy US Marines) also discover that humanity isn’t alone in the ocean depths…

Ed Harris’ “Bud Brinkman” does a Captain Kirk on behalf of humanity’s right to exist, despite our many evils.

Debuting in that very crowded summer of 1989, the nearly $70 million movie (a huge budget in those days) got lost in the shuffle, bringing in a disappointing $54 million in box office worldwide. It didn’t help that the version released to theaters cut about a half hour of vital storytelling material that would’ve made the narrative flow more smoothly. As it was, the theatrical cut of “The Abyss” disappointed many, including myself at the time. The aliens’ grandiose deus ex machina rescue of Bud Brinkman (Ed Harris) and his stranded oil rig crew in the final act feels out of nowhere, with only teasing hints of aliens (“NTIs”–non-terrestrial intelligences) throughout the movie. It’s as if the finale of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was surgically grafted onto “The Hunt For Red October”. While the performances, cinematography, dialogue and all other elements of “The Abyss” are terrific, I could tell something was off–as if an entire reel of the movie had been misplaced in the projection booth (yes, that was back in the day when movies were projected reel-by-reel on good ol’ 35 mm film, not digitally). Objectively, “The Abyss” was a good movie, but its hard left turn from gritty survival drama to alien first contact story prevented it from being a great movie. The shift in tone was just too abrupt.

In 1993 I got wind of a director’s cut of “The Abyss” (in those pre-internet days) that was being released exclusively to laserdisc. Yes, I had a laserdisc player at the time, but the disc was prohibitively expensive. I’d already plunked down $100 for the extended cut of “ALIENS” a couple of years earlier, so I had to decide between paying rent and utilities or buying “The Abyss: Special Edition” on laserdisc. Survival won.

Note: The theatrical cut of “The Abyss” runs 2 hours and 25 minutes, yet compared to the 2 hour and 50 minute running time of the Special Edition, it feels more like an extended trailer. I’m barely exaggerating.

The “moon pool” menu on “The Abyss” 2-disc DVD set.
Note: if you see this menu? ALWAYS choose the “Special Edition Version.” You’re welcome.

Years later, I married, settled down, and left my scrappier bachelor days behind. In 2000, while shopping at my local Costco (insert “Idiocracy” jokes here), I came across a 2-disc DVD of “The Abyss” with both theatrical and special edition cuts of the movie for the measly sum of $20 (!). I grabbed it, and watched all 2 hours and 50 minutes of the restored theatrical cut. It was marvelous; finally adding much needed meat and muscle to the barebones theatrical cut, with an entire subplot of the movie restored. Finally, the alien ending made so much more sense. It was like watching “The Abyss” with both eyes open, instead of just one.

Needless to say, I was very happy with the DVD until my wife and I upgraded to a widescreen TV in 2002, and I discovered that the DVD version of the movie was letterboxed only, with no enhancement for widescreen TVs. I either had to blow up the image (via the TV remotes screen size changer) or watch it with black matting bars across the top, bottom and sides of the image. It was like watching the movie through a mail slot.

Years later, my wife and I bought a Sony Blu-ray player which artificially zoomed letterboxed movies into an approximation of anamorphic widescreen enhancement, using digital upscaling to augment the lower resolution. It’s a far cry from 1080p Blu-ray, or even a solid 16:9 DVD, but it makes the movie watchable enough for my digital projector and 7 ft. collapsible screen as I took this ‘deep dive’ back into “The Abyss”…

“The Abyss: Special Edition” (1989/1993).

A sonar officer aboard the nuclear submarine Montana hears something he can’t believe.

Aboard the US nuclear submarine Montana, a young sonar operator is getting a signal from a very fast-moving target that the crew fears might be some new kind of Russian bogie, except that it is moving at impossible speeds for submerged vehicles. The craft narrowly avoids the sub, but also creates a momentary blackout that causes the ship to plunge into a narrow oceanic trench it was using to evade the craft. With propulsion still offline, the Montana is fatally wounded, and it begins falling to crush depth…

Note: The Special Edition now opens with the famous Nietzsche quote; “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” This was not in the original release, but it is restored for this version. The quote was also fittingly quoted by Hal Holbrook to Charlie Sheen in the 1987 movie “Wall Street.”

The Deepcore rig, an undersea oil platform designed by Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and captained by her soon-to-be ex-husband Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris).

The crashed Montana carries an arsenal of nukes aboard, and is a tantalizing target for would-be pirates or Russian operatives, so an emergency search-and-rescue operation is haphazardly put together between the US Navy and the civilian crew of oil workers aboard the “Deepcore” oil rig, which rests on the ocean floor, and is not far from the Montana‘s last known position. Deepcore was designed by Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) for the Benthic Petroleum Company, and is captained by by her soon-to-be ex-husband, Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris). Deepcore is tethered to a surfaced mothership, the Benthic Explorer, whose civilian crew are being coerced to cooperate with the Navy, over Lindsey’s express objections. Aboard Deepcore, Bud recalls his crew working outside the rig, including submersible ‘flatbed’ operator Lisa “One Night” Standing (Kimberly Scott) and proud redneck, Catfish (Leo Burmester), in order to bring them up to speed. They return through the rig’s “moon pool”; a large garage/bay, where the submersible “cab” vehicles for outside use are stowed, maintained, launched and recovered.

Our longer introduction to the submersible “cab” operator One Night Standing (Kimberly Scott); a country music-loving gal whose humor and cynicism mask deep empathy and surprising insight.

Note: The Special Edition gives us longer introductions to Bud’s memorable Deepcore crew, including “One Night,” who gets some of the movie’s best lines, and is memorably played by the scene-stealing Kimberly Scott. As he did with ALIENS, Cameron works his magic with this large ensemble; scripting lines of dialogue and bits of shorthand characterization to make “One Night,” Catfish, the formidably-sized Jammer (John Bedford Lloyd), Lew (Captain Kidd Brewer Jr.), and the rat-loving “Hippy” (Todd Graff) all very memorable. Sadly, actor Captain Kidd Brewer Jr. would take his own life in 1990, the year after the film was released.

Bud (Ed Harris) stands with his crew; Catfish (Leo Burmester), Lew (Capt. Kidd Brewer Jr.) and One Night (Kimberly Scott).

Benthic’s on-site executive, Kirkhill (Ken Jenkins), also agrees to allow a squad of Navy SEALs to set up their SAR operation at Deepcore, which means they will have to endure hours of pressure equalization before they can even set foot aboard the submerged drilling platform. Outraged that Deepcore is being sublet to the military, Lindsey insists on going with the Navy SEALs, let by the surly, unstable Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn). Bud agrees to their presence, but after a tense exchange followed by the promise of triple-pay, he tells his boss Kirkhill that “if things get dicey, I’m pulling the plug.” It’s bad enough Navy SEALs are commandeering his rig, but so is Bud’s almost ex-wife Lindsey–a situation that Bud’s rat-loving comm officer “Hippy” takes special delight in reminding him.

Note: While Hippy teases Bud about his flatlined relationship with Lindsey, the outwardly cynical yet compassionate One Night speaks candidly with her boss Bud, and has this to say about Bud’s ex; “She’s not as bright as she thinks she is.”

“And a par-tridge in a pear tree.”
The fleet’s in, as a trio of Navy SEALs, led by Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn, center) undergo pressure equalizing to board Deepcore.

As the blue collar oil riggers prepare to move the Deepcore platform, the Navy SEALs dock with it, and undergo the hours of pressure equalization before they can board the rig. Let by the ill-tempered Lt. Coffey (Michal Biehn) along with his grunts, Shoenick (Christopher Murphy) Wilhite (George Robert Klek), and the more relaxed medical officer, Ensign Monk (Adam Nelson). Right off, the headstrong Lindsey clashes with the surly, unstable Lt. Coffey. As she warns the SEALs to keep an eye out for any signs of “pressure sickness,” including shakes, slurred speech, paranoia, etc., Coffey immediately trivializes her concerns for their safety. Not hard to guess which of the Navy SEAL squad will come down with an acute case of it…

Note: One delightful scene restored for the Special Edition (which takes place right before the arrival of the SEALs) sees Bud, Hippy and One Night doing a singalong with Linda Ronstadt’s “Willing”, which is playing on One Night’s omnipresent boombox. From an editorial point of view, it’s a disposable scene, but it’s inclusion in the Special Edition is very welcome as it warms us up to these characters, while also illustrating the deep affection that leader Bud has for his crew.

Bud, Lindsey, Catfish, Hippy, Lew and the others watch as their situation goes from bad to worse.

With Lindsey and the SEALs aboard, the crew is then ordered to move the rig closer to the last known position of the Montana. Meanwhile, Deepcore is advised of a monstrous hurricane directly above them, which is pummeling their mothership, Benthic Explorer. Kirkhill advises Budd that they will have to act quickly to avoid the worst affects of the storm, since the surface vessel is still tethered to the submerged rig; providing Deepcore with communications and other essentials. Once Deepcore is in position, Lt. Coffey briefs the combined team of SEALs and oil workers, warning them that they will encounter potential hazards, such as radiation, dead bodies, etc. With Lindsey parked outside the Montana in a sea cab, the combined team boards the submarine, only to find many drowned crewmen but no survivors. Jammer (John Bedford Lloyd) is freaked out by the sight of crabs exiting a corpse’s mouth, but calms down. Once separated from Bud, he sees a glowing light from below and breaks down. Bud thinks he’s hallucinating and takes him back to Deepcore, as Coffey and his SEALs engage in a clandestine plan to scuttle the vessel by taking one of its nuclear warheads–just in case the Russians attempt to salvage it. Jammer gets a bad case of the bends (nitrogen bubbles in the blood) after his panicked swim away from the submarine, and is placed into a stable coma by Ensign Monk.

Note: Ensign Monk (Adam Nelson) is the only decent Navy SEAL we meet, and he later sides with Lindsey and the Deepcore crew when he recognizes that his commanding officer has clear signs of pressure psychosis. Earlier in the film, when Monk and his fellow SEALs first boarded Deepcore, we saw a nice foreshadowing scene as Monk demonstrated “oxygenated perfluorocarbon”; a pink, translucent fluid that oxygen-breathing mammals, such as Hippy’s beloved pet rat “Beany”, can learn to breathe after some adaptation. It’s a little more work to force the fluid through one’s lungs, but it’s doable, as Monk assures Hippy when he tells him, “I’ve done this myself.”

Lindsey, in her flatbed min-sub, parks outside the wreckage of the Montana.
Most of the miniatures were shot dry-for-wet in smoke filled FX houses to simulate murky water. However, the actors were mainly shot wet-for-wet in submerged sets.

Meanwhile, the hurricane at the surface causes the collapse of its very heavy crane, which breaks off (sealing the operator inside) and plunges straight down to Deepcore’s position, which is being impacted by falling debris from the crane’s severance. The crane misses Deepcore, falling down the ocean cliff just ahead of it. However, the crane’s long umbilical lines violently pull the entire platform to the edge of the cliff as well. Below the cliff lies an abyss…a blackened, seemingly bottomless crevasse over two miles deep, well below crush depth. Deepcore lies at the edge of that abyss, crippled, out of communication with their mothership, and with failing life-support. By her engineering estimate, Lindsey guesses that Deepcore has about 12 hours of oxygen remaining, which she hopes to extend by suiting up to go outside and retrieving external emergency oxygen canisters along the hull.

Note: More bits are added back into Deepcore’s drag by the falling crane, which makes the entire sequence flow better than it did in the theatrical cut; we also see a crew member die during the disaster, whereas we previously saw only his already dead body in the theatrical cut. One moment that remains in both cuts of the film is Bud’s heavy bolt-like wedding ring (which he almost flushed down a chem toilet) literally saving his life by allowing him to wedge his hand into a mechanically closing compartment. He later kisses the ring, which he only admits to wearing because “the divorce ain’t final yet,” but it’s really because he’s still deeply in love with his wife.

Blinded by the light.
Lindsey has her first, wondrous encounter with the NTIs.

Fitted into a wet suit, Lindsey is outside of Deepcore when her electrical equipment and helmet lights fade out. Before she can investigate why, Lindsey sees a luminous, purplish-blue glow appearing all around her. She turns and sees curious “NTIs” (non-terrestrial intelligences) observing her work. The NTIs are translucent, humanoid/amphibian-looking creatures who are as comfortable in deep, heavy water as a butterfly is in the air. Their submersibles are much lighter and more fluid by design, and they seem to have a technology based on the manipulation of water itself. Lindsey reaches up to touch the gelatinous underbelly of their craft, and is so awed by the experience that she forgets all about her large camera! Clumsily readying the bulky Hasselblad, she clicks the shutter just as the NTIs quickly break off their investigation of Lindsey and whoosh away to the darkest depths.

Returning to Deepcore, Lindsey tells her story to the naturally skeptic crew, save for conspiracy-theorist Hippy, who really digs the idea of “NTIs” (“better than ETs!”). Her case isn’t helped by her photos, which reveal only nondescript bright streaks across a field of blackness. Lt. Coffey, who is beginning to show clear signs of pressure psychosis, thinks that Lindsey’s NTIs might actually be Russian submersibles, doing reconnaissance of their rescue operation while trying to locate the Montana‘s nukes.

Note: During Lindsey’s excursion outside the rig, we see Bud and One Night having a heart-to-heart with Bud about his nagging, persistent feelings for Lindsey. It’s clear that he still loves her very much, despite the fact that she claims to have a new man in her life. One Night thinks the otherwise brilliant Lindsey is a damn fool for divorcing a catch like Bud. One Night takes the role of Bones McCoy to Bud’s Captain Kirk, acting as his friend and confidante. Great scene for both characters.

Lindsey and Bud meet the saltwater pseudopod.

Tensions aboard the Deepcore escalate when Hippy uses an unmanned rover to spy on the portal outside of the Navy SEALs quarters, and he spots a live nuke they’ve brought aboard following their ‘rescue mission’ to the Montana. Bud is incensed, but unable to do anything, for the moment. With the clock still ticking on their remaining oxygen, the crew try to get some sleep to conserve air. Meanwhile, in the moon pool, a watery tentacle breaks the surface and cranes its way through the winding corridors into Deepcore’s living spaces. Its presence awakens the half-asleep Lindsey, who quietly awakens Bud. Other members of the crew are stirred awake by the sight of the object, which mimics the faces of Bud and Lindsey in a clear gesture of communication. Lindsey puts a finger inside of the tendril and takes it back to taste it; seawater. As suspected, NTI technology is based on the manipulation of water.

The pseudopod isn’t exactly thrilled that the SEALs brought a live nuke to its corner of the ocean.

The curious pseudopod seems amiable and friendly enough, as the Deepcore crew take turns ooh-ing and ah-ing at it in astonishment. Soon, the pseudopod discovers the nuclear warhead. This is where the s#!t hits the fan as Coffey walks in at that exact moment–and in his paranoid, pressure-psychosis delirium, he thinks the pseudopod wants to take his warhead. Coffey instinctively seals a mechanical door, which slices through the watery tentacle, causing the remainder of it to splash onto the deck as inert seawater, while the severed remainder retreats back to the waters of the moon pool and disappears. Coffey is clearly not well; he plans to release the tactical nuclear warhead (approximately 50 times the yield of Hiroshima) down the abyss and detonate it once it reaches the presumed habitat of the NTIs–essentially declaring war on an alien species.

Note: Michael Biehn, who so memorably played Sgt. Kyle Reese in Cameron’s “The Terminator,” and Corporal Hicks in Cameron’s “ALIENS,” gets a promotion and a chance to play a creepy bad guy again, as he played early on in his career when he costarred opposite the legendary Lauren Bacall the 1981 film, “The Fan.” After “The Abyss”, he would also have memorable roles in 1993’s “Tombstone” and more recently in The Mandalorian, Chapter 13: “The Jedi.”

Coffey looks like he needs to switch to decaf.

Sitting alone in the moon pool, the unhinged Coffey stands vigilant with this gun, as he prepares to drop an unmanned rover with the nuclear warhead attached. The rover was already preprogrammed by Hippy to look for the NTIs, so it will take the warhead straight to the bottom of the abyss. Bud and Catfish have a dangerous plan to swim up from outside of Deepcore through one of the external hatches (into near-freezing water) and enter through the moon pool in a slim chance of ambushing Coffey and stopping him. Lindsey begs him to reconsider, since Coffey is a trained killer, but she is overruled. Bud and Catfish are halfway to the moon pool when the older man realizes he can’t hold his breath as long as Bud, and Bud is forced to go it alone. Quitely entering through the waters of the moon pool, the barefoot Bud carefully creeps up on the unstable SEAL, but not before Coffey spins around and gives Bud a thrashing. Bud is winded and on the ropes, when Coffey hears a voice from behind yell, “Hey!” Coffey then spins around, just in time to catch Catfish’s meaty fist in his face (“They used to call this ‘the hammer’,” Catfish retorts). Catfish summoned just enough willpower to save Bud’s life.

Unfortunately, the two men lose their grip on the slippery, deadly Coffey, who gets ahold of One Night’s mini-sub and takes it from the moon pool, with the rover and warhead primed to go. Racing against the clock to stop Coffey before he delivers the nuke to the NTIs, Lindsey and Bud race to the other cab and take off in pursuit. The two subs do an underwater demolition derby, ramming their sides in desperate attempts to stop one another. Unfortunately, Coffey has already sent the warhead on its deadly mission. As cracks in Coffey’s canopy begin to widen, the resigned SEAL is killed when his cab cockpit implodes under the crushing water pressure.

“What could go wrong?”
Lindsey and Bud try to extend their life-support capabilities by having her temporarily drown herself, so that Bud can revive her later aboard the Deepcore.

With Coffey gone, Lindsey and Bud have another crisis–their own cab is seriously damaged and is rapidly taking on water. With their pocket of breathable air rapidly being displaced by seawater, Lindsey has a radical plan to save her own life–by drowning herself and allowing Bud (who has the only diving suit and is a stronger swimmer) to revive her aboard Deepcore, which is just barely within swimmable distance. Bud rejects the idea, but soon realizes there is no choice, as their air volume shrinks every second. Soon, as the water rises to Lindsey’s face, even she begins to doubt her plan. Crying out, she begins to panic. With her last breath, she and Bud kiss. She then inhales the freezing water and spasms, before going limp in his arms.

Note: This scene is one of the most tense scenes in the movie, and perhaps in film history, as we literally sit by and watch a character drown in realtime right before our very eyes. Anyone who’s even come remotely close to drowning in their lifetime can immediately empathize with Lindsey’s panicked sobs as the water rises over her chin. I’ve seen this movie at least 7 or 8 times and I still grip the sides of my chair with every viewing.

Anyone who thinks acting is easy? Remember that Ed Harris is crying his heart out to a camera on the floor.

Bud pulls the lifeless Lindsey from the cab and calls Deepcore on his diving helmet mic; he tells them to prepare a crash cart, adrenaline needles and heating blankets–stat! One Night and Catfish run to the infirmary and grab everything needed to revive Lindsey, who’s been ‘dead’ for several minutes at this point. Bud brings her up through the moon pool, where emergency medic One Night charges up the cardio paddles and tries shocking Lindsey’s heart. The procedure is repeated several times without result, but Bud refuses to call it. Manually pumping his fists into Lindsey’s lifeless chest, he screams through anguished tears for her to “FIGHT!” After a few minutes of fading hope, Lindsey coughs water from her mouth. Bud cries heaving sobs at the sight of his wife regaining color, as she takes air into her lungs once again. The entire crew at the moon pool erupts into ugly tears of pure, unfiltered joy.

Note: Ed Harris does some truly phenomenal acting in this film, especially when you consider he’s pouring his heart out to a camera on the floor of the set (!). I saw the actor for the first time he played real-life astronaut John Glenn in the 1983 space race saga, “The Right Stuff”, and with each new performance, he just seems to push himself to greater heights. I particularly loved his performances in “Apollo 13” (1995), “The Truman Show” (1998) and 2000’s “Pollock.” More recently, I enjoyed his performance in HBO’s “Westworld” (2016-present).

Ensign Monk (Adam Nelson) listens while Lindsey does her best to keep Bud connected as he sinks ever deeper into the abyss…

With Lindsey recovering quickly, the crew of Deepcore have yet another crisis; the warhead has been successfully delivered down the abyss to the coordinates unwittingly preset into the automated rover (“Big Geek”) by Hippy to look for Lindsey’s NTIs. Problem is, it’s settled on a protrusion on the cliff face at a depth where a diver’s air-filled helmet would implode from external water pressure. However, the SEALs have a solution for that; as Ensign Monk demonstrated earlier with Hippy’s rat, “Beany”, a diver could wear a suit filled with oxygenated perfluorocarbon; the pink, breathable liquid that can be inhaled/exhaled through the lungs, just like air, but with a bit more effort.

Of course, as leader of the Deepcore crew, Bud volunteers for the dangerous assignment of allowing a smaller rover (“Little Geek”) to take him to the coordinates of the warhead, and disarming it before it detonates. Suiting up in the moon pool, Bud’s suit is fitted with a keyboard so that he can communicate, since he won’t be able to speak with his larynx full of fluid. He also wears special contact lenses that allow him to see through the murky fluid. Soon, Bud’s suit and helmet are filled with the pink liquid, and in a perfectly natural reaction, he briefly panics as he is momentarily overcome with by a drowning sensation. Then, slowly, he begins to breathe, albeit with a bit more force. As Little Geek guides Bud to the darkness of the abyss’s cliff face, Bud breaks previous diving records, as he descends nearly two miles (!). Bud remains in contact via his keyboard, as Lindsey tries to keep him connected through the sound of her voice. As One Night tells her, “No Lindsey–talk to him.” With One Night’s words ringing true, Lindsey reminds Bud of a time when they had a blackout at their old apartment, and she lit a candle, so she wouldn’t be alone. Bud lit another, which he put next to hers, reminding her that he’ll always be with her in the darkness.

Note: The quote from Nietzsche at the beginning of the Special Edition (“the abyss gazes into you”) is apropos, since it’s at the very edge of this oceanic abyss where our characters find who they truly are–Bud and Lindsey realize how much they still love each other, while Bud finds an inner strength and heroism that were only previously suggested. The abyss truly does stare back into these characters.

Ed Harris wearing a very different kind of pressure suit than he wore in 1983’s “The Right Stuff.”

After Little Geek implodes from the pressure, Bud is forced to light a greenish underwater flare and search for the warhead on his own. Following the same course, he finds the protrusion where it lays. Following Monk’s instructions, he carefully unscrews the warhead and sees two sets of colored wires. Monk is told to cut one set of wires, while being careful not to cut the other–however, in the bright greenish light of the flare, both sets of wires are exactly identical. Taking a guess, Bud cuts what he believes to be the right set. He closes his eyes–and nothing happens. No explosion. He did it. However, he only has five minutes of breathable oxygen emulsion left. He types to a sobbing Lindsey, “Knew this was a one-way ticket. Love you wife.” He resigns himself to his fate; quietly, peacefully waiting for the end to come…

Note: Of course, Ed Harris was never actually breathing oxygenated perfluorocarbons in his diving scenes. It was just pink-dyed water in his helmet, which he was only able to wear for very brief times until James Cameron got his take–then he’d surface and pop the helmet off. The magic of editing (and cutting to a diving double from the rear) make the illusion nearly seamless.

Bud is taken to meet some new frenemies…

Just before he loses consciousness, Bud sees a bluish-purple light emanating from below. He texts this to Lindsey, but Monk just assumes he’s hallucinating. Before long, he comes face-to-face with Lindsey’s aquatic NTIs, who take the nearly dead diver’s tired hand and lead him down to their ethereal underwater metropolis, deep in the oceanic depths–far below where any human could ever exist. They take Bud into a chamber, which is quickly pressurized, allowing Bud to take his helmet off. Vomiting the oxygenated fluorocarbons from his lungs, he takes in a massive inhalation of air. Facing the NTIs, who are in a clear, fluid-filled area behind him, Bud turns and says meekly, “Howdy.”

With communication established, the aliens reveal images on a watery screen ahead of Bud…images stitched together from years of watching humanity’s television broadcasts. The NTIs soon reveal new images to Bud as well–images of massive tidal waves, hundreds of feet high, reaching out to every coastline around the world. The waves crest…and are paused. Bud quickly realizes what’s going on; the NTIs are going to wipe out humankind in a flood of Biblical proportions. The massive storm in the Atlantic that destroyed the Benthic Explorer‘s crane and crippled Deepcore was caused by the NTIs, whose destructive waves were gathering their energy far out at sea.

Note: The tidal waves FX (which were created in 1992 for laserdisc) and the following sequence of Bud pleading for humanity’s survival were also exclusive to the Special Edition. In fact, the entire subplot of the NTIs threatening to wipe out humanity was not featured in the theatrical cut at all. In the 1989 version, we merely see Bud inexplicably rescued by the NTIs, who were just generic good guys. In the Special Edition, the NTIs are somewhat more judgmental. Yet they are given a very logical raison d’être for threatening to pull the plug on the human race. Humanity’s continued existence threatens NTI survival as well. It’s never explicitly stated whether the NTIs were extraterrestrial colonists (most likely) or a separate sentient species that evolved on Earth’s sea bottom and which somehow managed to go unnoticed throughout humanity’s seafaring history. In the end, it really doesn’t matter–either way, they’re a metaphorical means to tell us we need to clean up our act, or else (much like the monolith makers of “2010: The Year We Make Contact” ). In the current era of unchecked, human-influenced climate change, the NTI message is even more relevant today than it was in 1989.

Bud makes a case for the human race’s survival by an act of sacrifice and a declaration of love.

Outraged at the NTIs holding his world hostage, Bud turns to them and asks, “Why are you doing this?” In reply, they bombard the screen with images of murder, war, massacres and flashes of atomic bombs. Bud turns away, both ashamed and overwhelmed, and shouts, “Okay, okay, I get it!” Bud also realizes that the tidal waves around the world are also halted–their crests suspended in mid-air. Demoralized yet hopeful, the lone human wonders aloud, “You could’ve destroyed us, but you didn’t. Why?” On the screen before him, he sees his own final text to Lindsey; “Knew this was a one-way ticket. Love you wife.” Bud’s willingness to sacrifice himself in a declaration of love for his wife gave the aliens pause–maybe humanity isn’t so terrible, after all.

With Deepcore’s own oxygen supply dwindling, Lindsey, Monk, One Night and the others stir and see a new text message from Bud, who should’ve been dead by now (“Bud Brigman back on the air!”). He tells his crew that he’s met “some new friends down here” and that they don’t like how we’re treating each other. He also tells the Deepcore crew to hang on

Note: In addition to Bud’s message, the Special Edition also features a new text message from the NTIs themselves, who read and write in human languages. Their message boils down to ‘We see what you do to each other. It hurts us to see this. We really don’t like it. Get your act together, or else.’ Oh, and by the way; this movie featured texting (my own preferred means of communication these days), complete with realistic misspellings, a full generation before it became a thing in everyday life.

The aliens rescue everyone…and allow the crew to rise quickly without needing to decompress–handy.

Right after Bud’s message, there is a massive rumbling felt all over Deepcore, as the crew realize they are somehow surfacing–without the requisite hours spent in slow decompression. The massive alien superstructure breaches the surface, and we see both the Benthic Explorer and Deepcore resting on its iridescent surface, which looks like a gigantic abalone shell with protruding pylons. The crew of Deepcore opens the bottom hatch, stepping into daylight for the first time in months. Lindsey sees Bud walking up from inside the NTI vessel, still in his diving suit. They embrace. They kiss. The NTIs were both humanity’s saviors as well as de facto marriage counselors. Who knew?

Note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the movie also features comedian Chris Elliott, then-future star of the short-lived but hilarious cult TV series “Get a Life” (1990-1992) and the under-appreciated 1994 fantasy-comedy, “Cabin Boy.” In “The Abyss”, Elliott (son of actor Bob Elliott) plays the comm officer aboard the Benthic Explorer, who gets one of the funniest lines in the film when he sees Lindsey come aboard via Navy chopper, and quips, “Oh no. Look who’s with them; Queen Bitch of the universe.”

The End.

Under Pressure: The Making of “The Abyss.”

You can’t fully appreciate this movie until you see the intense labor and multiple challenges faced by the cast and crew as they filmed “The Abyss” in the fall of 1988. Fortunately, “Under Pressure: Making of The Abyss” is a nicely detailed chronicle of the sheer torture that went into making this film, which has a (deserved) reputation as the most difficult film shoot of all time. This must-see hour-long documentary comes with the Special Edition DVD and will hopefully be included in a forthcoming BluRay/4K release.

One of the advantages of retaining physical media; you get to keep this excellent documentary on the making of “The Abyss.”

Edit: The YouTube video link included with this section has been removed by YouTube on copyright grounds. Apologies.

Staring into “The Abyss”.

Like all of James Cameron’s movies, “The Abyss” is, at its core, a love story. Each of Cameron’s movies tell a different kind of love story, but the love story element is universal. “Titanic” featured a gilded age tale of star-crossed lovers from different classes. “The Terminator” was a pressure-cooker romance under duress. “ALIENS” is a love story between a mother and adopted child (Ripley & Newt). “True Lies” sees a husband and wife coming to grips with and appreciating each other’s secrets. “Avatar” tells of a human falling in love with a native girl just as his people make plans to rape her world. “The Abyss” sees a divorcing husband and wife remembering all the reasons they both irritate and love each other–with love ultimately winning out. “The Abyss” appears to be serial husband James Cameron’s ode to his ex-wife (and producing partner) Gale Anne Hurd, and for that reason, the movie’s romance feels very personal, even if real life lacked the happy reconciliation seen in the film. This is probably one of the reasons why Cameron’s blockbusters are both successful and often later ridiculed; we enjoy the action and the spectacle, but our inner cynic feels a bit suckered in having fallen for such old-fashioned love stories. Personally, I don’t mind because I’m all in for a good love story. Hey… I’m sentimental, sue me.

My own pic of Gale Anne Hurd, taken at San Diego Comic Con, 2006 (we were seated almost right next to each other).
Hurd was James Cameron’s producing partner, ex-wife and real-life inspiration for Lindsey Brinkman.

Watching the Special Edition again “alone, in the dark,” as Lindsey Brinkman might say, reminded me of what a truly incredible movie this is, and how much more satisfying that extra half hour makes it. Yes, there are a few unnecessary indulgences to the Special Edition; heads and tails of scenes and moments that could’ve been easily snipped without losing anything critical. However, many of the details added back into Bud and Lindsey’s backstory make their sweet reconciliation at the end feel much more earned. Their “two candles in the dark” story, which refers to a power blackout they experienced at their old apartment, is an eloquent summation of their need for each other. Such humanizing little moments, as well as a few big ones, were simply chopped off of the theatrical release. Imagine if “Titanic” had eliminated the scene where Jack prevented Rose’s suicide, or if “The Terminator” cut the final chase through the automated factory at the climax (which almost happened, according to Cameron). Yes, those films could arguably still (somehow) work with those cuts, but they would feel lesser.

Like all of James Cameron’s action-heavy blockbusters, the heart of “The Abyss” sees a very human love story.

The final act, with Bud making humanity’s case for survival on the strength of his undying love for his wife, has a power to it that his rescue in the theatrical cut utterly lacked. It also gives the NTIs a stronger role in the story, since the massive storm that crippled the Benthic Explorer and the Deepcore rig earlier in the film was caused by the NTIs manipulating the oceans in order to create their world-threatening tidal waves. In the theatrical cut, the undersea aliens are merely benevolent interlopers, ready to rescue us whenever we stray too close to their abyssal abode. In the Special Edition, these same aliens were passing fatal judgment on us, as a result of our own brutality toward each other. The Special Edition gives the aliens a raison d’être they sorely lacked in 1989. For years after its release, “The Abyss” was a diamond in the rough, waiting to be cut and polished. Like “le coeur de la mer” of “Titanic”, the special edition of the film has been cut to near-perfection; from a frustrating head-scratcher in 1989 to a more romantic oceanic adventure worthy of revisitation.

This HD still from AmazonPrime’s streaming version of the film hints at how glorious “The Abyss” would look in BluRay or 4K.

The only stumbling block in the way of the film’s full rehabilitation is a lack of a Blu-ray or 4K hard media release. Yes, the movie is available in HD streaming rental/purchase from AmazonPrime, but to old fashioned hard media collectors like myself? The film’s lack of HD media release feels like a near-criminal oversight. An excellent column from Film Stories UK suggests the Blu-ray/4K release holdup lies with Cameron himself. Cameron’s contract specifies he has final control over how his films are presented for their home video releases, and being the legendary control freak that he is, Cameron is simply too busy working on the “Avatar” sequels (that no one asked for or wanted) to get down to brass tacks in overseeing color-balancing, sound mix, etc. for the Blu-ray release of “The Abyss” (which is awaiting Cameron’s approval, according to the source).

Personally, I’m not nearly as interested in seeing the “Avatar” sequels as I am with getting a Blu-ray release of “The Abyss.” Then again, perhaps the “Avatar” sequels might have me eating my words someday, just as Cameron forced me to reevaluate my earlier thoughts on “The Abyss” with his Special Edition.

Where To Watch.

“The Abyss” can be streamed for rental/purchase on AmazonPrime, and the DVD Special Edition is available to buy on Amazon as well. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID crisis. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are now over 770,000 as of this writing (with over 5 million deaths worldwide), so please continue to wear masks in public, and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize risk of serious infection. Take care! 

Images: 20th Century Studios, Lightstorm Entertainment, Author.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Bowler says:

    The Abyss is one of my favourite Sci-Fi films. Its got such a great cast and the story is really good. Its close encounters of the underwater kind, social commentary, and environmental issues make for a thrilling film. I know some say its slow placed but I love it, and the Special Edition adds so much to the narrative. Considering the arduous filming process and the lengths the cast and crew went to to make the film, makes it an event itself. A great movie and very underrated.

    1. Absolutely.
      When I first saw it, I wasn’t sure what to make of it; as I said, there was a classic in there somewhere, but the theatrical edit felt choppy and incomplete somehow.

      The Special Edition fills in the gaps and makes the narrative flow. And, like yourself, I don’t mind a slower pace at all, since the movie always has something interesting onscreen; the slower pace allows “The Abyss” to feel immersive, but never boring.

      One of James Cameron’s best.

      1. scifimike70 says:

        The special edition indeed does The Abyss much justice. Because it enhances how the ETs could view us as a species which made them, and consequently us, considerably more interesting for the audience.

  2. PJ Mankin says:

    Abyss fans for a long time before viewing the directors cut one night by accident! My husband and I had such an “aha” moment when it was revealed why the aliens saved Brinkman…can’t imagine why this pivotal detail was cut as it changes everything and adds necessary context!

    1. It changes the context of the movie.
      It feels complete now.

      I also heard from the grapevine (DigitalBits.com) that it’s coming to BluRay and 4K this year (I hope it’s real this time…): https://thedigitalbits.com/columns/my-two-cents/031523-1100

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