The Abyss

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The Abyss is a Science Fiction film that was written and directed by James Cameron. It stars Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn. The original musical score was composed by Alan Silvestri. It was released on August 9, 1989 in the United States.

The movie follows the efforts of a U.S. SEAL team, inserted into a civilian experimental underwater oil rig, to salvage a nuclear submarine that sank after an encounter with an unknown underwater presence. Before long, they find themselves trapped underwater in the Cayman Trough and their communications with the surface cut off while a hurricane rages above them. As tension mounts and tempers flare in the tight quarters, they discover that they are not alone in the Cayman Trough - something unknown and inhuman is watching them...

Might forever hold the record for most technically complex movie ever made. Cameron, crewmembers and major cast members had to become dive-certified, since some of the filming took place in a set built inside (and under the surface of) a flooded, partially-built nuclear reactor containment vessel. (Cameron spent so much time underwater that he regularly had to spend time in decompression chambers, viewing dailies while hanging upside down in the pressure tank.) Many of the FX shots were done with precisely constructed models and green screens, as CGI was wildly expensive and difficult back then (though it was used anyway for the water tentacles). Nowadays the movie could be made for far cheaper with full CGI, but in 1989 the shots were often live footage combined with greenscreen models, matte photography, animatronics and CGI elements.

A novelization of this film was written by Orson Scott Card, based on the screenplay. Mastrantonio and Harris read the first two chapters, which were extrapolated by Card from the script, to prepare for their characters.


Tropes used in The Abyss include:

Hippie: Oh, man. I give this a Sphincter Rating of about 9.5!

  • Actor Allusion: Michael Biehn (Coffey) has been bitten on the arm in every James Cameron movie he's been in: This one, The Terminator, and Aliens.
    • He was supposed to be in Terminator 2, but his scene got cut, then restored in the director's cut anyway. He doesn't get bitten though.
  • Almost Out of Oxygen: Right after they disarm the bomb.
  • Always Night: Justified because most of the action takes place halfway down a submarine trench.
  • Aw, Look -- They Really Do Love Each Other: Bud and Lindsey Brigman, who are on the brink of divorce at the beginning but have a long-distance heart-to-heart while he's a mile down in the trench.
  • Ax Crazy: Coffey, who is suffering from dementia and paranoia from High Pressure Nervous Syndrome by about halfway through the movie.
  • Back from the Dead: Lindsey Brigman, who deliberately drowns so her husband can use the diving suit to get back. Hooray for the Mammalian Diving Reflex!
  • The Big Board: The transparent variant, onboard the U.S.S. Montana.
  • Big No: Bud, after Lindsey drowns. (She gets better).
  • Bioluminescence Is Cool
  • Bitch Alert: Lindsey, coming complete with a character introducing her as "the supreme bitch queen of the universe" and another character making a gagging gesture when Lindsey's put on the phone.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: They manipulate water instead of solid materials.
  • Brick Joke: Early on, Bud calls Lindsey a "cast-iron bitch". When he's doing his suicide dive, well...

Lindsey: It's not easy being a cast-iron bitch. It takes discipline, and years of training... A lot of people don't appreciate that.

  • California Doubling: a set in South Carolina and a cave in Missouri covered for the Caribbean Sea.
  • Cassandra Truth: Lindsey spends the first half of the film trying to convince the crew that there's something not human in the trench. Nobody believes her until they see a giant Russian water tentacle in front of their faces.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Bud's engagement wedding ring.
    • Also, the explanation of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome.
    • The liquid breathing system.
  • Cold War: the film is a Take That against people who wanted to keep it going.
  • Cool Boat: The Deep Core.
  • CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: Well, kind of - it isn't clean, and not all that pretty either...
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Quite literally, as the poor lady winds up with a near-fatal case of self-induced hypothermia.
  • Deus Ex Machina
  • Dirty Communists: The setup for the plot was for an American salvage team to recover a sunken American nuclear submarine before the Soviets did. The Director's Cut expands on the Cold War subplot, with the salvage efforts being likened to a second Cuban Missile Crisis due to the wreck's close proximity to Cuba.
  • Distress Call: The divers are responding to a crashed nuclear sub.
  • Do Not Call Me Paul: Bud's real first name is Virgil. Inverted at the end when he allows himself to be called that.
  • Dramatic Underwater Drifting: The wreckage of the U.S.S. Montana.
  • Dueling Movies: Against Deepstar Six and Leviathan.
  • Dyeing for Your Art: The cast had to become certified divers before shooting began (as in being put through a course usually reserved for diving INSTRUCTORS). Shooting underwater extensively also required that they also undergo decompression before leaving the set.
    • Ed Harris also sustained injuries on-set significant enough that he nearly had to turn down roles after shooting had wrapped.
    • Not to mention that certain members of the crew, who literally spent close to an entire day underwater, for months, during the shoot, actually had their hair bleached white by the chlorine in the water.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Bud Brigman's real first name is Virgil.

Hippie: Virgil?

  • Empty Quiver: The setup is an attempt to decommission a lost nuclear sub. You just know something bad's gonna happen with that nuke on board.
  • Enforced Method Acting: One such scene led to Ed Harris decking Cameron after he almost drowned for real.
    • Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio got her own bit of that, too, with the resuscitation scene. Cameron kept demanding retakes, meaning she was repeatedly getting her chest pounded on while wet and shirtless. She stormed off the set and wouldn't come back until Cameron agreed to wrap it already.
      • She stormed off specifically because they had actually run out of film stock shooting the many re-takes, and Cameron still wasn't happy.
  • Explosive Overclocking: Played straight and averted. The minisub (and its passenger) go crunch when they both fall too deep into the trench - meanwhile, liquid breathing allows Bud Brigman to dive far deeper than he otherwise might have been able to.
  • Floating Water: The water tentacle.
  • Foreshadowing. "They used to call this 'The Hammer'." Think Catfish will use The Hammer to deck someone later at a key moment? Nah.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself, Woman. Lindsey is a little high-strung, which Bud has to remind her.

Bud: Look, he's operating on his own. He's cut off from his chain of command, he's showing signs of pressure-induced psychosis and he's got a nuclear weapon. So as a personal favor to me, will you try to put your tongue in neutral for a while?

  • Giant Wall of Watery Doom: In the director's cut, aliens threaten to annihilate humanity with mile-high tidal waves rearing up on every coast. Instead, it turns into a harmless demonstration of the aliens' power when they stop the waves just short of breaking over the coast.
    • When the Deep Core is damaged, one of these hits the barracks module, killing Finler, McBride, Perry, and Bendix.
  • Hand Wave: The only explanation the movie gives for why the crew isn't dead of decompression barotrauma at the end is that the aliens must have done something to prevent it.
    • Yes. This is explicitly stated in the novelization, in addition to being the reason for Bud Brigman actually being alive and functioning by the time he gets down to the nuke, and for Lindsey's recovery from drowning.
  • Harmless Freezing: A realistic application of this trope.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Bud figured he wouldn't have enough oxygen to get back after defusing the bomb. He went anyway.

Bud: (typed) KNEW THIS WAS ONE WAY TICKET / BUT YOU KNEW I HAD TO COME.

    • Lindsey allows herself to drown so Bud can get both of them back to the rig.
    • The novelization clarifies that the NTI at the beginning that inadvertantly sinks the U.S.S. Montana had performed one while in space, destroying a nuclear-armed satellite at the cost of its life (the 'ship' was actually on autopilot). Unfortunately, the loss of the satellite and the submarine is what almost triggers the war in the first place.
  • Hint Dropping: While Bud is diving down into the trench.

One Night: "Keep talking, Lindsey, let him hear your voice."
Lindsey: "Okay, Bud, your depth is 8900 feet, you're doing fine--"
One Night: "No, Lindsey. Talk to him."

Bud: No! No, she has a strong heart! She wants to LIVE! C'mon, Linds! C'mon baby! Zap her again! Do it!... Do it!... Come on baby, come on baby!... Come on, breathe baby. Goddamn it, BREATHE! Goddamn it, you bitch, you never backed away from anything in your life! Now fight! Fight! Fight! Right now! Do it! FIGHT, GODDAMNED IT! FIGHT! FIGHT! Fiiiiiiiiiiight!

  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Played with in the novel, as the Builders realize that their own practice of "remembering" and then destroying aberrant individuals is exactly the kind of behavior they have come to abhor in humans.
  • I Come in Peace: The scene where Bud is confronted by the aliens behind a water curtain:

Bud Brigman: Howdy. Uh... How are you guys doin'?

So raise your hand if you think that was a Russian water tentacle.

  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Lindsey doesn't relate to people terribly well (this is pointed out more clearly in the novel, which shows how her brilliance derives from a better ability to relate to machines and engineering projects). Yet she's the one who's the most optimistic about the aliens' intentions and the most open to communicating with them.
  • Late to the Party: The more paranoid crew members believe the "visitors" are responsible for crashing the sub.
  • Magical Defibrillator: Justified in that the device in question is an early-80's model without a quick-look ECG function.
  • Ms. Exposition: Lindsay Brigman, who spends most of the early descent explaining the perils of prolonged deep water diving to Navy SEALs who already know all about it (and are able to finish her sentences on the topic); though her explanation is used both for the audience's sake and to demonstrate that Coffey knows exactly what is happening to him and chooses to ignore it (in his defense, if things had gone according to plan they would have been on the sub back to the surface before his condition deteriorated badly).
  • Monumental Damage: Subverted, In the special addition we see giant tidal waves about to wipe out the Golden Gate Bridge, Lady Liberty and a few others but then it stops.
  • Mythology Gag: In the second Terminator movie (Judgement Day) -- also written and directed by James Cameron—at one point our heros pull into a gas station. The pumps have "Benthic Petroleum" logos on them—the company that owned the undersea oil rig in The Abyss.
  • Near-Death Clairvoyance: The CPR scene was meant to invoke an out-of-body experience.
  • Nipple-and-Dimed: The film is rated PG-13 even though Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's nipples are visible during the CPR scene. Possibly because the context of the scene is not at all sexual or erotic.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Lampshaded when the "aliens" return everyone to the surface with no pause for decompression. "We should be dead!"
  • Not So Different: Bizarrely, this is half the moral of the book, and it's the moral the aliens learn from it all. They realize that they're actually just as bad as the humans, and need to grow up just as much as the humans do.
  • Nuke'Em: Paranoid delusions + Access to nukes = BAD THING.
  • Ocean Madness: High Pressure Nervous Syndrome. It turns Coffey into a paranoid lunatic, and another soldier is on his way, but he gets better as soon as they reach the surface.
  • Off the Scale: Bud's journey into the trench goes so deep, it exceeds the crew's ability to monitor his vital signs.
  • Oh Crap: The entire crew's reaction when the crane falls into the trench, and watching the tether slowly following - with the rig still attached.
  • Ominous Crack: The final fate of Coffey.
  • One-Way Trip: Bud's decision to go disarm the nuke. Subverted in that the aliens let him live.
  • Organic Technology: The aliens seem to have based all their technology around water.
    • Actually a subversion. Water is inorganic. But the aliens' aesthetic sense certainly went for this.
  • Pop In And Say Hi To The Neighbors Tentacles: The alien beings have an intuitive control over water, to the point where they use a fifty-foot tentacle of it as a remote probe. It even mimics people's faces.
  • Puny Earthlings: The unnamed aliens in the Trough can control water with remarkable precision, and appear to have psychic powers.
  • Ramming Always Works: Lindsey's mini-sub battle with Coffey, ending when she hits him hard enough and blows out his engine, causing him to plummet over the edge of the trench.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The scene where the rat is immersed in a breathable liquid isn't a special effect - the rat really is breathing liquid fluorocarbon emulsion. The same technology is used in modern medicine, to treat extremely premature babies whose lungs aren't developed enough to handle breathing air.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Cameron was going through a rather messy divorce while writing this movie. Many critics questioned how much this influenced the Brigman estrangement subplot.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: A rare non-verbal example is given to Bud by the aliens in a slide show of all of humanity's famous atrocities.
  • Recut: But not because of Executive Meddling, ironically; James Cameron cut out almost a half-hour of footage himself because he felt at the time that it didn't work correctly. There were also issues with the cut CGI that later technology allowed him to go back and fix, leading to the release of a "Special Edition".
  • Red Wire Blue Wire / No Time to Think / Wire Dilemma: Because of Bud's chemical light source, both wires on the thermonuclear warhead look the same - the only difference is that cutting one will defuse the bomb, while cutting the other will make it go boom. Try not to shit yourself, Brigman - that diving suit's expensive.
    • In the novelization, the aliens explicitly give him the confidence to cut the correct wire.
    • In reality, nuclear weapons have lots of safeguards so they won't go off unless a very specific combination of events takes place. Not that this should cheer you up...
  • Relationship-Salvaging Disaster: Bud and Lindsey are estranged at the start of the film. Getting caught in the deep sea rig together results in them falling in love again.
  • Rousseau Was Right: The aliens initially wanted to wipe out humanity since they thought Humans Are the Real Monsters. However, they change their minds when they witness Bud's Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Semper Fi: Retired Marine beats Navy SEAL.
  • Sensor Suspense: In the opening scene a U.S. Navy submarine is tracking an unknown underwater object by sonar. The sonar blip is projected on a screen, showing the object maneuvering near the sub.
  • ShoutOut/Films: To Hot Rods of the Gods, a Ghostbusters Tabletop RPG adventure by West End Games.
  • Shown Their Work: The writers somehow manage to work in obscure (but real) things like High Pressure Nervous Syndrome and the Mammalian Diving Reflex into the plot.
  • Someone Has to Die: See Heroic Sacrifice, above.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: At first, Coffey shows genuine remorse when he realizes his shortsightedness has killed most of the crew, not to mention one of his team. A few hours of HPNS later, It Got Worse—to the point that Michael Biehn cutting rank chevrons on his shoulder with a K-Bar should be on the trope page.
  • Space Elves: The alien beings are Type III.
  • Space Suits Are Scuba Gear: Inverted. Bud's deep diving suit resembles an armored space suit.
  • Space Whale Aesop: In the Director's Cut, "Stop fighting or we'll annihilate you all with half-mile-high tsunami."
  • Starfish Aliens: The book goes into detail about this.
    • They refer to themselves as the Builders of Memory. Most of what they want to do is collect knowledge and peacefully colonize other worlds' seas. They are shown to have a hybrid hive mind: Individuals have their own will, but their overmind is dominant. It doesn't hesitate to integrate a worker's memories and eliminate them if they get too independent, which becomes a key plot point during their internal debate about humanity. Their "machines"—ROVs, subs, and even their spacefaring Arks—are all alive, basically domesticated animals. They can polymerize water on an atomic level, allowing them to put water-based "probes" into human brains, with enough precision to read their emotional states and even project emotions into people. They also are masters of wet nanochemistry, which allows them to do things such as stave-off pressure-induced illnesses and repair Jammer's brain damage. They NEVER were under threat from the nuke, but let events play out to see what the humans would do. They rewired Bud's brain to survive in the intense pressure and made him sure of his choice of which wire to cut. Even the giant tsunami was generated simply by converting atmospheric heat to mechanical energy. What hammered their message home to humanity was when they stopped the waves in mid-break, turning them into structures as stable as a "stone pyramid", before gently releasing them back out to sea. As the merest of side effects, all that heat removed from the ocean and air caused the hurricane menacing the Benthic Explorer to dissolve!.
  • Stop Helping Me!: When Lindsey is trying to get the rest of the crew to believe her about the underwater aliens, resident conspiracy nut Hippy goes into his usual Conspiracy Kitchen Sink speech. This results in a zinger:

"Hippy, do me a favor? Stay off my side."

  • Super Not-Drowning Skills: Averted.
  • Tragic Villain: It's easy to hate Coffey for what he's doing...until you remember that the man is under the influence of pressure-induced psychosis, meaning that even Coffey is barely aware of what he's doing.
  • Trapped in Containment: When the rig is flooding.
  • Typecasting: Michael Biehn, as an intense military type.
  • Twofer Token Minority: One Night, the only African-American (and one of only two women) in the cast.
  • Uncanny Valley: Invoked during some scenes depicting Coffey's descent into madness.
    • Specifically: The actor puts a subtle hiss on s sounds to invoke the mental image of a snake, and a shot of him flicking his eyes about rapidly is run in reverse to make it seem even more menacing. Both are mentioned in the trivia track on the DVD.
  • Underwater Base: The drilling rig.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to that poor crane operator? The book explicitly states that he died. There's you have the pet rat, who people will definitely worry about.[1]
  • What the Hell, Hero?: You could easily throw a massive one of these at the Starfish Aliens, as they decided it was the best way to send their peaceful message to humanity to grow up and stop trying to kill each other by threatening to hurl worldwide giant tsunamis at them.
    • Perhaps justified by the fact that the humans, in their bickering, had tried to attack them
  • A Wizard Did It: The ending, more or less.
  • Worst Aid: Miraculous Bitchslap of Life.
    • Counterbalanced by the rest of the crew giving up the resuscitation effort way the heck too early. Hypothermia victims aren't dead until they're warm and dead.
  • You Are Not Alone: Lindsey and the crew to Bud Brigman, during his deep suit dive.
  • You Had Us Worried There: Two of them in particular:
    • Those pants-crapping tense seconds when Bud is cutting the wire.
    • Bud resumes communication with the crew after meeting the aliens.
  1. She's ok